Tuesday, May 17, 2011

WOW Community Meeting

I've been busy lately, so I'm a little behind in posting this. Apologies for the delay!

A while back, Pat Sockwell, Vice-President of the Scovill Homes Association, took it on herself to organize a community meeting at the WOW/NRZ Community Learning Center. The board members of the Scovill Homes Association helped distribute flyers to the neighborhood, and Ms. Sockwell personally invited numerous city officials, community leaders and campaigning politicians while they were all at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new school being constructed just north of our neighborhood.

The meeting was held on May 4 and was attended by many neighbors who are fed up and frustrated. Also in attendance were Mayor Jarjura (whose presence was met with amazement--nobody can remember seeing him in our neighborhood ever before), Aldermen Pernerewski, Mulcahy and Petteway, Commissioners Harvey and O'Leary, State Representative Butler, State Senator Hartley, Michael Gilmore, Lt. Scott Stevenson, Community Police Officer Andrew Abney, Police Chief Michael Gugliotti, Jimmie Griffin, Bryan Baker, Paul Vance, Joshua Angelus, Belinda Weaver, Greg Hadley, Scovill Homes Association board members, and probably a few others I'm forgetting at the moment.

Belinda Weaver started the meeting with a question about the elimination of the community police officers. Mayor Jarjura responded with a long and confusing monologue about the city's budget, said something about community officers not being cut, and then tossed in a reference to switching over to "teams of 20" officers without explaining what that meant. It was a disheartening start to the meeting. Instead of a straight answer, we got what sounded like a canned speech with lots of complex phrases and very little substance.

I had come to the meeting with a long list of topics to raise. I didn't want to hog the stage, especially since there were so many neighbors present who don't get many opportunities to be heard, so I decided I would let everyone else go first. As it turned out, my neighbors had all the same complaints as I did. I chimed in a few times, but I didn't have to talk as much as I thought I would.

The basic list of complaints is as follows (in no particular order, just as I remember them; I was too busy participating to take notes, so I'm sure I've overlooked something):

  • Politicians have been making promises to invest in our neighborhood for decades, but as soon as the election is over, they disappear and the promises evaporate.
  • The sidewalks are more dangerous than walking in the street, but despite years of being promised new sidewalks, all we've been given is a few sections of blacktop layered on top of the crumbled sidewalk. That blacktop will last three or five years at best before the sidewalk is just as bad as ever. (If you don't believe me, go look at Long Hill; the blacktop put down for sidewalk there two years ago is already an unusable disaster.)
  • We need more community policing, not less. Taking away our Community Officer is going to cause harm to our neighborhood.
  • The current blight/litter enforcement is an endless cycle of frustration. We need to come together as a community and find new ways to keep our neighborhood clean. We need the city to continue to provide us with the necessary support as we do this.
  • The city trash pickup is haphazard and messy. They leave garbage behind as litter. It is impossible to get them to pick up the paper bags of leaves and similar yard waste.

I'm writing this in a pretty detached tone. If you weren't there, take a moment to imagine a room full of angry, frustrated people venting their frustrations. There were a few times when the frustrations and outrage started to get a little out of control. It's hard not to get emotional in a situation like this.

A major topic of contention was the condition of the two abandoned buildings at the corner of Walnut and Wood Streets (and another on East Farms). The coverage of this in the Rep-Am didn't even begin to convey any sense of what really happened at the meeting. The short article says "The city plans to demolish two dilapidated buildings and has committed to fight further blight in the troubled WOW neighborhood. The plans were announced Wednesday by Mayor Michael J. Jarjura at a forum at the WOW/NRZ Community Learning Center...."

The real story of how the "plans" came about is much more colorful.

First the back story:  Read my post from February 22, 2009. That's the back story. Add to that a burned out building on East Farms Street. Three abandoned buildings, at least one of which is about to collapse on its own, two of which are likely to injure or kill someone.

When the buildings on Walnut Street were first brought up at the meeting, with a request that they be torn down before they fall on someone, Mayor Jarjura responded by telling us it costs $50,000 to tear down a building, making it very economically difficult to tear down all the buildings that need to be torn down. That caused everyone to pause while we tried to figure out how it could possibly cost $50,000 to tear down a building that doesn't have a roof or floors. A few people offered to do the job for less.

The desire to tear down the buildings was brought up again and again. Each time, Mayor Jarjura came up with a reason why it can't be done: the Mayor doesn't make the decision, only the Building Inspector can make it happen; the city couldn't do anything about it before now, because the buildings were caught up in the TaxServ debacle until recently; we should wait to see if the building sells at tax auction to someone who will fix it up (even though it's been sold and resold many times in recent years).

The neighborhood kept hammering home the immediate danger posed by the buildings, especially by the brick building on Walnut Street. The owner of the well-maintained property to the north of the building said he has heard the walls groaning, that bricks sometimes fall off, that he had to install a protective fence to minimize the damage from the building to his property. Others repeatedly stated that this is a school bus stop. Someone pointed out that the city will lose far more than $50,000 if the building falls and kills someone.

At one point the discussion was leaning towards accepting the Mayor's statement that it will be many months before the city can get around to demolishing the buildings. This led to a discussion about relocating the school bus stop to get the kids away from the Walnut Street buildings, but that is apparently a remarkably difficult thing to do, involving complex analysis and researching of which schools use that stop and which students use that stop. The process of relocating a school bus stop seems to take months.

The neighborhood was getting angrier and more frustrated. When Mayor Jarjura told us it takes months to get a building demolished, several of us, myself included, reminded him loudly that Sena's Bowling Alley was torn down and cleared out in a matter of days. At which point he said that was the Building Inspector's decision, not in his control.

Finally, after maybe twenty minutes and a tremendous amount of pressure, Mayor Jarjura declared "that building could be torn down like this!" with a snap of his fingers. To which we all replied, "Okay! Do it!"  After a minute or so of more pressure, the Mayor declared that the two buildings on Walnut Street and the building on East Farms would be torn down in 30 days or less. There were some negotiations with the owner of the well-maintained property on Walnut Street to see if he would purchase the lot after it's demolished.

That was 13 days ago. Today, on my way home from work, I saw that the East Farms building has been torn down.

There's another backhoe parked in an abandoned lot across from the Walnut Street buildings, waiting to be put to use.

Now we know what it takes to get adequate city services in our neighborhood. We have to corner the Mayor and harangue him for hours until he finally agrees to do one thing for us. There has to be a better way.

The article in the newspaper said only the brick building on Walnut Street is scheduled for demolition. I hope that's not true. Both of them need to come down, and we left the meeting with the understanding that both would be torn down. We'll see what happens.

The Walnut Street buildings and school bus stop a little over two years ago.

UPDATE 5/18/2011: The brick building with no roof or floors finally came down today. Saw a lot of people standing around staring and talking about it after the work crew left for the day. Now if only we could get the one next to it to come down, then replace it with off-street parking for the neighborhood. And while I'm dreaming, I'd still like to see the empty lots across the street turned into a small park with a basketball court and maybe some garden space.

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