Grassroots Groups Seed Youngstown Neighborhoods
Early on Dec. 5, amid fog and ice and frost, students from Youngstown State University gathered in a parking lot just off campus. After signing their names on a sheet of paper and listing their email addresses, they split into groups, each heading to different neighborhoods near YSU.
“We normally have more than this,” said Nick Chretien as 30 students left in pickup trucks and friends’ cars. “With this weather and finals coming up, a lot of people didn’t come out. … But it shows that students want to see a change. They’re committed to it.”
Chretien is president of YSUscape, a student organization in its first year dedicated to cleaning up the areas around campus, and that Saturday was the group’s third and final “Blight Club” of the semester. The students went to the Arlington, Oak Park and Wick Park neighborhoods to board up vacant buildings, collect the debris left on vacant lots and dispose of the trash.
“People are glad that something’s being done,” he said. “The first time we did this, two people on the same street came out and thanked us just for cleaning up those properties that have been irritating them. They both had kids and having to live next to vacant houses was a problem.”
At one house in Oak Park, the front door had been ripped off, knives were stuck in cabinet doors, drawers had been thrown about the room and trash was everywhere. The YSUscape workers didn’t venture beyond the kitchen to inspect further damage before they placed boards over windows and doors vandals could use to re-enter.
The first two Blight Club events, done in conjunction with Wick Park Neighbors, focused on abandoned buildings near student housing around the park. On Dec. 5, Chretien explained, the focus was further from campus but still within walking distance of the houses and apartments students rent.
“We’re doing our part to make this area the best it can be for the residents or potential residents,” he said as nail guns rattled behind him. “Anyone who’s gone to YSU has seen the negative stereotypes Youngstown has had. Cleaning up the houses and making the area look more secure makes it feel safer.”
YSUscape is but the latest – and youngest – grassroots organization to arise within the city. Groups have formed in all seven wards, working to eradicate the blight that grew during years of economic decline.
“When the mills closed, it’s like everyone went into a coma,” said Sybil West, leader of the Bennington Block Watch on the East Side. “And when we all came out of it and looked at the city, there was crime and blight. We had to work to take it back.”
With its membership made up mostly of seniors, Bennington Block Watch falls at the opposite end of the spectrum from YSUscape and has adopted a different approach beyond simply keeping an eye on neighbors’ homes.
“They [residents] tend to get involved when things upset their peace. They don’t go out and look for causes,” she explains. “But if something upsets that peace, then they will move on it.”
One incident, she relates, occurred a few years ago when a resident began housing chickens on his property without any permits, a violation of city law. The block watch turned out in force at a City Council meeting to voice their displeasure.
The lifelong resident of the East Side has also taken on a role in altering outsiders’ perceptions of the neighborhoods where she grew up – that the area is poor, crime-ridden and isolated.
“When someone wants to talk to me, whether they’re a politician or reporter or someone trying to help, I tell them, ‘You come to my neighborhood,’ ” West says. “You come here and see what I see. And then they see that this part of Youngstown is better than they think.”
The push for neighborhood groups began in earnest with the Youngstown 2010 plan, says Phil Kidd, associate director of Youngstown CityScape. The plan laid out a map to stabilize ailing neighborhoods and address long-term issues throughout Youngstown. The largest benefit of the plan, Kidd argues, is the creation of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.
In 2008, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative was founded. At the outset there were between 15 and 20 active neighborhood groups, Kidd says. Four years later, there were 45.
“The grassroots efforts over the last 10 years have helped a lot,” Kidd says. “It’s starting to solidify and creating a situation where you’ll see more growth downtown and more stabilization in the neighborhoods. That will all happen quicker in the next decade.”
Community improvement efforts in Youngstown tend to take a two-tiered approach. Groups such as CityScape and YNDC work with the individual neighborhood associations to develop plans and furnish volunteers or materials.
