By Alexe van Beuren
Considering he’s from Water Valley, he shone as a high school athlete, he played baseball at Mississippi Valley State University for four years, he ran against Fred White on Beat Two for the Board of Alderman, and he’s currently a member of the Planning Commission – chances are good you’ve heard of Levert Hawkins.
He is also the man who has tackled the Baker Street Park.
I meet Hawkins at City Hall. We sit down in the conference room where he’s spent a great deal of his time since April; that’s when Hawkins “decided I was going to stick with it and make something happen,” he tells me.
The Baker Street Park has been a thorn in Hawkins’ side for a long time. It is a place he knows well. “The park was there when I was in the fifth grade,” he says. “I grew up using it.”
But after nearly thirty years of few improvements, Hawkins noticed that the park was sliding downhill – fast. Hawkins met friends a few times to pick up glass and garbage, but when volunteers failed to rally and the garbage cans kept getting kicked over, he says, “I just abandoned the idea.”
He certainly has enough to keep him busy. After graduating from Mississippi Valley State University with a degree in health and physical education, Hawkins spent some time working in Chattanooga and Atlanta before returning to Mississippi.
When I ask him why he moved back to Water Valley, Hawkins laughs, and I notice he’s wearing a plaid shirt under a vest. “I was fine until deer season,” he says. “Certain times of year make you want to come back home.”
And so Hawkins returned to Mississippi. He now owns his own trucking business (and he’s also an Army Reservist who has done three tours in El Salvador).
As a forty-two-year-old with a ten-year-old son and his own company, Hawkins could claim to be too short on time for public works projects. But when he ran for the Board of Aldermen in the last election (he lost by thirty-plus votes to Fred White), Hawkins spent a lot of time listening to the concerns of local citizens.
“I was doing the campaign process and talking to people in the community,” he says, leaning forward. “All of them said the same thing: kids have nothing to do and nowhere to go.”
As a practical man, Hawkins looked at the park and thought “we’ve got something right here in the neighborhood.” Despite losing the Ward Two race, Hawkins says, “at that point, I decided I was going to stick with it and make something happen.”
With no more authority than being a concerned citizen, Hawkins began by taking pictures. He showed the Polaroids at a Planning Commission meeting and to Mayor Norris; the photos showed hazards such as a capped-off water pipe sticking up straight from the ground, outdated equipment, insufficient trash cans, and no water fountain.
The pictures had an impact: “Mayor Norris has been very, very cooperative and compassionate about this project from the beginning,” says Hawkins.
Hawkins says that he doesn’t consider the park as “a haven for illegal activities.” “People that break the law break the law all over town,” Hawkins says, and then amends, “but for what the park was intended for, I thought some acts were inappropriate.”
Hawkins asked police officers of Water Valley to step up their patrol of the area. “I want them to stop and get out,” Hawkins says. “Young people need to respect police officers.” Since “most mischief is done in the dark,” Hawkins has also drawn attention to the poor lighting of the park.
“I’ve gone over blueprints with the mayor and an engineer for the remodeling of the area,” says Hawkins. The plans include new commercial-grade playground equipment, benches, and trash cans; a paved-parking area; a chain-link fence; more lighting; and a re-done basketball court.
So how to pay for all of this?
Hawkins is waiting to hear whether or not the community will receive a $97,000 self-help grant from the Mississippi Development Authority. The grant calls for the community to put in sweat equity, and so Hawkins is still collecting pledges from citizens all over town who are willing to spend their time or loan their tools for the park’s renovation (forms can be picked up at the library and dropped off at City Hall, for those interested).
“I’m optimistic about getting the grant,” Hawkins says. “If something should happen that we don’t, we’ll just have to find another way.”
He begins ticking off other ways on his fingers: fundraising through his fraternity contacts, asking the local churches and civic organizations for time and money. “We’re just going to have to raise the money,” says Hawkins. “Whatever it takes.”
When I ask why Hawkins has taken such a mammoth project on, Hawkins shrugs. “I’m just trying to meet people’s needs. This is what they said they needed: a place for children to go. A place for children to be children.”