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Published: 7/31/2009

Neighbors fear closing to spur decline; area association battling blight

BY FLORENCE DETHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The closing of the South Toledo YMCA is another blow to a neighborhood hit hard by the rise of suburban sprawl, the decline of urban manufacturing, and, most recently, the subprime mortgage debacle.

In the Arlington-area neighborhood, within biking distance of the South Toledo Y, residents say they feel blindsided by the decision of the YMCA and Jewish Community Center of Greater Toledo to close the south branch, and they are crying foul.

"Where was the conversation, where was the communication, where was the outreach?" said neighborhood advocate Cooper Suter of Ogden Avenue. "It seemed like there was a plan waiting for an excuse to implement."

He said the Y's loss will give prospective residents another reason to choose the suburbs over urban living and will further destabilize the neighborhood.

Now residents say they are no longer sitting idly by and letting decay seep into their neighborhood.

On Tuesday, Mr. Suter sent an e-mail on behalf of south-end residents and YMCA members to Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and Councilman D. Michael Collins expressing dismay at the Y's closure and calling for clarification of the facts of the situation, stating that they do not mesh - not financially, chronologically, or ethically.

"The Y that exists now is a family Y. You can walk in there on a Saturday afternoon for open swim and it's chaos, but it's good chaos," Mr. Suter told The Blade. "You can drop the kids off at the pool and head to the exercise room. Kids are there to swim. For gymnastics, it's packed. It's a neighborhood hub."

YMCA officials announced Sunday that they intend to close the South Toledo Y, at 1226 Woodsdale Park, effective Aug. 29, and give the facility to CedarCreek Church. The officials cited an annual $300,000 deficit at the branch.

YMCA officials have said that South Toledo Y users will be able to use the new Morse Center YMCA on the Health Science Campus of the University of Toledo, the former Medical College of Ohio. It is about a mile and a half away from the South Toledo branch.

"To us, the Y is not a place you drive to. It's a place we walk to or bike to," Mr. Suter said. "Whatever they do at the Morse Center, it won't be a family Y. It won't be a neighborhood hub."

Just over four months ago, the first meeting of the Arlington Area Neighborhood Association was held - outdoors, despite a hard rain. Seventy-eight people attended, said organizer Jimmy Lewis, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1994.

"At the time, we were seeing tons of crime in the neighborhood - spray paint, graffiti, break-ins," he said. "You name it, it was happening, just shy of gunshots."

He explained that the association was formed as a way for long-time residents to preserve their neighborhood.

The group meets on the second Tuesday of each month in a local church and typically draws a crowd of between 100 and 150 residents. The association has organized nightly neighborhood patrols and a graffiti-removal operation and has identified the area's most dilapidated properties.

"When we first started in the end of April, beginning of May, we would get double digits of [youths] a night, out past curfew, break-ins. Even if they weren't up to anything, we would escort them home," Mr. Lewis said. On any given night, between six and 20 residents, armed with flashlights and cell phones to notify the police of trouble, walk or bike the streets of the neighborhood where many have resided over a decade.

Members of the Arlington Area Neighborhood Association say they opted against forming a Block Watch group because, for the time being, they do not want to be subject to rules that would keep members from patrolling the neighborhood and meeting in church sanctuaries, among other things.

Almost every night, Jeff Rosinski of Lodge Street walks the streets of the neighborhood he has resided in for almost all his life. If he finds youths out, he asks them what they are doing, why they are out past curfew, where they are coming from, and where they live.

If the kids are from the neighborhood, Mr. Rosinski said he escorts them home, and if they are not from the neighborhood, he walks them out of the neighborhood.

"We don't hurt the kids. We don't threaten the kids," he said.

Lately, the highlight of Mr. Lewis' patrol has been a stray cat, he said.

The group has also found success with its graffiti elimination initiative. Troubled by the increase in graffiti around the neighborhood, several times a month a group of residents paints over any graffiti that has appeared. It was satisfying that the last time the group went out, it had a hard time finding any graffiti to paint over, Mr. Suter said.

For Mike Craig, the city councilman whose district includes the area, the neighbors' decisive action has been extremely effective, and they have worked hard to ensure things changed.

Facing the closure of the South Toledo Y, residents fear the problems that have recently subsided will come back with a vengeance.

