By Sean Barron
Janice Rovnak was discouraged to see old garbage in a side yard of a vacant residence in the 800 block of East Avondale Avenue on the city’s South Side.
“When people don’t put their garbage cans away, that starts blight,” said Rovnak, of Youngstown, a member of the 7th Ward Citizens Coalition. “It’s a shame that people who own properties aren’t held accountable.”
The garbage was picked up, but the empty two-story, white frame house showed many other signs of neglect, including a broken second-floor window, weeds intertwined with overgrown shrubs and trees that obscured much of its front and back entrance, and a garage filled with old tires and trash.
Rather than lamenting the appearance of many such homes, however, Rovnak, who’s also president of the South Side-based Cambridge Palmer Roxbury Block Watch group, tried to make a difference. To that end, she was among those who took part in Saturday’s Taft/Wilson Clean-up project, intended to beautify the neighborhoods surrounding Taft Elementary and Wilson Middle schools before students return to the classroom Aug. 29.
Volunteers met at Taft Park, adjacent to the elementary school, then used weed trimmers, garden and lawn rakes, push brooms, hack saws, lawn mowers, leaf blowers and shovels to remove litter, weeds and overgrowth during the 3 Ω-hour project. About 35 volunteers took part throughout the project. The cleanup was to target vacant homes and properties between East Indianola and East Avondale avenues to the north and south as well as Homestead Avenue and Gibson Street to the east and west, organizers said.
Heading the effort was the 7th Ward Citizens Coalition.
Rovnak, who spent part of Saturday morning arduously pulling weeds and removing vines that wrapped themselves around a fence surrounding Taft, said she’s participated in numerous such efforts in her neighborhood.
Many homes in the area are rented by tenants who don’t care about the structures and property, so the city must be more stringent with code enforcement, she said.
Students who walk to school shouldn’t have to pass vacant, unsafe and neglected properties, said Cheryl Thompson, a special-education teacher at Taft.
“My heart is in Youngstown and I want it to come back and people to have more pride in how it looks,” said Thompson, who is from northern Trumbull County.
The 30-year teacher said she and fellow educators often walk the school’s perimeter during their lunch breaks. One major way to beautify the area is to convert abandoned properties to green space and community gardens, added Thompson, who busily raked the remains of weeds on and near school property.
Also pitching in were two Taft students, one each in second and third grades.
Several participants went to work on a vacant two-story brick home in the 700 block of East Avondale, adjacent to Taft, by mowing the front lawn and getting rid of weeds and litter. Water was leaking into the basement after someone had stolen much of the copper piping.
A few houses away, others were performing the same tasks on an empty two-floor corner residence with a broken roof antenna and a trash-strewn garage that was caving in.
The event’s primary focus was to beautify the neighborhoods for students before they return to school, noted Chris Travers, president of the 7th Ward Citizens Coalition.
In addition, about 10 vacant structures on East Avondale and East Boston avenues were slated for window-frame measurements, in preparation for boarding the windows, Travers noted. It is hoped that next month volunteers will install the boards and treat the window areas to make the empty homes look better, he explained.
Even when it turns cold, group members plan to continue a long-term partnership with the schools and students, noted Patti Dougan, the coalition’s project director.
“We’ll get involved in whatever the schools need,” Dougan said.
During the winter, the group plans to work with youngsters via tutoring, starting book clubs and having after-school and weekend activities, she continued.
Partnering with the coalition for Saturday’s cleanup were several block-watch and neighborhood groups, Councilman John R. Swierz, D-7th, the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, Youngstown Contracting and DeMar Realty Inc.
The next cleanup is set for 9:30 a.m. Saturday. and volunteers are asked to meet at Taft Elementary, 730 E. Avondale Ave. Work will include painting boards to be used next month on vacant homes.