By ED RUNYAN
Rachel Dunn lived four years in the neighborhood just north of downtown Warren when she was a teenager in the early 1990s. She knew even then that prostitutes earned a living in her neighborhood.
But she was shocked as a 14-year-old to discover that one of them would care enough to guide her from trouble when she snuck out of her house late one night to visit a boyfriend. The woman told her to go back home and “walked me up on the porch” to make sure she did.
Twenty years later, some prostitutes still roam the neighborhood, but Dunn is no longer shocked when one of them displays an act of kindness.
Dunn has become better acquainted with the prostitutes in recent months while creating a garden on Mercer Street Northeast that she calls the “Peace of Hope.”
It’s one of dozens of gardens that have sprung up in an area named the Garden District by local volunteer Dennis Blank, founder of an organization called gregg’s gardens, which has focused the last two years on improving the 22-square-block area.
Dunn, who lives in another part of Warren, said she felt compelled to spend much of her time in recent months having fundraisers, planting flowers and securing artwork for her garden because of her sister.
Tracy Rupert was 41 in December 2009 when authorities found her body in the vacant house at 682 Mercer St. where Dunn’s garden sits now. Rupert died of a drug overdose, but it took three weeks before her body was discovered.
Dunn said her sister had been a substance abuser for many years but had gotten clean, raised a child and had a nice home in Champion until she relapsed. Dunn said the purpose of the Peace of Hope garden is to give people like her sister something positive to believe in.
“This is something for the people who live the kind of lifestyle she did and the people in the neighborhood in general. I wanted to give the ladies something good,” she said.
“If I was in the situation my sister was in five years ago — there wasn’t anything here. There was nothing but abandoned houses and grass lots,” she said.
Dunn thinks it’s possible the neighborhood — with the help of the dozens of new gardens nearby, the demolition of many of the vacant homes and the work of several organizations — has started to turn the corner.
Dunn said she believes prostitution has fallen in the past four months. “There used to be a 20-some-car parade of cars going by and girls. Now there’s maybe two guys and [two] girls.”
A neighbor on nearby Vine Street, Regis Guinaugh, said it has been rough over the years to live there because illegal activity — including drug dealing and violence — creates a state of “animosity.” Guinaugh said he attributes it to the untrusting attitude of people who are “doing wrong.”
Warren Councilman Al Novak, who represents part of the Garden District, said the neighborhood’s problems have worsened in the 22 years he’s been a councilman.
He thinks it’s because the Westlawn neighborhood near the former Western Reserve High School on the west side was demolished in the late 1990s, removing 42 apartment buildings containing 128 low-income apartments.
Many of the people forced out of Westlawn relocated to the area north of downtown, which contained many large but older homes, Novak said.
The philanthropic organization Trumbull 100 carried out the Westlawn demolition at the urging of Warren school officials, said John Taylor, one of the people who worked extensively on the Westlawn project. Westlawn had to come down because parents feared sending their kids to the school, which was a middle school at the time, Taylor said.
Novak said he thinks the Garden District work, aided by the nonprofit Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership and Trumbull County Land Bank, is making a difference.
For example, about a half dozen homes in the Garden District are being returned to single-family homes from apartments, Novak said. He thinks the reason is that the owners see more value in the neighborhood as a result of demolitions and gardening.
He also thinks lawlessness is being curtailed through the efforts of the Warren Police Department and its Street Crimes Unit.
Warren police Capt. Robert Massucci acknowledged that prostitution is a problem in that area, but said the department has “made a push” to work on it since Eric Merkel became police chief.
Much of the success in the Garden District in 2014, gregg’s gardens’ Blank said, is attributable to the energy of such people as Dunn; Mikenna McClurg, who created a children’s vegetable garden at the corner of Scott Street and Vine Avenue; and Warren businessman Bill Casey, who became the first person to “adopt” a home for renovation purposes.
But Blank said many other people are contributing in large and small ways — including those providing artwork and stone planters in the gardens, and neighbors who have watered and watched over the gardens without even being asked.
On Mercer Street, even the prostitutes are helping — one bringing Dunn water on a hot day, another helping her prevent vandalism by keeping an eye on the garden.
Blank said the recent Garden District Crawl to highlight Garden District progress attracted 100 people and generated excitement.
People “are used to talk and no action,” but “we got a lot of stuff done, and the gardens are starting to look pretty good,” Blank said.