One of the biggest parts of the two-tier effort, YNDC executive director Ian Beniston says, is developing an aspect that can be acted on. To execute that aspect, YNDC meets with residents and holds discussions on the needs of their neighborhoods and how to go about meeting them. The development group then refines that consensus to a list of what needs to be done and how to accomplish it.
What’s important about taking that approach, Beniston says, is that it empowers residents and gets them to buy in.
“I’ve seen a rejuvenated energy,” he says of the last 18 months, when YNDC began seriously pursuing the action plans. “They’re starting to see more tangible progress. They know it’s happening because they’re a part of it.”
On the South Side, the Brownlee Woods Neighborhood Association worked with YNDC to draw up a five-year plan. Among the items listed, says its president, five or six have been completed, including new signs and planting trees and installing benches in a park.
There are 1,100 homes in the Brownlee Woods neighborhood, Martin says, and almost all have active occupants. When the group was formed from two block watches, the top two goals were safety and combating blight.
“I always thought they’d have to work from the downtown out,” Martin says. “But once we got started, I realized that to put a stop to the blight, you have to work from the outside in.”
Several derelict buildings in the neighborhood have been demolished, she says, but such action is a last resort.
“It’s been my theory that we can get a lot done through code enforcement or demolition. But I don’t want to see street after street after street of houses that are torn down,” she says.
Martin moved to Brownlee Woods when she married her husband, who grew up in the neighborhood. She grew up in a small town and sees grassroots organizations as the best way to revitalize Youngstown.
“I have seen what can be done in a small town. People have to stop thinking of Youngstown as this one big city,” she says. “It’s really a bunch of small towns and you have to focus on letting people take care of their own small town.”
As work proceeds in Brownlee Woods, Martin says, even those informally involved in the association, including renters, have begun to maintaining their properties.
That kind of phenomenon is common, Kidd notes.
“There may be 5,000 people in a neighborhood. But it doesn’t take 5,000 people to turn an area around,” he says. “It takes a strong nucleus of people to set the tempo.”
One key to strengthening a grassroots group, all agree, is engagement and getting people to buy in. In the Rocky Ridge neighborhood near Mill Creek Park, John Slanina and the Rocky Ridge Neighbors have experimented with several ways to increase community involvement.
Over the summer, he invited some of the artists who live in the neighborhood join in creating a mascot for the association, then displayed their other projects at a gallery. The association also makes maple syrup from trees they tap in Mill Creek Park.
“You don’t have to be out here every time we have a clean-up day. You don’t have to climb a ladder and clean out your neighbor’s gutters,” Slanina says. “Maybe you can bake something to bring to our next meeting. Maybe you can spend an hour walking around the neighborhood in the evenings. There’s always something for someone to contribute.”
At YSUscape, Chretien is encouraged by the progress his organization has made. Not only are younger YSU students showing up, but high school students as well.
“The older people who are here, even just a generation ahead of us, aren’t going to be here forever. And neither are we. This is where you get kids involved and keep them involved for life,” he says.
Beniston at YNDC says the group’s work with other grassroots movements has just begun. When the group was started in 2009, it had just two full-time employees. Now there are 45 and the number is growing. Funding for the organization continues to increase and as more neighborhood groups get underway, more partnerships will form.
“If we get to a point where everything is stable, everyone’s employed and all homes are occupied, then we might be done. But it will be a very long time,” he says.
Beniston does note, however, that Youngstown has been on the upswing, thanks in large measure to grassroots efforts.
“There are positive stories that are created and people see that. They see residents fighting back and trying to improve the area,” he says. “From where we’ve started, you can see progress but there’s still a long way to go and areas where we’ve barely begun.”
Pictured: Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. works with neighborhood associations throughout the city to create action plans, says director Ian Beniston. The projects in the five-year plan are then carried out by residents. “They’re starting to see more tangible progress,” he says. “They know it’s happening because they’re part of it.”
Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.