Trash to treasure: an East Side story

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Mike Hornyak taught many lessons during his teaching career.

Now 16 years into retirement, he may be learning a big lesson himself at ESA Park Apartments on Youngstown’s East Side.

The 176-unit apartment complex, built in the 1960s, was about at its worst a few years ago.

About a third of the facility was vacant; overgrowth was all over the place; crime was prevalent; so was apathy.

“I remember working there years back,” said Lt. Brian Butler of the Youngstown Police Department. “People would just throw trash on the ground; even the kids. I stopped a kid one time who had dumped trash there, and made him pick up the whole area around him.”

There was a cloud over the whole place.

The cloud extended right to the owner’s desk — Hornyak.

He’s a Kent resident who first got into college housing decades ago. That grew into other real-estate ventures, and in the late 1990s, his company bought ESA.

“I was the dumbest guy going,” he somewhat laughs about that purchase decision.

A decade of struggle ensued.

“It was just lose, lose, lose every way we looked at it,” said Mike as he and his co-owner tried to figure out a fix. Selling was easy, except it would have been too much of a loss.

In 2011, Hornyak embraced what he had been disdaining.

And he learned — if he cared more, others would, too.

“We’re on a mission to make some unwanted place wanted, and we’re doing it,” Mike said.

The company soon will be rewarded with something previously unrealistic two years ago: 100 percent occupancy.

Hornyak is not alone. He’s joined by two staffers — Mary Templeton and June Lewis. The three together look ready for a book fair and not a rough, inner-city housing complex with mostly government-funded tenants. The place has seen shootings, drugs and other problems.

“Two years ago, we met with several agencies, and they have responded,” said Mary, the “bad cop” to June’s “good cop.”

“Mary is good at spotting the bad folks,” said nine-year resident Autumn Blackmon. “She gives folks chances. But if she has a bad gut feeling about someone or something, she is right on it. You can’t let people run over you. They can’t talk to you just any way. That’s how Mary works.”

If Mary draws the hard lines, June is the color within.

June wondered last year about an Easter-egg hunt for the community.

“Most of the parents here take public transportation and won’t pay to go to the hunt in Campbell,” said June. “Things just came together for us. The residents were like little children themselves — as if nothing like this had ever happened in their lives before.”

It also brought energy. With that one event, a community started to grow. An August barbecue led to an October Halloween party for ESA’s 150 or so children.

“These kids never had a Halloween here,” said Mary.

And it was a cold Halloween night, which alerted Mary and June to another problem: The kids had minimal coats and mostly no gloves.

Word got out, and care came from nearby Victory Christian Center.

“The next thing we knew,” said June, “we had 150 Christmas gifts of hats, gloves and a surprise for all of the children newborn to 18 years old.”

Victory joined in with ESA this spring to help with the second Easter egg hunt.

Lt. Butler has seen a lot in his 14 years on YPD. And what he sees happening at ESA makes him proud.

“You would not believe the positive things they do up there,” said Butler. “Some business owners talk the talk. Those guys walk it.”

And city police and fire staff have responded in kind, attending the new events for community mixing and for added safety. YPD has directed certain patrols in that direction to sustain what Mike, Mary and June are accomplishing.

“I truly see these guys care. I’ll do anything for them,” Butler said.

It’s a tough crowd, to be sure. There was a shooting just last summer.

Of the 176 units, 74 are Section 8 subsidized and 37 are funded by Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority. The rest are self-paid.

Always ready for a spar, Mary speaks forcefully:

“We are not a ‘projects.’ That’s the ‘F-word’ around here.”

They’re a community of people, and as they’ve all rolled up their sleeves, they’ve seen more of themselves — people such as Autumn Blackmon.

She spent a few childhood years at ESA, then moved to her grandmother’s home. When Autumn was ready to get a place of her own nine years ago, she knew where she wanted to be.

“My plan was to get out on my own. I like familiar places, places I know. So I came back to my comfort zone where I had so many great memories.”

Autumn’s rebuild is like ESA’s — step by step: Her rent was government-funded while she worked part time driving a school bus. It was part of her plan.

“The aid was important to me. It gave me my independence. I knew I did not want to stay on it forever. It helped me stabilize myself. I had to start somewhere. And I moved up and up and up ...”

She now drives a bus full time for Western Reserve Transit Authority, is married to Demond and is a self-pay ESA tenant. She says in a sassy tone: “wearing big-girl pants now.”

“If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to be a homeowner, I would stay here forever. I think Mary and the owners are doing a great job to get bad people out of the complex. It’s turned into a fantastic place, and I love it.”

And for every success like Autumn’s, there are new lives waiting to be turned.

“I was there last week,” said Butler, “and three kids came up to me and asked normal police-officer questions. One kid looked at me and said, ‘You guys took my dad to jail.’”

The sting is apparent as Butler tells the story.

“His first instinct was I was bad. It makes you feel bad because he has that outlook at a young age. So I try to talk to them. I told the kid, ‘I’m sorry.’ I couldn’t tell him his dad did something wrong.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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