"When the Y is gone, the kids aren't going to be able to go burn themselves out at the gym," Mr. Rosinski said. "I think it's going to create a lot of mischief."

For Mr. Collins, a mayoral candidate and councilman, the neighbors' anger and anxiety are more than justified, considering the partnership that has existed between the neighborhood and the Y.

"I respect the frustrations of the neighbors - this has been a very important part of that neighborhood," he said. "I certainly understand why the neighbors would be upset. I'm upset with the Y too."

But he explained that neither he nor the city of Toledo has the ability to interfere with the business decisions of the private nonprofit entity.

"The sad part about it is the Y, in my opinion, had an ethical obligation to tell the neighborhood what their plans are, rather than have the neighborhood learn through the news media," he said.

He said he did know CedarCreek had been in talks with the YMCA/JCC and did not learn a deal had been finalized until a letter hand-delivered to his house on Sunday told him so.

While the Arlington neighborhood group has found success reducing the amount of graffiti and loitering in their neighborhood, reducing the number of vacant and derelict properties has posed more of a challenge.

This year, the federal government designated the Arlington Burrows Neighborhood a "tipping-point" neighborhood because of the high and rising number of foreclosures in the area, said Kattie Bond, the director of the city's Department of Neighborhoods.

Unlike areas where boarded-up houses and graffiti are already prevalent, "tipping-point" areas have historically been stable but are now teetering because of Toledo's high unemployment and foreclosure rates, she said.

The designation made the neighborhood eligible to receive federal funds that have been allocated to Toledo to buy and rehabilitate vacant and foreclosed properties.

In the last month, the neighborhood association has taken steps to address the problem and has drawn up a list of the 13 nuisance properties in the area, ranking them based on the visibility of the property in the neighborhood, past or current criminal activity that may be occurring on the property, and the condition of the property.

The association sent the list of properties to city officials, including Ms. Bond. It also requested a meeting with the department's manager of code enforcement, Bob Mossing, to convey its concerns.

"We welcome the neighborhood's identification of nuisance properties because we can't do it all," Ms. Bond said. "Our system is almost 100 percent complaintdriven."

She added that the city has nine code enforcement agents and that Mr. Mossing plans to attend the neighborhood association's Aug. 13 meeting.

Still, residents say the city's response has been lukewarm at best and no substantive steps have been taken to address their concerns.

Councilman Craig said that he received the neighborhood's list of targeted properties and that - though he had not yet visited any of them as he has been "semi-on vacation" - he intends to do so soon.

Standing in front of 723 Lodge St., the neighborhood association's No. 3 problem property, Mr. Suter said, while he is not yet irritated at the city's lack of response, it is indicative of government officials' tendency to say much but do little, and could become a problem for his neighborhood.

"It's like the frog getting boiled," said Mr. Suter of the decline in the neighborhood's housing stock. "You don't notice how bad things are getting until they're beyond repair."

At 723 Lodge St., the once-mauve siding is peeling off the structure, and its evergreen trim is chipped in more places than not. The roof has long since caved in, and the dirty-blue tarp tacked haphazardly on top to guard against the elements has largely blown away.

It is just one more example of what neighborhood residents call the slow but steady decline of their neighborhood. "On any block of this neighborhood, there's a house that's vacant, that's been foreclosed, and is falling apart," Mr. Suter said, gesturing toward the half-filled paint buckets, abandoned tires, and crumpled potato chip bags that fill the inside of the boarded-up structure that is approximately half a mile from the South Toledo Y.

Mr. Suter is familiar with the toll that vacant properties can take on an area. Just three houses down from his own residence on Ogden Avenue, a foreclosed house sits empty.

And while an outsider might not guess from its tidy blue facade and freshly mowed lawn that it has been vacant for quite some time, Mr. Suter knows it is the efforts of himself and his neighbors, who mow the lawn and clear away the snow in the winter, that are keeping the house from falling into obvious disrepair.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"The city is going to live and die in the neighborhoods," Mr. Suter said. "As institutions like the Y leave the neighborhood, it hurts everyone in the city. We're all connected. When one neighborhood is in danger, we all are."

Contact Florence Dethy at:

fdethy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6064.



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