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Thursday, December 25, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

COMMENTARY

A Toledo neighborhood fights for its life

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

At about this time a year ago I wrote a column that seemed to result in a happy ending. It was about the citizens of Collins Park Avenue in East Toledo. It was about how they were trying to save their neighborhood from the wrecking ball — wielded by the city of Toledo.

The Birmingham neighborhood won and then, as lifelong East Toledo resident and Hungarian-American eminence Peter Ujvagi told me, “It fell asleep.”

Now that same street is again in peril and teetering on the brink of obliteration. Six homes on the street have just been torn town by the city.

The great and cruel irony is that these homes were well cared for before the city bought them and most were still salvageable. Collins Park Avenue is a street of small but well-kept homes, owned by people of pride, most of whom have lived there for two or three generations — some for four.

The threat of one year ago remains today. The thing that has changed is that residents have learned the hard way not to trust city government.

The situation is this: The city needs to upgrade its water plant. There is no debate about that. This work is long overdue and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is running out of patience. The water plant sits right behind the homes on Collins Park.

Over a year ago, the city started buying up houses on the street, at less than highly generous prices. No one knew what the plan was for the expanded water plant, but what was clear was that the city wanted as many Collins Park houses as possible to make way for the project — at least for staging areas, and possibly for part of the expansion itself. No one knew for sure which houses or parts of the street were prime targets because the public had seen no plans.

What the people of the neighborhood, via the Birmingham Development Corp., said then is what they say now: Work with us and help us preserve the neighborhood.

That is, they understand that the water plant must be expanded. But, if they are made a part of the planning process, which to me is their right, they can help preserve the street. If some staging areas must be where houses were, how can they be made minimally ugly and disruptive? (“Not like POW camps,” said one resident.) And can new houses be built there later? If not houses, what can be built? We cannot turn half the city into vacant lots. Or community gardens, great as those are. We need viable streets and neighborhoods. One former resident told me: “Collins Park was the best street in Birmingham.”

Was.

Can’t the work on the plant be done in a way that doesn’t rip so many holes in a solid neighborhood that it is left with mostly holes?

Of course it can.

What happened one year ago is that the neighborhood woke up and so did City Council. Then Councilman Mike Collins helped write and pass an ordinance placing a moratorium on city purchases of Collins Park homes. The understanding of Collins Park residents, on a joint task force formed with city officials, was that this would be until the city formed a plan and sought neighborhood buy-in. The agreement was that the plan would be shared so there could be buy-in.

Since this was Mike Collins’ baby and since he ran for mayor on a platform of power-to-the-neighborhoods, especially those in East Toledo, it seemed this neighborhood was safe from a city administration on auto-arrogance pilot.

Not so.

On July 14, the city tore down five homes. It did so between breakfast and lunch — record time, surely. And with two-days notice to former property owners, but no notice to members of the task force. The sixth house came down later. The excuse for tearing them down was that they had not been cared for — by the same city that owned them

This, let us note again, at a time when blight and abandonment is a major problem for the city. Here the city administration itself created blight and gaping craters in a heretofore stable and tidy street.

What do the people there want now? The same as before: To be told what the plan is and how their homes might fit into that plan, but survive.

Communication. And respect.

Can’t this be done? And in a way that honors these people, their homes, and the ancestors who lived in them in ages past?

Of course it can.

But city administrations are like corporations. They don’t come with consciences. Just like the Tin Man, someone has to put a heart in.

That someone would be our mayor.

He has to force the city administration to be accountable and to work with the residents. He must impose his values and put a heart in the machine.

I talked to the Cerveny family, who went to the site of one torn-down home to grieve the loss of what they called “the family homestead.” They sold it when it got too big for old age. The man they sold it to sold it to the city. The interesting thing is that neither they, nor anyone else, are saying it never should have come down. Only: Tell us why it had to.

Everyone on this street understands the need for a new water plant. They are only asking that they be part of the process so that the street still exists as an urban and human entity after the construction.

The fear, on Collins Park Avenue, is that the city wants the whole street, or so much of it that the end result would be the destruction of the street as a neighborhood.

The city has run roughshod here — over people who have been good citizens and preserved their neighborhood through thick and thin. I have driven and walked the perimeters of the water plant and Collins Park, and last Thursday night I sat with three of the victims of the city’s arrogance in an East Toledo VFW, as they grieved, that is the only word, the loss of six homes that all had stories of birth, death, courtship, marriage, good luck and bad within. Steve, Skip, and Father Frank were also on the task force with whom the city ceased communicating. They want to believe this happened for some reason other than the city administration’s convenience.

Mike Collins ran for mayor, in part, to reverse administrative arrogance and to put people and neighborhoods first. If this is not possible, there was no point to the election. If it is possible, and Mr. Collins, now that he is mayor, no longer feels the pain of the people on Collins Park Avenue, there was no point to his election.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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



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