Moline's Floreciente neighborhood has long been a place for new beginnings.
In the early days, Belgians and Swedes settled into the city's west end to begin their new lives in America. The neighborhood later became central to the Greek community.
Today, it is home to a mostly Hispanic population of first-, second- and third-generation families. Like those before them, they are pursuing the American dream — to earn a living, raise families and own a home while holding tight to their cultural roots.
Floreciente now is bracing for another new beginning with the help of a diverse collection of supporters from near and far.
The neighborhood has been challenged by older housing stock, a shuttered elementary school, low incomes, language and other barriers. But outsiders now are helping the people of Floreciente improve their neighborhood, organize and unite and build a quality of life that often eluded immigrants that came before them.
"The way we approach community development is working with the community, so the community identifies the needs as opposed to us coming in and saying, 'This is what you need,'" said Annisa Wanat, program director for Global Communities. The international development organization was recruited to Moline by the John Deere Foundation, which is funding the local effort.
"This is the first domestic program Global Communities has had in the U.S. in about a decade," Wanat said of the organization that is recognized throughout the world for its relief work and community building.
As Global Communities was arriving in Floreciente last September, Habitat for Humanity Quad-Cities was kicking off its own multi-year Neighborhood Revitalization initiative there. Habitat, which has been a force in Floreciente for years, chose it to be the first Quad-City neighborhood to benefit from a new national Habitat program.
"Habitat is in the neighborhood, focusing on home-related concerns and issues, building homes and doing revitalization work to help the neighborhood," said Mary Chappell, Habitat's program director.
While Habitat and Global Communities have their own separate missions, their work is intersecting and collaborating with other longtime stakeholders, such as Project NOW, Boys & Girls Club, Palomares Social Justice Center and others. Another newcomer, Heritage Church, has become part of the revitalization by reopening the closed Ericsson School as the Esperanza Center.
"Our ideal will be a neighborhood association that encompasses both businesses and neighbors," Wanat said, adding the current neighborhood association is "in hibernation" and Global Communities intends to coax it out.
"We're all working together in the neighborhood," Chappell said. "We hope in the end, the natural leaders will rise to the top, and a plan can be developed that will take the neighborhood forward."
The nonprofits' efforts are welcomed not only by Floreciente residents and businesses but also by other social-service agencies.
Boys & Girls Club of the Mississippi Valley has been in the neighborhood 22 years, working to create a safe learning environment for children from Floreciente and elsewhere. Before its arrival, "crime was bad ... kids didn't have anywhere to go," said Jenny Garlach, the club's new executive director. "We have kids who, if they weren't in our club, would have been highly recruited by the gangs."
While the gangs still exist, she said the problems are fewer and the gangs are out of public view.
"They don't want to be noticed," she said, adding that Global Communities is "bringing everybody together on a consistent basis and letting each other all know what we all do."
Despite the Boys & Girls Club's longevity and a new Teen Center in Floreciente, "People weren't coming in our club unless their kids were here... so they had no idea what we did," Garlach said.
But with all the neighbors, businesses and community partners collaborating under Global Communities, she said, "At least if our services aren't something they would use, they know what we do and they can become ambassadors for us."
The club serves hundreds of kids, from 6-year-olds to high school seniors, in its Moline and Davenport facilities.
"In total, we have 600 kids as registered members, and 500 of them are in Floreciente," Garlach said. "Of those 500, there are 160 kids in the club on a daily basis."
Maureen "Mo" Hart, Project NOW's executive director, estimated the community organization has had a presence in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years.
"A lot is happening on the periphery there," she said. "With the train station coming, there is a lot of interest in enhancing that area, and that is all good."
She points to Habitat's early house builds and the developments by Group O founder Bob Ontiveros, including the new Community Health Care building. Heritage Church's renovations of the former Ericsson School also are turning a negative into a positive, Hart said.
"I think there's definitely more energy," she said. "Bit by bit, everyone's focus will help strengthen the neighborhood."
Global Communities' efforts are divided into three groups called "pillars." That way, the community, businesses and stakeholders all get a voice.
In fact, covering the walls of Global Communities' office — a space donated by Russell, the Davenport construction company, in downtown Moline — are oversized sheets of paper with handwritten wish lists and priorities. The top four priorities for the community, for instance, are improved sidewalks, alleys, street lights and adult education.
"It's all about how many resources we can bring to the table between the city and other stakeholders as to how much gets accomplished," Wanat said.
She added that much of the work is about educating those in Floreciente about resources that already exist.
The neighborhood's desire for beautification led Global Communities and others to sponsor a flower-pot painting event. Neighbors were invited to paint and take home a pot, and more were offered to businesses. The next beautification project will be a mural at the Boys & Girls Club Administration Building that will represent the history of Floreciente, Wanat said.
"My job is to work myself out of a job," she said. "In three years, if we do the job right, the neighborhood will be the ones guiding the ship."
Habitat has deep roots in Floreciente, where it is finishing its seventh home and preparing to break ground in July on its eighth, which also is Habitat's 100th in the Quad-Cities.
The neighborhood was chosen from five others in the Quad-Cities to pilot the Neighborhood Revitalization initiative, Chappell said of the program first launched nationally by Habitat for Humanity.
