CCA creates little pockets of beauty on South Side

In city and suburban neighborhoods, people are fighting blighted conditions.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Nobody knew how nice the red flowering trees looked next to the library at Market Street and Ellenwood Avenue.
The decrepit Copy Qwik building blocked the pleasing view.
That was before Community Corrections Association spent $13,000 last year on the dilapidated property. The move opened up the view of the library by leveling the building and transformed another piece of urban blight into a parking lot landscaped with grass, trees, bushes and mulch.
CCA, a nonprofit halfway house for convicted criminals, has cleared several such eyesores in recent years -- at its own expense -- from Market Street, one of the area's major arteries. The result is green islands in a sea of urban decay.
"It's pride in the community," said Richard J. Billak, CCA's chief executive officer. "It's a message, hopefully, to other businesses. We hope that's contagious."
The agency's efforts are one example of those going beyond the call, striving to improve the area.
There is another reason CCA does such work: It's in the agency's interest. CCA's 100-plus workers and hundreds of clients benefit from a more pleasant environment, Billak said. Such investment also helps CCA maintain a positive image in a negative field. "We're working with criminals, after all," he said.
Whatever it does for the company, the changes it has brought are sorely needed.
CCA has invested about $2 million since 1987 in its Market Street buildings. It spends at least $100,000 a year maintaining the buildings and beautified lots.
The agency suggests buildings for demolition and the city cooperates by doing the paperwork. CCA then spends its own money, $60,000 since 1997, tearing down eyesores and improving the lots. A couple evergreen trees, a lot of grass and some mulch usually do the job.
CCA has plans to erase more blighted Market Street buildings, replacing them with greenery.
"Perception is everything. It wouldn't take much to make the corridor look the way it should," Billak said. "If everyone did their part this would come together."
East Side: Willie Jackson feels the same way, doing what he can to make that happen in his East Side neighborhood.
Seven years ago the Northeast Homeowners Association turned to Jackson, 65, of Liberty Road, a retired crane operator. At first, he didn't embrace the idea of heading up the group's trash pickup and grass cutting effort.
He since has grown to love the work and become a force.
"I'm just taking a little pride in the East Side," he said, optimism in his voice and words. "We're going to have the East Side looking like Austintown or Boardman."
Each spring Jackson coordinates an East Side cleanup that works its way from major roads, such as McGuffey and Jacobs, to the side streets. That effort draws about a dozen people.
An additional half dozen people follow up with trash pickups each month after, until fall. Besides picking up trash, the volunteers mow the high grass of devil strips and corners.
Jackson just wishes more people would get involved.
He's gained support from outside the neighborhood. CCA lends him some of its clients, and the Mahoning County sheriff is making prisoners available to the group.
The best situation, however, would be for more East Side residents to become part of the answer.
"I'm trying to change the attitude. It's slow, but we try," Jackson said. "If you help us, we can do it, together."
Blight isn't limited to the city, and neither are efforts to clean it up.
Boardman: A worn, white cinder block building sits at Ridgewood Drive and Market Street in Boardman, just south of Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
A bullet hole has pierced the glass door. The door frames are rusty, the overhead sign gone. Paper and cardboard covering the big front window are water-stained and falling off. The building has been empty four or five years.
This, next to an ivy-lined stone wall that winds into a neighborhood of well-landscaped, expensive upper middle class homes.
"It makes for an ugly entrance," said Sara DeAscentis, a member of the Ridgewood Civic Association, who lives nearby.
The association wants to maintain the Market Street property. There hasn't been much luck yet, however, in having it torn down or turned over to the group, she said.
Green space improved by the group's garden club, however, would be the best, she said. The group will keep trying.
"There isn't enough of that on Market Street," she said.

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