Friday, July 13, 2007

Homesteading in Youngstown?

I am reading an article for my Geography class about this are of the U.S which the author has dubbed "The Foundry". The area includes Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and parts of West Virginia and Canada. There was an interesting passage about a housing/retail plan developed in Baltimore that I thought would be worth posting. Take a look. . . .could this work in Youngstown?

Bravery, as it happens, was the topic of discussion later in the day, as William Donald Schaefer toured his city in the long green Fleetwood with the license plates that simply said MAYOR. In addition to his driver, he traveled with Gary Mitchell, a double-knit aide who looked like an administrative assistant and sometimes functioned as one, but who really was there on special detachment from Baltimore's Tac Squad - the equivalent of a SWAT team. Formerly with the elite police helicopter branch, in which he had thrown spotlights into bleak alleys from the safety of the air, he now traveled with a .38 under his plaid-jacketed shoulder, and the knowledge that the mayor of a northeastern city wades into some fairly strange crowds.

Actually, the conversation was not about bravery per se. It was about windows.

In the Union Square neighborhood, where H. L. Mencken, "the sage of Baltimore," once lived, there is a "shopsteading" program. Shopsteading is a spin-off of Baltimore's "homesteading" plan. In northeastern urban homesteading, gutted aged town-houses, which are in no condition to support decent human life but whose sturdy brick walls are still so structurally sound that it seems a shame just to bulldoze them, are sold by the city for a dollar and some promises. The homesteaders who acquire these charming old shells, which today would cost a fortune to build from scratch, agree to fix the houses up - they frequently have to replace the plumbing and heating systems, the plaster, and sometimes even the roof - and then actually live in them for at least a few years.

The houses are available for a dollar because their previous owners have abandoned them - been scared off - and they've fallen into the hands of the city in a tax sale.

The deal, when it works right, usually boils down to this:

The city marks out a neighborhood that it thinks ripe for resuscitation. It attempts to stretch its overtaxed social services so that the entire neighborhood can be turned around by these home-steaders. It knows from bitter experience that only one or two rehabbed houses in a block won't do the trick. The whole block has to be attacked for critical social change to occur. So the designated neighborhood, at least in Baltimore, gets an extra dose of police protection, and the city code inspectors make a special effort to lean on property owners who are not bringing their places up to the new standards. Street fairs and ethnic festivals are encouraged, with the city providing bandstands and roping off streets to automobile traffic so that pedestrians can wander.

In exchange, a young couple with no chance of being able to afford a more conventional first home in a tight, spiraling real estate market, promise to invest their sweat, and possibly risk their personal safety, rehabilitating a row house in a tough, but presumably not hopeless, part of a city that suburbanites and people who have moved to Oregon have generally written off as irrevocably declining.

There is no question that the neighborhoods involved are tough. The edge of the rehabbed areas, where they fade off into hard-core slums, is commonly referred to as the "frontier." If the neighborhood once again becomes livable, and an adjacent area becomes newly attractive to homesteaders, the process is referred to as "pushing back the frontier." The nastier inhabitants on the wrong side of the frontier are called "the Indians."

Obviously, a certain number of these phrases are blatantly racist code words. But by no means is that the whole story. A good number of the people who get these $ 1.00 houses and fix them up are themselves black. Furthermore, since the people who homestead have committed themselves actually to living in these neighborhoods, they're betting their bodies that a pluralistic, northeastern urban society can be attractive, profitable, possible, and fun.

1 comment:

SarahEP said...

This is a great article, I am from Baltimore and very familiar with what they did with the $1.00 houses. Those houses they sold for a dollar, row houses none the less are now worth over $600,000 dollars a piece. This plan would work in Youngstown and before we moved here my husband and I assumed Youngstown had the same $1 houses plan. It would promote more people to buy up the beautiful old houses and restore them, I for one would love the opportunity.