Lawrence High School students film documentary about the creation of Eggerts Crossing Village.
When a group of Lawrence High School students filmed the documentary, The Struggle to Create: A Civil Rights Movie, the subject matter resonated with many township residents.
The film told the story of the creation of Eggerts Crossing Village, and was shown to the public May 7 at LHS as part of an event sponsored by the Lawrence Township League of Women Voters.
The students who worked on the film were all members of the student-run organization Threads: The Community House of Lawrence, a peer mentoring and service group that formed this year.
Eggerts Crossing Village was opened in 1974 as the first subsidized family rental housing development in Lawrence.
The Village was the result of a six-year project that faced much township-wide opposition, said Fred Vereen, Jr., who led the project in the 1960s and is current executive director of the Every Child Valued program at the village.
Vereen had kept old newspaper clippings, photos and a host of other materials from the project, and eventually had a friend sort them and take them to the Lawrence public library last year. But as he thought about the records he had donated, he recalled how difficult the project had been and wanted to keep the memory alive of how a group of residents had overcome such adversity.
“People see Eggerts Crossing and Eggerts Crossing Village as it is today, and they don’t know the hard work and what it took to get it to where it is today,” Vereen said.
Vereen, who grew up in Eggerts Crossing, had lived with his parents and his 10 siblings in a shack, as did many of the other families, along a mud road; about 85 percent of the homes, Vereen said, still had outhouses. Some homes even had holes in the floor that exposed the ground the home was built on.
In the 1960s, Vereen and a group of residents began to lead an effort to build affordable housing in Eggerts Crossing, an effort that would prove to be a challenging endeavor.
“Some people lost their political positions, some people lost contracts, some people lost their businesses because they were involved with this,” Vereen said. “So there’s a multitude of stories that go along with making that development happen.”
The group of citizens formed the Lawrence Non-Profit Housing, Inc. in 1968, but faced much opposition from the community. Vereen said the group had chosen the location on Johnson Avenue for the village because it would still be in the same section of town, but residents continued to pour into meetings to voice their concerns.
After a number of meetings at town hall, future meetings were moved to the high school because extra space was needed, Vereen said. Many residents worried the housing would be filled with people from Trenton, that the village would become a slum and bring in crime; even the Board of Education worried it would disrupt the racial balance in the school system, Vereen said.
Yet the group pressed on with much support as well, seeking out the help of local organizations and businesses. The project could not move forward without the approval of the zoning board; the group had to apply for a land use variance, as the land was not zoned for public housing. After a heated public hearing, the decision came down to the deciding vote, cast by a former Lawrence mayor, in favor of the project.
The groundbreaking at the complex was held in 1972, and in 1974, tenants began to move in.
But the Lawrence Non-Profit Housing, Inc. wanted to be sure that the development would be a success. The committee closely monitored the complex and its tenants, enforcing strict rules about litter, parking and maintenance. Vereen said apartments were inspected monthly and memos were sent out when conditions were not being met; tenants were even evicted who refused to comply.
In the early years, there were still a few residents who challenged those rules, Vereen said, including issues with drugs, and in the late 1990s a fire destroyed three apartments. However, the people in the village wanted something nice, Vereen said, and they worked to keep it that way and continue to improve the neighborhood.
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After Vereen had organized the boxes of historical documents about the village last year and had them taken to the library, he considered that he didn’t want them just to be piled up and forgotten. He approached Tonia Moore, student assistance counselor in the guidance office at LHS. He proposed the idea of a student essay contest about the history of the ECV project, with prizes awarded to the winners.
“Most of the history they’re taught in school is from hundreds of years ago…Most of the people are dead,” Vereen said. “So now you have the opportunity to see and feel and listen to history from people who helped make it.”
Moore, who is the faculty advisor to Threads, relayed the message to the group and returned to Vereen with a new idea: a video.
And so, in July, the students spent several days researching Vereen’s materials at the library before delving into a number of interviews with individuals who influenced the project. The students interviewed dozens of people, including Vereen, throughout the summer and fall, finally finishing the film in February, just one week before it was scheduled to debut as part of a series of events for Black History Month.
Many of the students had been unaware of the controversy the village had caused in the township.
“It was new information that we learned every day about the village,” LHS senior Aaron Gibson said.
Students were also unaware of the student learning community center in the village, the site of the Every Child Valued learning program started in 1999.
The Every Child Valued program began after Vereen noticed many children from the village were falling behind in school because they weren’t properly prepared or supported. Vereen went to the superintendent of Lawrence Township Public Schools, who agreed to work with Vereen to improve the situation for the students and the schools.
Since then, the ECV program has maintained a partnership with LTPS. District teachers come to the center to work with both students and parents to teach them skills and lessons to succeed in the classroom.
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The documentary of Eggerts Crossing Village was only one of many projects Threads students have worked on since the concept of the group was conceived in an English class at the end of the 2011-12 school year.
Gibson was eager to find another way to become active in the school and community, and brought up the idea to fellow senior Nyya Toussaint.
“I wanted to get involved more in the community and help out students, but I didn’t know how to do it,” Gibson said. “So I came to him and talked about it in class.”
The two then united with classmate Yismely Acosta to put the plan in motion. Toussaint, who already had been working in the guidance office, approached Moore about getting the group off the ground.
The three seniors act as coordinators for all of Threads, which involves other students in three different aspects, Acosta said: mentoring, student assistance and community service. Mentor positions are limited to juniors and seniors, but all students are invited to participate in the other aspects.
“I think because it was a new idea, it wasn’t just adults taking over, and it was a student to student basis in how it came about,” Acosta said, “I think that’s what made it more interesting to students, for them to join.”
The idea spawned a group of 40 student mentors—narrowed down from 70 applicants—who work with students at the high school and middle school. The mentors participated in summer training to learn how best to interact and connect with the students they are mentoring.
“We’re always serving the students, and we have to kind of adjust to their needs,” said Toussaint, who noted it’s beneficial to have such a diverse group of participants in Threads because mentors can relate to students having similar experiences.
“If you…had that same experience, it would be easier to connect with someone,” Toussaint said.
Threads is constantly organizing social and fundraising events, such as the Color Conference in February for Black History Month. The three-night event featured Threads’ own documentary as well as a café and talent show event, where many local businesses supplied donations and set up tables.
Other students in Threads organized volunteer trips to Monmouth County beaches to help with Sandy recovery, and also organized cleaning events at local organizations, including the ECV learning center at the village.
Smaller groups have also formed as a result of Threads, such as The Company, a women’s leadership group headed by Acosta.
Next year, Threads will have six new coordinators.
Although Toussaint, Gibson and Acosta graduate LHS this year, they hope to stay connected with the group by organizing projects at their colleges.