By CHRISTOPHER KOCHERA
In one of the older neighborhoods on the lower West Side, the signs of blight are wilting.
This blooming resurgence is being cultivated by the Garden District Neighborhood Association, formed in 2011.
The 80 association members tend to the area, which is surrounded by the serenity of Mill Creek Park and the bustle of Mahoning Avenue.
“Our biggest concern down here was the blight, the abandoned houses and the absentee landlords,” said Jerry O’Hara, group president.
Constructed in the 1930s, the neighborhood stretches from Fellows Riverside Gardens to Belle Vista Avenue. From there, it extends south to McCollum Road.
The Garden District is filled with a mixture of American Foursquare, Victorian, Cape Cod and ranch-style houses. Many of these homes are abandoned, foreclosed on or pose a safety hazard to residents.
The neighborhood group works with the city to report and demolish the buildings. O’Hara said members also work with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative to hold banks accountable for empty homes.
Keeping up with the abandoned homes is “an everyday chore,” said O’Hara.
“If it needs boarded up, we board it up. If the grass gets so high, and the city can’t cut it, we can have a volunteer cut the grass. We do what we can to try to keep that structure safe,” he said.
The group’s ultimate goal is to create a vibrant arts community in the area. “We already have different artists that have moved into the area, and that’s what we’d like to see it advertised as,” O’Hara said.
Although the area is in transition, he said it’s a great place for families to call home.
“It’s one of the safer areas in the city,” he said. “It’s close to public transportation, within walking distance of Mill Creek Park, has nice housing stock and good neighbors that are concerned about one another.”
Community involvement and the closeness of Mill Creek Park attracted Tammy Adams to the Garden District. A former Idora neighborhood resident, she moved into her Milton Avenue home in June 2012.
“I love it down here; it’s really quiet. There’s low crime, and everyone’s really nice.”
The park makes for beautiful scenery, especially during the summer months, she added.
O’Hara said several organizations, including the MVOC and the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Coalition, have helped with improvements.
Mill Creek MetroParks and the Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens have taken a special interest in the Garden District neighborhood.
“The MetroParks’ role with the Garden District is to be a good neighbor. It’s important what the neighborhood looks like to us,” said Keith Kaiser, MetroParks director of horticulture. “It’s our neighborhood, it’s our front door. We want to help them.”
“The park’s done some great things,” said Councilman Mike Ray, D-4th. “One thing the [neighborhood] doesn’t have is a community center. The MetroParks has opened its doors for them to have meetings, and supports the neighborhood block-watch groups.”
“They just do things for the neighborhood. They’re more or less working hand in hand with us trying to keep this area down here nice,” said O’Hara. “They help us whenever they can.”
Ray said that although the neighborhood has made improvements, a fair amount of work remains.
“Code-enforcement and demolitions, these things would stabilize the neighborhood,” he said. “Some of this stuff takes years to achieve. The neighborhood didn’t get in the state it’s in overnight, so it’s kind of like baby steps. Slowly we chip away at it and build capacity and build momentum.”
O’Hara encouraged the involvement of Garden District residents to maintain a good quality of life. The group meets monthly from March to December at the Davis Education and Visitor Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens.
“Community involvement is a big part of it. There are so many eyes and ears down here ... If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to get stung.”
Those interested in the effort can visit gardendistrictcw.tripod.com and or the group’s Facebook page.
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