By Sean Barron
Sue Jones clearly recalls having moved to her Volney Road home, where she was surrounded by neighborhoods in which drug deals, gang activity, illicit gun sales, fear, apathy and blight were a way of life.
Constant fear kept many residents indoors. Vacant houses served as havens for drug dealers, many of whom knew that their threats of retaliation, along with many neighbors’ apathy, would allow them to continue their criminal activity unabated.
Fast forward seven years, however.
The same neighborhoods near the former Idora Park site have seen dozens of eyesores removed, the first full-service grocery store in many years, several community gardens where abandoned homes once stood and green space instead of blight.
But if you ask Jones to name the most-significant transformations of this once-troubled slice of the South Side, she might tick off two intangible changes: a greater number of neighbors connecting with one another and the sense that more residents feel empowered.
“Between 25 and 30 abandoned homes were razed in the last three years,” Jones said during Saturday’s third annual Idorafest gathering.
The four-hour event, in the 2600 block of McFarland Avenue, was to showcase continued revitalization efforts and other community accomplishments while providing an opportunity to bring neighbors and guests together.
Hosting the festivities were the Idora Neighborhood Association and the Idora Neighborhood Block Watch.
Main sponsors were the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., Home Depot, the city, Councilman Paul Drennen, D-5th, Big A’s Market, the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley and Austintown-based Tabernacle Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Jones, an assistant manager with Home Depot in Niles, noted that other vacant homes in the vicinity have been painted and boarded, both of which deter criminal activity.
In addition, many neighborhood youngsters cut grass and perform other services for older neighbors, which also engenders trust.
“The kids are now friends with the elderly in the neighborhoods, so they’re more likely to help them rather than hurt them when they become teenagers,” she said.
Several children and teens also enjoyed the fest’s activities, such as face-painting as well as assembling pencil boxes, napkin holders and castles from small building kits, courtesy of Home Depot.
A few youngsters, including 8-year-old Alesha Tomlin and her siblings, Kevin Tomlin, 6, and Marcell Tomlin, 10, all of Youngs-town, preferred the sweeter side of things. They busily used frosting, candy corn and chewy candy to decorate cookies as their proud father, Keith Page, looked on.
Despite the rainy, cool weather, several vendors, including Stacey Grapes of Amherst, Ohio, took part in the gathering.
Grapes, an independent designer who works for a Phoenix home-based business called Origami Owl, sold a variety of small lockets, chains, charms and tags for people of all ages. Such keepsakes can easily be personalized and make memorable gifts, she explained.
Grapes said a local vendor sent her an email about the fest, and that meeting and reaching out to attendees was another reward.
“I said, ‘Sure, sign me up. I’ll be there,’” Grapes added.
Also happy to have participated was the Rev. Gary Koerth, Tabernacle Evangelical Presbyterian’s pastor.
The Rev. Mr. Koerth, who also works closely with YNDC, said he’s thrilled to see the positive changes in the area and that he was on hand to support the efforts.
“We just feel blessed to be part of it,” Mr. Koerth said, adding that his church also takes part in monthly neighborhood work projects.
Another key change in the neighborhoods is a greater emphasis on promoting responsible homeownership and encouraging people to buy vacant lots via the Mahoning County Land Bank or YNDC, noted Jim London, president of the neighborhood association and block watch.
Those interested can call the land bank at 330-259-1040 or the YNDC at 330-480-0423, he noted.
London said he’s pleased with neighborhood progress over the last several years, but called for continued vigilance and warned drug dealers, irresponsible landlords and gang members to stay out of the area.
“We’re not putting up with gang activity and drug activity,” he stressed.
Also, Youngstown State University students, neighborhood volunteers and others will continue building a playground near Glenwood and Parkview avenues from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday, Jones said.