Neighborhood leader grows successful block watch in face of violence, crime
By Graig Graziosi
Victoria Allen was multitasking.
Allen, founder and president of the ICU Block Watch on the city’s South Side, was helping a pair of volunteers lay out taco toppings on a plastic table while simultaneously signing delivery invoices and directing a large truck hauling a room filled with video games to a nearby parking space.
Rain clouds had opened up above the parking lot of Pleasant Grove Presbyterian Church on Southern Boulevard, forcing Allen to huddle under a canopy with a pair of volunteers from the block watch. Despite the weather, they were determined to ensure the 10th “Southside Summer Experience” of the season — featuring free food, music and games for neighborhood children — would be ready to go for any families willing to brave the rain.
This wasn’t Allen’s first or fifth or 10th community organizing event; she founded the ICU Block Watch in 2010, hoping that open communication and monthly meetings might be a catalyst for an improvement in her neighborhood.
The block watch – which at that time encompassed everything between Florida Avenue and Midlothian Boulevard and Market Street and South Avenue – grew out of the realization among the neighbors that local crime and violence was increasing. Shortly after it formed, the block watch partnered with nearby St. Dominic Church.
When a pair of shootings outside the Catholic church rocked the neighborhood, Allen knew the block watch would need to become proactive in the community.
“It was after the shootings that I went to Father [Gregory] Maturi and told him we wanted to start holding positive events to help bring up the spirit of the neighborhood,” Allen said.
Since then, Allen has had – and personally found financing for – many events, including an annual car show and her “Neighborhood Harvest” festival, during which Allen invites federal, state and local officials to the neighborhood to meet and mingle with neighbors.
Today, the block watch encompasses everything between Rush Boulevard and South Avenue as well as the 300 blocks of Lucius, Avondale, Boston and Philadelphia avenues.
When the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. received an $850,000 grant to implement a crime reduction program on the South Side, the organization partnered with the ICU Block Watch to help execute the plan through community events.
“It’s important to engage people like Victoria because they live in the neighborhoods we’re working in,” said Ian Beniston, YNDC executive director. “Victoria was a clear champion for her neighborhood, and not just in the ICU Block Watch but through St. Dominic’s as well. Much of the work she’s done has been on her own for the kids in the neighborhood.”
Anika Jacobs-Green, a neighborhood organizer at YNDC who lives within the ICU Block Watch, said Allen has always been a force in the community.
“She’s always had a great rapport with the kids, especially for the ones who don’t really get that kind of attention at home,” she said. “Those kids became her own, even before she had the funding to do the work. She definitely does it from the heart.”
Back in the lot, Allen saw a group of children running from a nearby house to participate in the summer event. She waved them over and pointed to the sky. The dark clouds were breaking up. Their night might be dry after all.
Allen said she will continue her work, watching over the neighborhood and hosting events for children and families. She hopes to grow the group, and if she ever has the funding, build a community center.
“If I win the Mega Millions, first thing I’m doing is putting a community center smack-dab in the middle of this neighborhood,” Allen said. “Right now that’s not really in the cards. But if you’re going to dream, you better go big or stay home.”