ATLANTIC CITY — The owner of CityWide Towing in Ducktown spent the past year repainting his building, installing a new awning and volunteering his exterior wall for a 48 Blocks mural.
“It’s all part of the effort. You’ve got to keep up with everybody,” said Rafael Maldonado, 45, of Egg Harbor Township. “You can’t be the ugly one on the block.”
For about a year, there has been a concerted effort to clean up the neighborhood by harnessing the help of volunteers, city workers, residents and business owners.
It’s paying off, Maldonado said, and he is glad to be part of it.
The Ducktown neighborhood, which stretches several blocks from Missouri Avenue to Texas Avenue, was historically an Italian-American neighborhood. Iconic establishments like White House Sub Shop, Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern (once a favorite of late baseball great Joe DiMaggio), Formica Bros. Bakery and Dock’s Oyster House are there, as well as historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
But after World War II, many of the old families moved to the mainland, and for decades it fell on hard times, losing population and that feeling of community.
Now, it is diverse, with many Hispanic and Asian families living there, Census data show.
And new notable entities have moved there, such as shopping destination Tanger Outlets The Walk and cultural destinations such as Dante Hall and the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University.
City officials and groups of volunteers are working hard to help the neighborhood create its own updated identity and attract more customers to its many businesses and restaurants while improving the quality of life for residents.
In May, the city Planning Board voted to incorporate the recently completed Ducktown Neighborhood Revitalization Plan into the city’s master plan, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is considering revising zoning there, since it is in the Tourism District. CRDA’s Special Improvement District has also installed more trash and recycling receptacles there.
Plans are to promote the livability of the neighborhood and its legacy, while supporting a varied commercial base and making the community more sustainable in the face of natural hazards, particularly floods. Safety and quality-of-life improvements play a central role in the plan.
The plan opens the door for new funding and incentives to spur economic growth in the area, according to city officials and plan author Jim Rutala.
A lot has happened since May, Rutala said, including an application to create a 501c3 Community Development Corporation to focus on implementing the plan. The first Ducktown Summer Festival of music and entertainment started Friday, and the city has secured a grant to pave Fairmount Avenue between Missouri and Mississippi avenues, one of the plan’s priorities.
Maldonado isn’t finished making improvements to his building on Fairmount Avenue between North Georgia and North Florida avenues, he said. He will soon install new neon lights, change an exterior gate and install new doors.
The neighborhood is definitely on the way up, said Tina Leeds, 38, who grew up in Port Republic and moved to Italy Terrace almost a year ago from Philadelphia.
A friend of Leeds who is a homeowner in Ducktown told junkies used to hang out on Italy Terrace, a small alleyway of homes off of Mississippi Avenue.
“They were able to clear it out,” Leeds said.
She came back to help care for an aging grandfather, she said, and commutes to Philadelphia for bartending and other jobs.
Although she lives near enough to the train to walk to it, she does not commute with it. She comes home from work too late, after the trains stop running, she said. So she drives.
But Ducktown’s proximity to the train station may pay off if Atlantic City gets the Transit Village designation it is seeking from the state. That would open up other sources of funding for development and improvements within a half mile of the train station, which would encompass most of Ducktown.
New businesses are opening. There are large new planters filled with flowers on Arctic Avenue in front of the future home of Setaara, which bills itself as Atlantic City’s first restaurant to offer Afghan cuisine.
Setaara got a state Economic Development Authority business incentive grant, Rutala said.
Seventeen-year-old Nayeli Villa has lived in Atlantic City all her life, and in Ducktown about six years, she said.
She has seen a difference in the past year.
“Before where we have empty places — abandoned homes — it would always fill up with trash,” said Villa. “Alleyways would fill up with trash.”
Now, problem sites are addressed before it’s allowed to build up, she said.
There are plenty of improvements left to make. Walking around the neighborhood, there was still litter — albeit in smaller amounts than before — and in some areas new brick curbscaping had come apart, creating deep holes that could easily cause someone to break an ankle.
Maldonado’s one complaint about the neighborhood is really about how Mother Nature treats it. It floods quickly every time it rains heavily, he said, even for a short amount of time.
On Thursday, the water line from Wednesday’s flood was still visible on the storefronts.
“We park our big truck out front to stop the waves from hitting the building,” Maldonado said.
Leeds said much of the appeal of living in Ducktown is being able to walk to the beach and to run errands.
“I get coffee here every morning,” she said of Formica Bros., as she tied her dog Skeeter to a lamp post out front.
“I only wish they would let him in,” she said, nodding to Skeeter, who waited patiently on the sidewalk.