Our Towns

Neighborhood Projects Build Sense of Community

WARREN, Ohio — Throughout this city, nestled in the nooks of branches just out of arm’s reach, birdhouses hang from the trees in community gardens that sit on the lots where derelict houses once sat.

Above their entrances, you can easily see the signs adorned with names of celebrities who range from athletes to musicians to those that figure in the history of Warren.

“It’s all up to the kids,” says Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership director Matt Martin on how the names are chosen. “The kids who use these gardens put them together. They’re everywhere.”

At the Giving Tree Garden – one of the lots cleared by TNP and now used by the community – some of the names are Elvis and LeBron James. There, in the lot on the north side of the city, children grow vegetables and tend flowerbeds at least once a week.

Mikenna McClurg, who manages the garden, says the decision to make something just for kids came after looking at other projects underway throughout the city.

“They’re all community gardens where people from the neighborhood can participate, but there wasn’t anything specifically for the kids,” she says. “Instead of doing something where we simply allowed the kids to garden, we decided that each week we’d teach them to garden.”

The hands-on work helps the kids feel connected to their city, McClurg says, influencing them to take care of their neighborhoods.

“With us meeting each week, it gives the kids a sense of pride in their neighborhood,” she explains. “They have land to tend and care for, so they all keep an eye on it. It gives them a respect for where they live.”

Through community projects across the city, Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership is working to instill that respect in everyone, not just children.

At the Garfield Community Garden northwest of downtown, Danita Davis has installed 53 plots where community members grow their own food. She’s also had a seating area installed and in the works are additions such as a play area for children and a Little Free Library.

“I’m seeing our gardeners use better and better techniques every year,” she says, “and I’m really seeing people from the neighborhood enjoy the seating area. It’s helping the community.”

Last year, she relates, one gardener tending a plot at the Garfield Garden brought her a jar of homemade salsa.

“And I was disappointed,” she says with a smile, “because they made it with the tomatoes they grew. Those would have been really good to [eat].”

But not all of the TNP lots are projects manned by whole neighborhoods or to grow vegetables. On Mercer Street on the north side, Rachel Dunn maintains the Peace of Hope Garden.

Dunn has planted flowers, added benches and installed doors from houses TNP razed. Local artists painted the doors. This year, the garden is expanding into an adjacent lot. The site of the first garden, 692 Mercer St., is where Dunn’s sister died several years ago.

“My sister was a drug addict and worked the streets in the Garden District. That was the house she overdosed in. I just kept thinking, ‘Something good needs to go here,’ ” Dunn says. “Not as a memorial, because you don’t get memorialized when you live that kind of lifestyle, but I thought that if I were in her shoes and only saw overgrown lots and boarded up houses with graffiti, then I wouldn’t have any hope.”

With the introduction of the garden, Dunn says that during daylight she’s seen a decline in the volume of drug dealing and prostitution in the neighborhood.

“Nothing has stopped. They’re either waiting until I’m not around or going someplace else,” she relates, “but to have the influence on them where they say, ‘We’re going to wait,’ makes me feel better. If just me being here every day is changing this much, then what would happen if everybody was out here every day?”

Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership’s reach extends beyond houses and side lots. The organization began a farmers market on Courthouse Square in downtown Warren, which has begun its third year. The first market of the summer, held in early June, drew hundreds. Vendors sold everything from fruits and vegetables – Danita Davis had a booth where plants she had grown at Garfield Garden while talking to passersby – to locally grown popcorn kernels to fresh-baked goods to plants for home gardeners to start.

“Educating the public is key. We need to educate them about what local foods are,” says Sheila Calko, manager of TNP’s Garden Resources of Warren program, which runs the market.

The organization has also become involved in public art projects, community fundraising and corrections.

Last summer, TNP invited artists to come up with designs for a mural on the site of the former Mahoningside Power Plant. Twenty-five submitted proposals and “Sleeping Giant” by Thomas Morgan was selected as the winner.

“Our dabbling in public art is expanding because it’s one thing to provide mechanisms for people to move into a home or transform vacant land, but we feel like there need to be more things that draw people to a community,” says TNP director Martin.

To help bring new people and ideas to the city, TNP is exploring the feasibility of a residency program for artists, he adds.

The Warren Soup event, held several times throughout the year, allows groups from around the city to present their idea to the audience – “$5 gets you soup, salad, bread and a vote” its website says – who then vote to support one pitch. The project with the most votes wins the proceeds from ticket sales.

Winners have included Charles Street Flower Power Garden – $1,260 to expand its site – and Second Change Exposure League – $838 for gymnasium renovations.

Finally, the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership works with Warren Municipal Court to offer a court-ordered community service program.

“People with low-level fines or tickets can, instead of going to jail or having a fine that keeps building and building, they can come here to help us board houses or mow lawns,” Martin says. “They’ve even helped with public art installations or gardening.”

The program has been “very successful,” he adds.

All of this comes together, with some programs crossing over occasionally to join others intended to push the city forward. Since it was started in 2010, TNP has torn down scores of houses, installed several public arts projects and laid the groundwork for communities throughout the city to join together.

“These are the projects we support because we want to build a community worth living in,” Martin says. “We want [Warren] to be enjoyable for everyone.”

 Pictured: Raionna Talbert, Sharika Gamble and Ja’niece Yartz work in a TNP garden as part of the Inspiring Minds program.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.