In the Trenches, ‘Happily’ Digging Out

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Across Youngstown, much work is underway to revitalize neighborhoods. The work done by larger groups is easily noticed – countering blight by tearing down houses beyond repair are community efforts that draw dozens – and then there the everyday efforts by residents in their neighborhoods that lay the foundation for those big projects.

This grassroots work is taking place across the city, transforming the landscape of Youngstown as activists spend countless – and sometimes thankless – hours working for something as simple as a bus stop, as Marguerite Douglas did in Lincoln Knolls.

On the West Side, John Slanina and the Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association have brought new life to the Mahoning Avenue corridor, while on the South Side, the Rev. Ed Noga is part of a multifaith team that’s spurred activity in the Oak Hill neighborhood. And Sybil West, a lifelong resident of Bennington Avenue, has worked both on her own and as part of collaboratives to revitalize Youngstown.

Each has a story to tell.

He Took Action by Communicating

Before any work can be done to rebuild a community, people have to start talking to each other, says the Rev. Ed Noga, pastor of St. Patrick Church in the Oak Hill neighborhood.

In Noga’s part of town, where he’s served more than two decades, the work began with the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, or Action. The group brought together people of all faiths from throughout the city.

“Whether you’re at a mosque or temple or a Catholic or a Baptist, faith-based organizing deliberately puts people in touch with each other,” he says. “We’d get together at a church, put 200 people in a room and give them four questions. People found that we have much more in common than they thought.”

Within his neighborhood, some of the first efforts were Holy Ground Marches. Volunteers spent the day cleaning vacant lots in a designated block or street. The response was almost immediate, Noga says.

“People would come to their porches and say it made them feel like someone cares,” he says. “We found the city and business owners responded to it. Is that a big deal? If you live on that block it is.”

One of the biggest pieces of the revitalization puzzle is tearing down vacant and blighted houses. “You only have so many months to reverse what happened or the house is going to end up on the demo list. With that demolition, a lot of the crime left too,” Noga says.

Once the crime moved out, work began on stabilizing the neighborhood. Homeowners started coming in again, as did businesses. When he arrived at St. Patrick, the neighborhood had five service stations. As the area worsened, all five closed. But in recent years, there’s been a spurt of activity and there are three today, including one within sight of the church.

“Happily, there’s been the proliferation of groups,” he says, “where people do the work to keep things clean.”

There’s also the Oak Hill Collaborative, which operates a small-business incubator and a makerspace for the community to use. It also organizes beautification projects and offers space for meetings and events.

And all of that work can be traced back to the efforts of Action, he says.

“Political leaders refer to faith communities as anchors in a neighborhood,” Noga says. “They’re committed. They stay there. They take care of their property. People go there. You take the power from that.”

Noga says most of his parishioners are from outside the city, but they come back to attend Mass “for historical reasons,” such as family ties to the church. People feel an obligation to give back to the communities that helped them and made them feel at home. It’s part of why Noga stays involved in community revitalization.

“Youngstown will never be what it was, but we can make it a nice college town and small city,” Noga says. “It’s not about what I do. It’s about what people can do together. If I can facilitate it, it’s important.”

She Began by Watching Her Block

Long before she was a founding member of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, before she was advocating for Youngstown in the nation’s capital during the foreclosure crisis, Sybil West focused her attention on one part of town: hers.

A lifelong resident of Bennington Avenue on the East Side, some of her earliest community work was keeping her street clear of drug dealers in the ’80s and ’90s.

“When drugs came into Bennington, me and my neighbor, before the block watch, kept that corner out there. We said, ‘No. You are not dealing here,’ ” she says. “When the mills closed, the city went into a coma. … People went indoors and when they came out, drugs had come into the city and people felt helpless.”

The method West and her neighbors employed was a simple one: talking. If they saw someone from outside the neighborhood standing around, or if they saw someone had parked a car on a vacant street, the residents just walked up and talked to them.

“If they said their car broke down, we’d talk to them until they left because they knew someone was watching,” she says.

It was simple. And effective.

Years later, when the Raymond John Wean Foundation came to Youngstown to launch the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, its staff started by talking to the neighborhood block watches, including the Bennington Avenue Block Watch.

“It was a smart move,” West says. “The first board was wonderful and you could interact with people of different colors and parts of society. That started an understanding of what people were like.”

Through the collaborative, West and others laid the groundwork for today’s revitalization efforts in Youngstown, including putting together one of the first citywide maps of vacant and blighted properties. The map was taken to Washington, D.C., where they met with officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to illustrate the challenges Youngstown faced.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” West says. “When we went to Washington, we could throw it down on the table and say, ‘This is the situation.’ When they saw the picture, they understood.”

Being involved with the organizing collaborative provided West the opportunity to improve her skillset as a community activist. Courses in Columbus, Chicago and Washington exposed her to others from across the country. Their problems and solutions weren’t always the same, but the conversations provided alternative ways of thinking about issues.

“You learn things you hadn’t thought of and see things differently. We’re all in the same boat in this country. Your problems are mine. We’re trying to make it through and make things easier. You learned to be receptive,” she says of what she learned in those talks.

