Citizens urged to take charge of neighborhoods

The notion that people in low-income areas don't care is a myth, a panelist said.
YOUNGSTOWN -- There is a new sense of hope in Youngstown that residents can take back their neighborhoods from crime and blight, said Margaret Murphy, Wick Neighbors Inc. executive director.
Wick Neighbors and Youngstown 2010 sponsored the last in a series of five neighborhood reinvestment workshops Wednesday at the Butler Institute of American Art. The topic was, "Who Speaks for the Neighborhoods?"
Panelists and guests determined that citizens can speak for their neighborhoods and by their experience are the most qualified to do so. Trouble arises, however, when government and other entities set the neighborhood agenda with no input from the people who live there, participants said.
"There are people willing to work hard to improve their neighborhoods," said panelist Philip Star, director of the Center for Neighborhood Development, Cleveland State University. "People are able to fight against tremendous odds to bring change."
In many communities, "citizen participation" means only voting, and "civic duty" means jury duty, he said.
"When people expect 'somebody else' to fix problems, the 'somebody else' is usually the government," Star said. Real change, however, can occur when citizens act together -- and the notion that people in low-income neighborhoods don't care is a myth. "People in urban America are not giving in nor giving up," he said.
Neighbors took charge
When an arsonist touched off a series of structure fires on the city's North Side this year, the Northside Citizens' Coalition had to speak for the neighborhood in ways members never imagined, said panelist Mark Peyko, coalition president. He said neighbors had to take action and work with the police and the press because arsonist defined what the neighborhood was and what would be its future.
"We had to take a leadership role, and not allow what was said and written [about the arsons] to define the neighborhood," he said.
There is no one strategy to energize communities, said Kirk Noden, lead organizer for ACTION, Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods. Each strategy is a different piece of the community reinvestment puzzle, he said.
"There is a tremendous amount of creativity and passion in neighborhoods that just needs to be organized," Noden said.
Noden said his job is community organizing, to train and develop community leaders and build connections.
Fighting crime
A key way that neighborhoods can build connections is in fighting crime, Murphy said. Neighborhoods must organize to fight crime; they must speak for themselves and one another, she said.
Residents who are engaged, informed and enthusiastic can work with police and in a block-by-block or parcel-by-parcel examination of their neighborhoods, identify and weed out crime, Murphy said. Such neighborhoods can be an asset to police, and bring about real change, she said.
"Planners, builders and remodelers build houses, but people make the neighborhood," said Jackie Austin of Youngstown, a member of ACTION and Union Baptist Church.
She said her church organized to fight neighborhood crime when there was a drug house around the corner from the church. The people going there would park in the church parking lot.
"Our pastor said, 'We can't let this happen, because this is holy ground -- sacred ground,'" Austin said. "We organized a prayer march and walked around the block praying and singing for three Sundays. The police heard about it and did a drug raid, and now that drug house is gone."

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