"It's a three- to five-year commitment," she said.
Habitat kicked it off in September with Rock the Block Floreciente. In a single workday, volunteers — including 200 from Deere & Co. — spread out over the neighborhood and tackled more than 30 home projects. In addition to the home repairs, siding and roofing work, yard and general cleanups, the city hosted another two major cleanup days.
The projects, chosen from residents' applications and home tours by Habitat, offered a look at the community's needs, Chappell said.
"We used those (leftover applications) to get more information about the houses and determined how we could best meet that need," she said. "When we toured the homes last summer, we found they are wonderfully kept. But people don't know what they don't know."
For example, she said, "They understand what it means when water is coming in and how to stop that. But they might not know when their electrical is bad."
As a result, Habitat plans to kick off a program for seniors and an extended home-repair program in Floreciente. Part of it will be an education series on basic maintenance and more specific topics, such as power tools, landscaping and window repair.
In addition, Habitat is planning to complete a physical survey of the neighborhood, producing a visual catalog of specific needs with a focus on safety, Chappell said.
Habitat then will work with the other stakeholders to see who has access to funding.
The repair program is being launched, in part, with a $50,000 grant from Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, but Habitat is looking for additional funding to keep the program afloat.
Besides organizing the neighbors and stakeholders, Global Communities is focused on economic development in the neighborhood, which stands to benefit from its proximity to The Q — the future Amtrak station and adjoining Element Hotel.
"We're working with small businesses that exist to be more efficient and working with entrepreneurs," Wanat said. "The initial idea of economic development is this will be an opportunity for them to capture more business."
Global Communities' staff also includes Luis Pereira, the economic development manager, and Tom Christensen, a loaned Deere executive who is the organizational development manager. Pereira is working with SCORE mentors and other partners to help existing businesses build onto what they have while helping entrepreneurs get started.
"Our push (to the businesses) is how can your service become more accessible to the population of Floreciente," said Pereira, a former city planner who is bilingual. He is creating a small business network to improve communication among the businesses. "There are shared interests, such as infrastructure, beautification and marketing."
Christensen, who is focused on the stakeholders, said those efforts are "more to help them integrate with each other and cover any gaps." Getting the stakeholders together already has paid dividends. For instance, MetroLINK's request for land for a new bus stop was matched up with an available location in front of the Boys & Girls Club Administration Building.
The shared interest and collaboration occurring now in Floreciente is a situation "in which all the stars aligned," said Jeff Anderson, Moline's city planner.
"We saw various corporate and institutional interests aligning," he said. "We were all talking about the same things but from a different angle or our own perspective or interest."
Creating an element of urgency, Anderson said, was the closing of Ericsson School, which gave the city another opportunity to work with the neighborhood on potential repurposing. The result was Heritage Church buying the school.
Meanwhile, Deere began to talk with the city about ways it could partner with the neighborhood to improve the quality of life, Anderson said. At the same time, he recalled, Habitat was picking a neighborhood for its new program.
"One of the missing pieces was we had people coming up and interested in being part of this, but no one to take lead," he said. "Then Habitat and Global became the go-to entities to drive some positive change in the neighborhood."
For Deere, Wanat said, interest in the neighborhood grew from a company event to pack holiday baskets for those in need. Deere CEO Sam Allen noticed many of the baskets were headed for Floreciente, where the Moline-based equipment maker has two plants, John Deere Seeding and Cylinder.
"Deere has a corporate citizenship office whose strategy it is to help the communities around our facilities, and this area fits that desire very well," said Christensen, who was involved with the initial assessment of Floreciente.
Deere previously worked with and funded Global Communities programs in neighborhoods around its facilities in Brazil and India.
"There is a great opportunity here because of the number of people Deere has employed here — not just at Seeding and Cylinder but at the headquarters," he said. "We hope after we demonstrate the success here that Deere will take this model and apply it in other communities where we have facilities in the U.S."
With nine months of work by Global Communities so far, Wanat offered this impression: "It's a fantastic neighborhood. Everybody is eager, and they're really excited about the neighborhood. They want a nice place for their kids to grow up."
Global Communities still has work to do in Floreciente, Christensen said, adding that more progress will grow with trust.
"That takes time," he said. "They have to get to know us. It takes time to build that trust in an organization for them to come and sacrifice their time."
But among business owners and community activists, the efforts are being noticed.
"Now, the train is coming, and it's making a big difference," real estate agent Maryann Garcia said. "Now, we've got the green machine (Deere) involved.
"Global Communities and Habitat are out there hustling, but we're doing our thing, too. Hopefully, all these organizations involved with us will help us improve Floreciente."
Stella Schneekloth, a longtime advocate in the neighborhood, worked more than 35 years for Project NOW and is a founder of Palomares Social Justice Center. She is pleased to see the physical improvements and other new developments.
"When you get people to collectively work, it actually comes to bear fruit," she said. "Look at what's developed. The neighborhood is looking great."
Maria Carrillo, 24, whose parents own El Mexicano grocery and Tienda El Mexicano restaurant, said the changes are contagious, and younger people are taking note, too.
"It's becoming a more positive community," she said. "If the neighborhood can become positive, we should, too."