NEW BEDFORD — Up the front steps of Verdean Gardens, beyond yet another set of stairs and through the first door on the right lives 97-year-old Manuel “Figi” Figueiredo.
As a boy, some 92 years ago, Figueiredo followed the same path not to home but to school.
“This here was my fourth grade,” he said, while standing in his newly renovated two-bedroom apartment.
Verdean Gardens, built in 1905, started as the Thomas Donaghy School, where Figueiredo attended through sixth grade.
“It’s changed,” Figueiredo said. “Time has changed.”
On Tuesday, the Cruz Companies celebrated the $7 million renovation of the 110-unit housing development with a ribbon cutting. During the ceremony, Cruz honored Figueiredo, a World War II veteran, and community activist and Vietnam veteran Buddy Andrade with a commemorative desk clock highlighting their services to the community.
“For a change, I’m short of words,” Andrade said, sparking laughter from the dozens in attendance.
President and CEO of Cruz Companies John B. Cruz III, with his son, Justin, sitting behind him, spoke of how his father first orchestrated the construction of Verdean Gardens in 1987. The building fell out of the family’s hands to foreclosure, but they were able to retain the property in 2011.
“Even though he may not be around, if I don’t do the right thing or a good job,” Cruz said. “I’m afraid he’ll come back and haunt me. I always try to please my father.”
The renovation included updating the kitchens, heating, windows, bathrooms and roof.
The funding for the project returned to New Bedford with Cruz Companies using city businesses during the renovation. The company also said 60 percent of the workers hired were people of color.
“This is more than a building this is an example. It wasn’t lost on me when (Cruz) said that (Cruz Companies) a black-owned company. My path has been made much easier because of the work you’ve put in,” Ward 4 Councilor Dana Rebeiro said. “We need to pass that torch. The American dream has been elusive to our community but it’s your work, your example, your pride and your struggle that makes it easier for us to be included.”
The sentiment hit home for the representatives in attendance, which included William Keating as well as state representatives Tony Cabral and Chris Markey.
“The government can’t do everything but what we’re seeing now at the federal level is an inability to understand that putting in a little federal funds brings more revenue in for the country and has a great effect at the same time,” Keating said. “This is a message as I go back to D.C., I’m going to take forward. There’s faces, there’s individuals, there’s lives that are growing.”
Keating also presented Figueiredo with a certificate of appreciation.
After the ceremony the certificate sat on a shelf within Figueiredo’s current home and former classroom.
He reminisced about his days walking a block or so to the school, passing horse and wagons and food peddlers selling a dozen bananas for 10 cents.
He smiled at the thought of recess when he and his friends sprinted around the school.
“Those were the days,” he said.
They’ll be many more inside those walls because of the recent renovation.
Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonnerSCT.