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Manfred Reid: Rising up like a human phoenix

In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a bird that dies in a “show of flames and combustion,” then arises from the ashes to live anew. And Manfred Reid of Louisville, Kentucky, is a modern-day, human phoenix.

Caught up in the civil rights clashes of the 1960s, the man who was once a prominent, well-respected real estate broker lost virtually everything—his job, his marriage, his reputation and, eventually, his home. Today, however, he is a widely recognized city leader, heading the revitalization of the Russell neighborhood—once known as the “Harlem of the South”—and chair of the board of commissioners for the city’s Metro Housing Authority.

Reid learned young how to be a survivor. By age 10, he had lost both of his parents and decided he had to be a “man.” He survived that and rose to become a successful real estate broker and family man, a pillar of the community. That is, until May 8, 1968. That’s when the he and a few friends were roughed up by the police, about a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Protests erupted as a result, with the National Guard called in. Manfred didn’t participate (as a former Marine, he says he knew he’d “want to fight back,” so stayed away), but the following October, he and five other men—who came to be known as “The Black 6”—were indicted for “criminal conspiracy.”

Two long years later, all six were acquitted. But the ripple effects were lasting. When the dilapidated, foreclosed “fixer-upper” in which he found refuge was condemned, he was placed in Beecher Terrace, the largest public housing complex still left in the country. He had hit the proverbial bottom.

Reid survived those years with paralegal and construction contracting work and the support of people in the community. A turning point was when “a little lady” at Beecher Terrace boldly came up and asked, “What in the world’s wrong with you? You done moved up here with us and you don’t say nothing to nobody. We want you come to a meeting of the resident council.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Reid went to that meeting, became a leader, and when the housing authority put out a call for a resident to serve as the first such representative on the board of commissioners, he was recommended. Reid joined the commission in 1999 and has served as its chair since 2000. He has, however, remained a resident of public housing even though he could now move out.

“Our goal has been to transcend the negative perception of public housing,” he says. “We offer tutoring programs and scholarships, a matched savings program, and equity in the form of policies like one that guarantees minority participation in procurement contracts.”

One of the largest projects Reid helped oversee, and of which he is the proudest, was the demolition and rebuilding of three of the public housing buildings. “We successfully relocated every family who qualified,” he boasts.

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It was through his work with the commission that Reid re-connected with NeighborWorks member New Directions, which he had first come to know through his real estate business and works with the authority to promote resident engagement. New Directions runs bimonthly neighborhood roundtables, through which it offers residents information on local services and issues, as well as training on how to be effective community leaders. Manfred has been a regular participant, representing the historic Russell Neighborhood, which includes Beecher Terrace. With the help of an action grant awarded to resident teams who attended NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute, Manfred led a bus tour of the community for roundtable participants, showing it off through his eyes. Once the home of the “chitlin circuit” and the black aristocracy, including the church where Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother preached, Russell was devastated by the urban renewal craze.  On Jan. 16, 2015, however, the housing authority was awarded a $425,000 Choice Neighborhoods planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and ambitious planning now is underway—in which Reid is integrally involved.

“Our cities are so large and diversified,” comments the man known as the “grandfather of Russell.” “Neighborhoods are going to have to take on more responsibility for assuring the right kind of services are available to their residents, with all of their social and ethnic diversity. That requires being savvy about things like how government works. That’s my mission.”