Sunday, August 23, 2009

Weinland Park is known for its poverty, violence and drug problems, but some residents see a community with potential

Weinland Park is known for its poverty, violence and drug problems, but some residents see a community with potential
Sunday, August 23, 2009 3:44 AM
By Mark Ferenchik

On the front of a worn brick apartment building on N. 4th Street in the Weinland Park neighborhood, someone scrawled the words "Short North Jungle."

It's a landmark drivers see as they pass through the neighborhood on their way from Downtown to Clintonville or the Ohio State University area.

And an unfortunate symbol, some say.

"That's the billboard for our community," said Robert Caldwell, a neighborhood resident and former president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association.

But it's not the complete story.

A sign next to a church a few blocks away announces "Fresh bagels in the morning!" as well as Wi-Fi.

Last weekend, the civic association presented its annual community festival featuring family events and music.

Other positive signs include that nearly $30 million has been spent on renovating 450 units of what had been blighted, neglected public housing.

Joyce Hughes, who has lived in Los Angeles and other parts of Columbus, returned to Weinland Park. She has owned her N. 6th Street house since 2002.

"I like it because -- this is really funny -- my neighborhood is really safe," said Hughes, president of the civic association.

That might be a well-kept secret. Many people drive through Weinland Park but few stop.

There is crime. And poverty.

But this small neighborhood has far-reaching influence.

Weinland Park is technically in the city's University District, abutting the OSU area, including South Campus Gateway at the neighborhood's northwestern tip.

"It's important because activities in Weinland Park affect the neighborhoods around it," said Steve Sterrett, spokesman for Campus Partners, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the neighborhoods around OSU.

At the heart of the neighborhood, at Indianola and E. 9th avenues, sits St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral, a small stone church that is an oasis in a desert of instability.

Archbishop John-Cassian Lewis located his church there a decade ago, despite the bullet holes that riddled the building.

Cassian, who goes by one name, was looking for the most crime-plagued neighborhood in the state.

In 2000, almost half of Weinland Park's residents lived in poverty, including six of every 10 children. Similar data are not available for this year.

But today, about 15 percent of the homes are vacant. One in four properties was in foreclosure from 2006 through 2008.

The doors to the church's basement outreach center are always open. The center provides bagels and coffee every morning and a meal at 5 p.m. As many as 80 people show up every evening, said Cassian, 57. The church also sponsors a youth football team.

Operating in the neighborhood hasn't been easy. Last Wednesday, Cassian ran out of paper products and money, he said. He prayed for help, and later that day, a benefactor brought $150.

Over the years, Cassian has grown tired of the violence and desperation around him. He hung 16 banners, to mark each time a neighborhood child died from violence. He removed four. It just got to be too many, he said.

Statistics show that things have improved, but drug dealing, break-ins and burglaries still plague the area, he said. "It's gotta stop."

And he, like others, doesn't appreciate the "Short North Jungle" moniker written by a few "cowards," as he calls them.

"I've never met a gang member who is a real man," he said.

Caldwell, the civic association's former president, said events such as the annual festival show people there's more to Weinland Park.

"The main thing is to correct the misperception of our neighborhood," he said.

Positive signs include the nonprofit Ohio Capital Corp. for Housing spending $29 million -- $65,000 per apartment -- to renovate 450 units of subsidized housing.

"We think the Section 8 housing has been significantly improved so it's no longer the housing of last resort," Sterrett said.

And the Wagenbrenner Co. is teaming with Campus Partners to redevelop the old Columbus Coated Fabrics site along N. Grant Avenue between 5th and 11th avenues. The project, estimated to cost as much as $80 million, might include as many as 305 houses and 300 apartments.

For now, commuters still speed through the neighborhood.

The city shelved plans this year to convert Summit and 4th streets from one-way to two-way. Officials said they wanted to hold off until a decision is made about running light-rail lines down parts of the streets.

Some residents say two-way streets would help create a more walkable neighborhood.

"We have streets where the kids come together and play. We have a diverse community," Hughes said.

"We're striving to have a real neighborhood."


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