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Building a safe, clean community

In May 2005, John Thrower had surgery after a cancer diagnosis earlier that year.

While he recovered in a hospital bed, his thoughts were on his wife, Nancy, and their home in the community of Hobson.

The home where his wife awaited him was unsafe and inadequate, he realized. It had no functioning bathroom, the kitchen could not be used, parts of the floor had fallen in and the pipes were corroding. At one point in time, a homeless man broke into the home, because he thought it was deserted.

Two months later, after returning from the hospital, Thrower knew something needed to change.

So when the Southeast Rural Community Project came to the area to bring running water to the area, he was one of 13 applicants who applied for a program that would demolish and rebuild their homes.

But when the nonprofit group tore down his house to build him a new one, he was met with resistance by some community members, who said they wanted the home preserved for its historical significance.

“We respect people wanting to hold onto property they see as historic, but when you get to the point where you don’t have a proper bathroom or kitchen, the floor is falling in and pipes are rotting, you’re living on borrowed time,” Thrower said. “Tearing down our home wasn’t a balance of history with anything. It was survival.”

Thrower’s home, which was left to his wife by her mother, dates back to 1915 and was considered to be of historic significance to the community by the Department of Historic Resources.

Thrower’s home is not the only older home one that has fallen into a dilapidated state in Hobson, a community with its roots in the history of a group of freed slaves.

There are a total of nine structures in the community that have pending building code violations — which can range from caved in roofs to peeling paint — with the City of Suffolk.

“We were told there are 25 to 30 homes in the entire city that have violations, but that there are nine in Hobson,” Thrower said. “We should not accept that one-third of all those homes are in our small community.”

Next door, in a vacant home with violations, Thrower said, he often sees drug deals during warmer months.

“And all it would take is a vibration to send another brick from the crumbling chimney toppling onto a child’s head,” Thrower said.

Such homes also serve as a breeding ground for snakes and rats, and homeless people often use them for shelter during warmer months.

“All we want is to try and fix the homes up and clean the neighborhood up a bit,” he said. “Children play in the neighborhoods around the homes and have to walk by them to get to the bus stop.”

“I’m not trying to bring anybody down,” Thrower said. “But if you own it, make it presentable.”

Thrower and other community members have put together a team and extended their help to any residents who want to clean up their properties to try and meet city code.

“No one is trying to stop these houses from being historic,” he said. “But just because it’s historic doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed up. You have to maintain a level of upkeep. And even if it is historic, you still have to abide by local codes.”

Thrower’s dream is for the community one day to have sidewalks and a playground and for property owners to take responsibility for cleaning up — or at least boarding up — the homes that pose as eyesores and a danger.

“If you lived in a community, you wouldn’t want people driving through thinking, ‘What is this?’” Thrower said. “All we want to do is move forward and grow in a clean and safe community. I am confident that we can all work together on this. We can pull this off.”