West remains active in the city’s revitalization and talks regularly with community groups and people like Ian Beniston, executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., about approaches to neighborhood work.

“Ian has more of a plan in his head than anyone I’ve met. And he’ll call me because he remembers what we did together,” West says. “When we were in Columbus for training, they taught us that you go to the knowledge base, and that’s the older people.”

Her Work Began with a Bus Stop

It took nearly two years, but the Lincoln Knolls neighborhood will finally have a sheltered bus stop.

The addition might strike many as minor, but for Marguerite Douglas it was something the East Side community greatly needs. Many seniors reside in the area, along with students who ride the bus to Youngstown State University.

“It means a lot to have that. To some, it may not mean anything but think about the elderly and disabled,” says Douglas, who heads the Lincoln Knolls Community Watch and sits on the YNDC board. “Think about the rain or snow or even the sun. You don’t have to stand there.”

For two years, she visited the Western Reserve Transit Authority to urge officials to add the bus stop.

“They told us we didn’t have enough riders for a bus stop and that didn’t sound right to me,” she says.

She didn’t relent and, eventually, the agency decided to build a stop and shelter for the neighborhood. It’s just the latest effort by Douglas, who says shortly after she moved to Lincoln Knolls, she wondered if she should move elsewhere.

Pictured: Marguerite Douglas

“There were people on the corners. I heard gunshots,” she says.

But she became involved in the block watch and the group started improving their neighborhood, slowly and steadily. What kept Douglas involved – and what got her started in the first place – was her passion for serving seniors and children, she says.

“I was meeting seniors and they didn’t have the money to fix this or take care of that. I figured, ‘OK. I can be of help.’ It was about how I can help my neighbors,” she explains.

It started with basic research. Someone would raise an issue or wonder about how to solve a problem and Douglas looked into it, whether it was about cleaning up the neighborhood, finding assistance for medical services or activities for children. That turned into leading the charge in her neighborhood and a seat on the YNDC board. The community improvement organization has held several cleanup days in Lincoln Knolls and helped with the installation of new signs that read “Welcome to Lincoln Knolls: A Place to Call Home.”

While all this was going on, the community group established a rapport with police and, in time, developed a form letter to submit complaints and report crime. After dilapidated houses were demolished, the Mahoning County Land Bank planted trees in the vacant lots.

“We’re thankful for those trees, but now we need some activities,” Douglas says. “We have a basketball court through the Wean Foundation. We’re working on a playground that we need sponsor for.”

The city has agreed to tend to the park’s upkeep, but there’s no playground equipment yet.

“The people need something to do. The children need something to do and the playground is our next major step. We’ve been trying for several years,” she says. “And we want a place that’s for all ages. We want it handicap accessible.”

His Work Promotes Quality of Life

The newest addition to the Mahoning Avenue corridor – the Michael Kusalaba Branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County – is a major step forward for the Rocky Ridge neighborhood, says John Slanina, president of the Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association.

And the importance is twofold. It’s a symbol of the area’s revival and a step forward for the residents.

“A library represents more than just books. It’s a connection to resources. In the old library, those computers were always booked. And now there are even more of them,” he says. “It shows anyone that comes down the corridor that there’s reinvestment. This is a place people care about and it’s one institutions are investing in. Sometimes those public investments are ones the private sector can follow.”

Slanina says he’s already talked to a few private investors interested in opening up shop along Mahoning Avenue once they see the response to the library.

And as the corridor changes, so has the neighborhood group. 2018 was the first full year the Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association held 501(c)3 nonprofit status. When the group started, Slanina says, it was “this amorphous do-gooder with a checking account.”

Today, it has a full executive board, bylaws and partnerships with several organizations, including Youngstown CityScape, which provides the neighborhood group with flowers that volunteers put in planters at 30 businesses along Mahoning Avenue.

Early on, the association was about promoting the neighborhood to homebuyers and residents – “We have parks! We’re close to downtown! We have a library!” Slanina says of how Rocky Ridge marketed itself – but that’s moved to improving life for residents.

“I’ve gotten to know my neighbors. We’ve developed friendships. We make maple syrup. You can get a house anywhere, but the relationships are a piece of the neighborhood,” he says. “A library may connect you to a heating program or something like Interfaith Home Maintenance who can install some front steps.”

Expansion has also meant taking a closer look at what the association is capable of, he continues.

“We have to establish, as a neighborhood, what our capacity is and try to go 25% beyond that,” Slanina says. “Are we going to be rehabilitating 10 houses next year? No, and we know it. But we can help. When YNDC comes in, we’ve helped with labor on-site and marketing and open houses.”

For Slanina, who’s also involved in the Youngstown Rotary, the efforts to improve his neighborhood stem from his family’s history of civic engagement, he says.

“As much as dinner was on the table, it was also on TV trays around the 6 o’clock news. From my earliest memories, my parents were engaged,” he says. “I was fortunate to have parents who were actively involved in the community.”

Pictured at top: The Rev. Ed Noga, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Youngstown.

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