Rita Webb Smith; Renovated buildings bring families back to neighborhood

Rita Webb Smith still lives in the Harlem apartment building she was born in on West 143rd Street. Over the years she watched the building and its neighbors slowly deteriorate and the street become a nightmare of violence and illegal drug traffic.

It's different now. The drug pushers are gone. Mrs. Smith and a band of brave neighbors, with the help of the local police precinct, drove them out.

The apartment building, which she now owns, has been renovated and beautified. And many of the abandoned buildings on her street are now, through her efforts, going to be rehabilitated in an $11 million project that will bring several hundred families back to the neighborhood and give them good housing. The developer who will do the project was given the last of the city's federal Section 8 housing money earmarked for the rehabilitation of rundown housing.

For these accomplishments and more, Mrs. Smith was one of 18 women across the country, all over 40 years of age, who were recently given a Wonder Woman Foundation grant of $7,500 each and honored for their achievements, their qualities of maturity, and the kind of personal growth that suggests future contributions will come from them. Mrs. Smith's award came under the category of ''creating new realities.''

Up in Harlem, Mrs. Smith says, she is known as Miss Rita - a sign of special respect. She cites a news magazine article about her, headlined ''Don't Mess With Miss Rita.'' Not many people do, because they know she means business. She learned long ago how to get people involved with their own betterment, and she knows the value of a rousing ceremony to lift flagging spirits. She threw street parties for all the neighbors on receiving her BA and Master's degrees, ''just so we could all enjoy my success together.''

In 1974, when a divorce left her as the single parent of seven children, she knew the only way she could make herself and her family self-sufficient was to get a college education. With the cooperation of her children, she worked days at the Board of Education and went to school nights until she got her BA degree from Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

She then went on, with a full scholarship that gave her a living stipend of $ 700 a month, to get her Master's degree in social work. During this period, she also had encouragement and financial help from a few good friends who recognized her worth. She is now a state-certified social worker, helping with victims of alcoholism and drug addiction in a Harlem hospital program.

After 3 p.m. each day she runs her own survival clinic in her building, where she counsels individuals and families and helps them cope with their problems. ''I teach them all kinds of things - the importance of paying their rent on time , how to barter goods and services among themselves, how to care for the sick and needy, how to gain support through networking,'' she says. ''I teach them how to take care of their apartments and the systems in their buildings, and to paint the hallways and put plants in them. I wage war on graffiti. And I keep telling people that even though things may look pretty bad, they can help make things more beautiful and they can change things.''

Mrs. Smith gives seminars and talks to many agencies that seek her help. She sees her mission now as being largely educational, teaching people how to help themselves and teaching other people how to teach what she knows.

She says she has always been an activist: ''Over the years, as I have seen the need, I have tried to formulate some organization or get a group together that would deal with it. I have called on ministers and used their churches for our meetings. I have called in people from the local colleges. I have called in the local politicians, the city commissioners, and even Mayor Ed Koch. I invited Mayor Koch up to Harlem and walked around our battered neighborhood with him and told him what I thought its possibilities for renewal were. I studied all the housing, and then formulated a proposal for the rehabilitation of the housing on the street. Mayor Koch opened some doors for us and introduced me to the developer who will renovate the dilapidated, sealed-up buildings. It will be a great time for me to see this place return.''

In 1969, after the landlord had deserted the building in which she was born, Mrs. Smith organized other tenants into a cooperative. Later she was able to buy the building from the city and start enlisting her tenants in its upkeep. Years ago she formed a block association to get things stirring to improve the environment. In 1978 she organized a nonprofit preservation group, as a subcommittee of the block association; got the city to seal up 34 abandoned buildings; and began the project that is now, four years later, culminating in their renovation.

How could she do it all?

''The good Lord gave me lot of energy so I could tackle a lot of things,'' she says. ''He also gave me a lot of love and what I call 'basic values.' '' She tells those she is trying to help: ''Sooner or later we all have to catch our own fish. We have to vote. We have to be involved in changing things. We have to exercise our rights.''

Mrs. Smith says she has won several citations and awards before, but none of them, until the Wonder Woman award, have given her money to spend for secretarial help and a new copying machine.

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