Youth groups unite to fight urban decay

A couple more groups this summer are expected to take over and maintain private, vacant Elm Street lots.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Michael Kovachik leans back, his foot pushing the shovel deep into the dirt, trying to unearth the scraggly mulberry tree's remains.
His partner, Will Cart, pulls on the tree's stub so hard his face turns red.
"One root is holding this entire thing," Michael says.
"Yeah, but it's the size of a log," Will says, cupping his hands into a circle about 5 inches across.
A few minutes later, out comes the small stump. Success. Will raises his arms into the air and lets out a manly grunt.
Michael, 16 of Canfield, and Will, 16, of Poland, defeated the pesky tree.
More importantly, the victory was symbolic of the success they and nine other teen-agers enjoyed last week over a far more insidious and difficult opponent: neighborhood blight.
Cleaning up: The suburban teens, members of the St. John Episcopal Church youth group on Wick Avenue downtown, are the first urban warriors in a guerrilla fight against decay.
With direction from a North Side woman, the group commandeered three private, vacant and overgrown lots on the 1500 block of Elm Street.
The spot sits between boarded up, garbage strewn, red brick and wood buildings between Thornton and Saranac avenues.
On Monday, the Elm lots -- where three long-demolished houses once sat -- contained waist-high weeds; the forlorn mulberry tree; a broken, rusted, peach-colored lawn chair; a rusty pruning saw; and a couple 10-foot sections of metal pipe.
By Friday afternoon the grass and the trash were gone.
Dark wood chips surrounded two 30-foot evergreens. A bench was installed between the towering trees. Flowers were planted in the landscaped island.
"It makes it look like a cozy place," Michael said.
The youths hope children will use the cleaned-up space to play catch or Frisbee. They want neighbors to shade themselves on the bench under the trees.
They also hope the idea behind their work will spread throughout the Mahoning Valley.
"If people would clean up places like this, it can be just as nice as anywhere else," said Philosophy Walker, 16, of Struthers.
Other warriors: Two other church youth groups are expected to "adopt" such Elm Street lots later this summer, thanks largely to the North Side woman, Maxine Houck.
About a year ago a few ideas converged on Houck, a member of St. John's and the North Side Citizens' Coalition.
She noticed how much of the North Side's blight was privately owned property "just lying there, neglected." She watched her church's youth group do public service projects out of town while the World Changers, a national teen service organization, came into the city.
Houck also was familiar with a group calling itself the "guerrilla gardeners," people who keep a low profile and plant flowers on property around the city without seeking permission.
Finally, she had driven past enough adopt-a-highway signs to know she couldn't ignore the other items, so she took on the project.
"All of the sudden ... it just came together. I didn't see why not," Houck said.
She asked Priscilla Hays, St. John's youth coordinator, to get involved.
Ready for battle: Aside from the typical teen-age moaning and groaning, Hays knew the kids were up to the job. They had done cleanups before and really do enjoy the satisfaction that comes from hard work, she said. Workers Friday included Hays' daughter, Emily, 14; Michael's sister, Allie, 14; and Will's brother, James, 17.
Houck doesn't know who owns the properties, and she doesn't much care. Chances are the owners are out of town and wouldn't care if they were there anyway, she said.
"Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than ask permission," Houck said with a wink and a nod.
She does care about the bottoming-out of neighborhoods with still top-notch housing stock that, instead, is left rotting as suburban sprawl claims more space.
Elm Street is a focus because of its condition and its connection to the Wick Park Neighborhood Project, a coalition push to improve that section of town. Houck expects the St. John's group and the others will keep mowing the grass once the cleanup work is done.
Most of the youths were shy about their role in combating the city's blight and what it all means.
Aptly, it was Philosophy who summed up what the teens said about their work during this and the coming weeks:
"It makes you realize people can make a difference in how the city looks."

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