‘Better Block’ Sets Up Shops Sunday in Brownlee Woods

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – If all goes as planned, this Sunday Midlothian Boulevard will look as it never has before, thanks to Better Block, put on by Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Brownlee Woods Neighborhood Association.

Better Block, this one on Midlothian between Sheridan Road and Irma Avenue, will feature pop-up businesses selling vegetables, art and homemade goods, a temporary dog park, a café and an art gallery.

“It’s about taking someplace that’s not visually appealing or not someplace you’d spend time and transform it temporarily by filling it with activity, vibrancy, color, pop-up shops, business and art galleries,” says Tom Hetrick, a neighborhood planner for YNDC. “The goal is to see permanent improvements. But to start that process, you have to have people who want bike lanes or more businesses in their area. This helps gives people an idea of what the future can be.”

Nancy Martin, president of the neighborhood association, recently came across photos of Brownlee Woods as it was years ago. Those pictures, she says, gave her an idea of what Better Block could accomplish.

“I wasn’t here in Youngstown at the time, but seeing the storefronts filled, and how vibrant it was, made me want to have that back. It’s a goal of our neighborhood,” she says. “If you have empty buildings, unkempt properties, boarded up houses, tall grass and weeds, or anything that’s blight, it’s a negative against the neighborhood.”

The two organizations, along with representatives from the city and businesses along the block of Midlothian, began planning in June for this Sunday’s event, Martin says. The final meeting was Wednesday; significant because it is the day Marty McFly arrives from 1989 to the future – two days in the past as you read this — in the movie “Back to the Future Part II.”

“I felt that’s kind of representative of this event,” Martin says. “This event will show people that what was could be again. It’s not necessarily about going back, but that the future is now.”

John R. Swierz, 7th Ward city councilman, says the purpose of Block Watch is to show what can be done to transform a neighborhood.

“Having this kind of event, especially on Midlothian, will give neighbors [a chance] to see what could be if things were changed,” he says. “Like other areas in the city, Midlothian is scattered with some vacant lots and buildings. They’ll address that by, for example, using a vacant building next to the fire station as an art gallery and coffee shop with live entertainment.”

Even in the weeks leading up to Better Block, as storefronts and sites are readied for Sunday, Martin says she’s seen the neighborhood begin to respond. One of the first buildings Martin helped clean is the vacant former firehouse.

“The owner has helped us clean up in front of the building. We’ve washed it down and we’ve painted it. There’ll be a café on one side and an art gallery on the other on Sunday,” she says. “As we’ve done this, we’ve noticed other businesses that are open on the block start to clean up as well and take pride in their business.”

Another project is a beauty salon, which Martin worked on by doing some minor landscaping.

“[The owner’s] taken more pride in where her businesses is,” she says. “It’s encouraging to see people notice what others are doing and start to do things as well. They’ve all been very willing to participate.”

The association is also hosting a car show Sunday afternoon where children can go “trunk or treating” by going from car-to-car collecting Halloween candy.

The first Better Block was held in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas, in 2011. The organization posts suggestions and guidelines on its website for use by communities around the world that are looking to clean up their areas.

YNDC participated in a Better Block in Akron earlier this year, Hetrick says. After receiving funds from the William Swanston Charitable Foundation, YNDC planned four Better Blocks. The first two were held on Elm Street and on Mahoning Avenue.

On Mahoning, the road was narrowed to two lanes with a bike lane on both sides and temporary crosswalks marked off at each intersection. Along the sidewalks for a four-block stretch of the corridor, between Steel Street and McKinley Avenue, booths for pop-up shops were assembled.

And the response, Hetrick notes, was overwhelmingly positive.

“We got a lot of great comments all along the lines of, ‘It’s great to see something so positive for our neighborhood,’ ” he relates. “One of the things that came out of the Mahoning Avenue Better Block was that there was a core group of people who emerged – Fellows Riverside Garden, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Paisley House and the Garden District Neighborhood – and took the idea and ran with it.”

The response to the bike lanes from the four groups, he reports, was unanimously positive as the neighborhood is about a 10-minute bike ride from downtown.

If the Midlothian Boulevard Better Block has a similar result, Martin concludes, then the day – along with months of planning – can be considered a success.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you have a nice, clean, vibrant neighborhood then crime will slow down,” she says. “Our goal has always been to promote the neighborhood, keep the name out there, draw business in and be good neighbors.”

Pictured: Better Block event earlier this fall on Mahoning Avenue in Youngstown.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.