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Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Published: Monday, 6/16/2014

COMMENTARY

Fight against blight needs fresh ideas

City's abandonment, ugliness must be reversed

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

My first reaction to The Blade’s powerful expose of blight in Toledo, by reporter Janet Romaker and The Blade’s photography team, is, I suspect, the reaction of most citizens: anger.

That’s a good place to start, and it might be good fuel for what we have to do as a community. That we have allowed so much of this city to become so ugly, a dumping ground, full of abandoned and uninhabitable homes is a disgrace.

We should be angry. And stay angry.

I hope Ms. Romaker’s documentary report, and the many stark and disturbing pictures that accompanied it, will fuel outrage — but also sustained community action.

Shaking our heads in resigned sorrow won’t cut it. We have to, as a community, rise up and say we won’t accept the desecration of the city.

Moreover, there is little hope of attracting new people or new business to the community unless we, literally, clean up our act. Think about, for example, the University of Toledo, in many ways the crown jewel of the city. The main entrance is off Bancroft Street, which is in deplorable shape, as a street, but also, driving from downtown, neglected as a neighborhood.

Similarly, the number of abandoned buildings downtown has to be a turnoff to any new business. And yet, demand for downtown lofts and apartments far outstrips supply.

That’s changing. But we need to step up our initiatives as a community, both in intensity and in number of initiatives. The sleepy, gradual approach doesn’t cut it.

We can and must do better.

Where to begin?

Enforcement.

Former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner says, with justifiable pride, that in his own time in office, the city had a policy that was much closer to zero tolerance on blight. He told me the city must teach pride of ownership and then not leave owners and landlords to their own devices. As mayor, he had his own anti-blight adviser, Bob Burger, who was a junkyard dog about blight and a creative thinker about redevelopment. The mayor himself was also intimately involved in policing and cleaning up blight, making weekly inspections and getting in the face of those who disrespected their own property and neighborhoods. “You can’t let landlords off the hook,” he said. This was leadership and it made a difference.

Old and dirty furniture litters an abandoned grassy area on Campbell Street between Sobieski and Pulaski streets in central Toledo. Old and dirty furniture litters an abandoned grassy area on Campbell Street between Sobieski and Pulaski streets in central Toledo.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Two people ran for local office in the last election with cleaning up blight as a major component of their platforms — Mayor Mike Collins and Councilman Jack Ford. Mr. Collins had his Tidy Towns idea, which combines neighborhood pride with revived and renewed attention to enforcement. Now that the city is past its budget convulsions, it is time for the mayor to get going on Tidy Towns, as I have every confidence he will.

Mr. Ford has many ideas on blight, but basically he wants to do two things: step up the city’s involvement in stemming the tide of abandonment and ugliness — for example taking responsibility for mowing the lawns of abandoned homes — and shifting the policy emphasis from tearing down homes to rehabilitating homes and housing the homeless. The second is easier said than done. But, Mr. Ford is right. Simply accepting abandonment and tearing down is not a plan. It’s what you do when there is no plan, or your plan fails.

If we have a basic equation of homeless people plus abandoned homes, we ought to be able to do better than demolition in most cases. There ought to be a way to make that equation work logically: Housing the homeless in abandoned homes. We know many abandoned homes have been stripped and cannot be saved. But, with better organization, some can be saved and inhabited.

Here I invoke my two personal Toledo gurus on urban redevelopment: Terry Glazer of United North and Don Monroe — Mr. East Toledo.

What Mr. Glazer always emphasizes to me is community. He reclaims one home at a time and one family at a time, but with two ancillary goals: strengthening neighborhoods by supporting solid businesses and targeting trouble spots and empowering neighborhood residents instead of treating them like clients. He is a big believer in Community Development Corporations because he thinks government is too cumbersome and geared toward clients. Not every CDC has as good a record as United North, but the fact is that United North has a consistently good record. And the city has not been consistently supportive of the one CDC that has delivered. We could change that.

And we could also learn from what works — think neighborhoods, empowerment, and rehabbing not bulldozing.

A few months ago, over coffee, Mr. Monroe, who has seen and done more in redevelopment and preservation than anyone, emphasized a very simple idea to me: We need to try some new approaches. We can’t keep doing the same old things and expect a different result. He said we need a better idea than managing decline.

I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

So, beyond getting back to better enforcement, which is a no-brainer, and the city stepping up to the plate on simple matters like lawn mowing, how do we deal with causes of blight — like poverty and abandonment?

And what is our remedy?

We need jobs and people. Those are the ultimate cures for blight.

Again, easier said than done.

But here are three ideas:

1) Immigration: Some local and county officials, past and present, have been quietly exploring the idea of making Toledo a haven for immigrants — as St. Paul and Columbus have done. It takes explicit courting and the whole idea is scary to some people, but, after all, immigration is what built this city and most of the rust belt.

2) Downtown living: City leaders need to take a more active role in residential development downtown. It’s happening, but we need to fast track it. Again, we have a basic equation that should work in our favor: More demand for downtown housing than is currently being met and many empty office buildings that could be turned residential. The idea is more bodies, leading to critical mass.

The national trend is away from suburbs toward living in central cities. Let’s get on the bus.

3) A CCUCC: We create a voluntary blight tax — a check-off. A citizen could donate $1, $10, $50, or $100 a year to a dedicated blight fund. It would be small at first. But I believe most Toledoans would give something.

Once the fund builds up a bit, we ask major corporations for matching grants.

This fund would be used to create the City Clean Up and Construction Corps, which would clean up blight, plant urban gardens and create playgrounds and parks on empty lots, and rehab homes that can be saved for homeless folks, who contribute their own sweat equity.

This could work: Attacking blight and creating jobs.

We all agree that the blight problem has reached crisis proportion and we need to tackle it. We must start with better enforcement. But then we must change the game. Losing people and tearing down homes is not a plan. As Mr. Monroe says, we need to try something new: Bring in new people. Build and restore instead of trashing and tearing down.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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