Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Community Peptalk: Taking back Control of your Neighborhood

I read Building Cincinnati every day and today there was a post about someone in Westwood who was frustrated about the problems and the lack of response about those problems.

So today rather than talk about restoration or preservation issues, I thought I'd talk about neighborhoods and how you regain control of them. I've done this before, MANY TIMES. If you love your old house, you are often an "Urban Pioneer". You move into neighborhoods that your friends and family think you are well "crazy" to do so because. it's a BAD neighborhood. You usually moved there because you found a house and fell in love with it and realized that neighborhoods aren't bad, its the people who live in them that are.

In 2000 I moved into a neighborhood on the near east side of Indianapolis, IN. The police affectionately called it "dodge city" because they were dodging bullets all the time. I found a 1880's Victorian that had seen better days, on a block that had seen better days and I decided that this house and this neighborhood deserved saving. The house had been a slum section 8 rental and it showed, It took weeks just to clean it out and disinfect it. We were the first person to buy a house on that block and move into it in 20 years, in fact there was only one other owner occupant on the block, Hidden behind chain link and with a big dog, the house had been in the family for 40 years and she wasn't selling. Everything else on the block was a rental. I had a halfway houses, crack dealers and prostitutes on my block for neighbors.

My solution? I planted flowers!
I removed the aluminum siding from the house and before long there was 4 color historic paint job on the front of that house. I concentrated on the front because that was my "billboard" that the neighborhood was turning around. We sat out on our porch every evening. Funny thing, crack dealers and prostitute's don't like audiences, one by one, they moved. Especially since I sat there, cell phone in hand. After I called the police a few time they knew I meant business. I learned who every "Beat Officer" was in my neighborhood. I made sure they had my business card and I had theirs. I invited them to park on my block and do their paperwork. I always waved when they went by. I bought the vacant lots on my block and we started landscaping the front of them. I helped the lady down the street with her yard work, We were in this together now.

I found out the name and address of every property owner on the block and the name of the bank that held the mortgage. Some of these Section 8 properties were owned by a church run non for profit. I took photos of their tenants the drug dealers, the prostitutes and I sent those photos along with a letter. "Clean up you property or be prepared to lose it", signed community crime watch. I wrote letters to the city, I had my councilman spend an afternoon having coffee on my front porch. I met neighbors on the next street over who were fighting the same battles and we started having "Veranda parties" on the weekend, we would all sit out on each other porches and have a party , stare down the drug dealers. Like roaches in a the lights, they started leaving.
We got up one Sunday morning at 6 am and put flyers on every door and every car on the block that said "OFFICIAL CRIME FREE ZONE!" Community crime watch will report ALL illegal activity, we know who you are! and included the numbers of the police department, drug enforcement, the city attorney, Health Department and Building Inspections.

The word was out. The "hood" was changing. Suddenly it got harder to rent those slum properties out, criminals don't like spotlights. It took 4 months . One day, a "For sale" sign went out in the yard of a house across the street. The "slumlord" unable to rent it and with the city forcing him to take care of it, gave up. We bought that house and cleaned it up. We painted the front and sold it a month later to another "Urban Pioneer", like us. Eventually I convinced a developer to build a new infill townhouse on the block, I put up the lot, he built the house. We found a good realtor and it sold. We built two more on the block and they sold for more money. We no longer had to buy every house when it came up for sale now, others were now buying. We had a website, we had neighborhood association window signs in our windows of our neighbors.

The city took notice! they had to , we were calling them every day. The health inspectors came by every week as did code enforcement. It took 3 years for that block to totally turn the corner. We sold that house a year later and moved around the corner to the next block and did the same thing again.It was easier this time. Others joined us and in 2009, the neighborhood is not the same. We went from 90 percent rental to 90 percent owner occupancy. No halfway houses, No prostitutes, no drug dealers. It is a safe neighborhood, full of sane people who really care about where they live. We are no longer the Near Eastside, we are the "Near Downtown". We became a neighborhood again not an "enforcement zone"!

The people who used to live here? I don't know where they went, and frankly, I don't care! I was called a racist, and elitist a "gentrifyer' and several names I can't print here, but I didn't care, I took this neighborhood back, made it a decent place to live and I know when we move, it is going to be OK because there are people here to care !

Now we are working in a new neighborhood, this time in Cincinnati. Repeating what has worked in the past. It has only been 4 months and I got word from one of my neighbors last week that one of the local drug dealers moved away. Said the neighborhood was getting 'too nosy bout his biz" and the cops were driving around too much.
I can hardly wait for warm weather.....I plan on planting flowers!

If you want your neighborhood back, its up to you, The city is so big and has so much to do,
at first they wont help you. It takes pressure, public embarrassment of city officials, press conferences and yes sometime screaming and yelling the loudest,but you can take back your community. You do it One block at a time!

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