I found a new place to dwell: Woodchuck Motel

Perhaps you’ve seen it: Price of Progress? Changes in Weinland Park may chase away some residents. If not, take a look. The Dispatch‘s front page news yesterday was accompanied by some of the most recent drama in the saga that is Weinland Park. And as Larry King told Peter Sagal on Sunday’s edition of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, I’m going to be honest with my readers and acknowledge that the juiciest issues of Weinland Park are not eligible for discussion via this particular medium.

Mark Ferenchik’s article did do me a favor by name-dropping Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) community in the July 25 article: Milo-Grogan. Is any publicity good publicity? When a woman with five children is forced to relocate out of one inner-city neighborhood to another due to rising rent costs and the destination is Milo-Grogan, I’m not positive that the publicity is platinum. The neighborhood recognition is valuable, nonetheless.

But, what is the perception of Milo-Grogan as a community? I have discussed (on this blog) the anonymity of Milo-Grogan throughout central Ohio. When I’ve asked people at our meetings if they use Milo-Grogan as a standard moniker, the answer is usually no. They claim that people are unfamiliar with the name and more familiar with the infamous cluster of fried poultry establishments at the intersection of Fifth & Cleveland Aves.

As of a meeting last week, the community at-large has learned that Milo-Grogan also plays host to a unique chain of lodging facilities. “Woodchuck Motels” have popped up throughout the neighborhood over the past couple of decades. With an increasing number of vacant properties in the community, enterprising rodents have taken refuge in some of the more hospitable dilapidated structures. One resident of 2nd Avenue described a lively social environment for the groundhogs behind her home, saying, “I see them playing around in the tall grass and having fun with each other like this is out in the country.” On a more serious note, however, the scourge of animal infestations is detrimental to the lives of neighborhood residents. Because of the negative perception of Milo-Grogan, exterminating companies are wary of coming to the area at all. The same resident cited above complained that because the extermination company would not come to the neighborhood in the evening, she had to stay home from work in order to be present in the morning – the only time the company would agree to come into the area. For God’s sake, people, this isn’t Baghdad.

Unexpected habitats have developed throughout the neighborhood. While walking along a sidewalk late one afternoon, Rory and I spotted a teeny-weeny baby snake poised to strike. More comparable to an earthworm than a serpent, this snake must have been highly urbane to be slithering calmly along the sidewalk. The niche ecosystems fostered by the colliding factors of economic downturn and subsequent infrastructure disrepair have created an anomalous island of wilderness in a sea of urbanity.

The characterization of a struggling inner-city neighborhood as a wilderness, however, carries hugely negative baggage. To do so casts the residents of the community as inept floaters who see no value in civic development. The urban homesteading movement of the late 1970s and 1980s did as much. With a nomenclature based on the 1862 legislation which gave away massive swaths of land west of the Mississippi River to “pioneers” in a prime illustration of an infantile ethos of manifest destiny, the urban homesteading title invoked the idea of rediscovery from a host unable to appreciate or maintain their surroundings. Like Europeans who criticized eastern woodland Indians for relying minimally on agricultural cultivation for food and replicating one of the devil’s more imperious traits: idleness (think “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”), urban pioneers ran the risk of becoming an overbearing voice of micro-imperialism. Tangentially related, yesterday’s Dispatch article regarding Weinland Park’s increasing rent prices invokes criticism from my more sensitive side for donning the title: “Price of Progress?” Define progress.

Thus far, this summer experience has been a desperate attempt to avoid the negative connotations of urban development. NRI’s most redeeming factor is its community-driven nature. By design, this Initiative cannot dictate the future of Milo-Grogan. As Michelle has repeated time and time again, “We’re on the bus, but we’re not driving it.”

Our community gatherings were the first attempt to attract passengers. And with modest success we press forward while placing a great value on the people who have demonstrated continued devotion to Milo-Grogan’s future. The neighborhood meeting phase of my fellowship, however, has come to a close. No longer will I laboriously brew gallons and gallons of pink lemonade for ghost-attendees, or print 50 copies of an agenda only to woefully recycle 46 of them a few hours later. (Come on now, it’s all in good spirits.) Although there are no formal meetings scheduled for the remainder of my time here this summer, my personal contacts continue to increase. The next phase of this NRI project is data collection. It sounds boring, I know. In fact, just the word “data” is frighteningly mundane. The Ohio EPA is employing a close friend of mine this summer to sit in front of a desktop for eight hours per day and input incoming information from Ohio’s 88 counties into a megalithic Excel spreadsheet. May I say that I’m proud to announce that’s Not My Job?

Our NRI data collection will be slightly more active. The first phase will be a thorough physical assessment of the neighborhood. We will analyze and evaluate the condition of blocks and individual parcels throughout the neighborhood. This data will be put into an online data collection tool called Success Measures. (OK, so inputting this data might be reminiscent of my friend’s clerical work with the EPA). After this we will be completing surveys of both Habitat homeowners and residents in the neighborhood. The resident survey is pretty extensive, asking questions that solicit the degree of community and trust among neighbors. I conducted my first survey last Thursday and have a few more slated for later today. Let’s just say…I need to work on a more objective presentation. Seems like my voice inflects itself to garner desired responses – I can assure you that I’ll try my darnedest to imitate the inhuman objectivity of Ben Burtt‘s stellar 1977 performance as R2-D2 in the future.

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