Saturday, April 18, 2009

Still crazy, after all these years - reversing blight

With all this talk of police reform, it's easy to get sidetracked. Last week during business travel I came across another urban gem - an example of how to do neighbourhoods right.

I was working on the SafeGrowth program in Dayton, Ohio. Dayton is an older city in the rust belt. Manufacturing jobs, like a GM plant, have been shutting down and thousands have been laid off. Innovative police chief Richard Biehl is working with his agency and community to expand problem-solving and crime prevention in some troubled neighborhoods.

It was during this workshop the participants brought me to a fascinating area called the Oregon District. All the Daytonions I spoke to raved about this trendy neighborhood. And for good reason.

The Oregon District is an historic area just outside the main downtown area. It has interesting shops, restaurants and pubs. It is accented by tasteful street designs such as decorative lighting and pavement treatments. The residential areas behind the commercial street are among the most desirable in the city. During our safety audit walks we found plenty of TLC from front yard flower pots to artistic renos. The residents to whom I spoke loved living in this area. There is an active neighborhood association. Local folks are working to make it a safe place.

But the Oregon District wasn't always this way. For those working in troubled areas, it's important to remember all success stories have a beginning. Things don't just happen!

Thirty five years ago the street was blighted. Then a local doctor got the idea to invest and turn it around. He was followed by others. Essentially they tackled the blight and began purchasing properties in the cities oldest neighborhood. Gradually, the street began to develop. A gazebo in a retrofitted park here. Streetscaping on the commercial block there. Eventually, I was told, the positive energy spread to surrounding residential areas.

Today residents and shopowners participate in alley sweeps, local festivals, social events, garden tours, and baseball camps. The local neighborhood association tackles issues such as liquor permit saturation - what we call tipping point capacity in SafeGrowth. A theatre company is moving there. It has taken three decades, but Dayton's Oregon District is now among the most successful in the city.

In so many ways this story echoes the story of Westville in New Haven (see my blog from last month on Westville).

A half century later, Jane Jacobs' crazy ideas of vibrant neighborhood life still trickle down the years.

see the Oregon District