Each completed house inspires more people to take up restoration challenge
By JOSH MEDORE
Renovating a home in Youngstown takes time, effort, money and the ability to withstand falling through a roof.
Joe Parent learned that the hard way.
He and his wife, Rachel, needed to replace the roof of their home, one of two they’ve bought on Bryson Street since 2010. While removing shingles, Joe fell through the roof and landed in a small room next to the porch. Only his ego was bruised.
This is just one of the many challenges of living in and renovating a house that was built in 1907 – one that hasn’t had permanent residents in a decade. Dangers are to be expected, rotting wood among them.
These challenges haven’t deterred the Parents. Their mission is to fix their two houses, to make them livable and – in time – to bring the Wick Park neighborhood back to what it once was: a home for the best and brightest in Youngstown.
“We want to buy up everything in this neighborhood,” Joe said. “We want to do kind of what the Wicks did a hundred years ago and make this neighborhood our own.”
The Parents are among several people who are renovating homes in the Wick Park area.
The Wick family owned much of the land that constitutes the park, the area from Crab Creek just east of Wick to Belmont avenues, said Rebecca Rogers, head of the Wick Park Neighborhood Association. The only building then was a log cabin, built in 1886 by Henry K. Wick and designed by Charles Owsley, an English architect who also designed the Mahoning County Courthouse and St. Augustine Episcopal Church. The cabin was officially called a hunting lodge, but historians and residents in the area said its primary purpose, or at least its purpose before Henry’s widow, Millicent, moved in 1912, was as a weekend getaway spot for the family and their guests.
“That was their party house … where they’d have parties and maybe shoot a bear or something,” Joe said.
Over time, the Wicks began platting the land and selling off parcels. In 1907, Wick Park was established. The area immediately began drawing the wealthy residents of Youngstown as an escape from the burgeoning industrial areas of the city.
“Everybody wanted to get up the hill and above the cloud (of smog),” said Rogers. “It became very fashionable,” Rogers said.
The area flourished until Black Monday, Sept. 19, 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it would close its facilities within a week. Nearly 5,000 jobs were lost overnight.
In the 35 years since, Youngstown became the image of the Rust Belt. Abandoned steel mills, factories, businesses and homes became a common sight.
However, not everyone had forsaken the area. In 1990, Rob Pilloli purchased the house at the corner of Elm Street and Broadway that once belonged to the Stambaugh family.
“I had always intended to rent it out, but when a major plumbing issue arose, I had to get into a wall, and behind the wall I saw the original grand staircase. They had basically built a wall around it,” Pilloli said. “I was intrigued that someone would hide an architectural detail like that in a house.”
Ten years – and $100,000 later – Pilloli’s home is a testament to what homes in Wick Park were like in their prime. It’s also a reminder of what can be if people invested in the neighborhood. Pilloli is so invested with the renovation spirit that he bought the house next door to use as a warehouse for an architectural salvage business.
When Pilloli was one of the first people to restore a house in the area. It wasn’t an ideal location at the time.
“You could walk into that park and basically buy prostitutes, drugs … basically anything illegal was going on in the middle of that park,” Pilloli said. “When I first bought this house, the news had a ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ series that actually showcased my house as a problem for the area because my house was condemned when I bought it.”
Louie Kennedy moved into the Wick Cabin on Illinois Avenue in 1985, when he was a student at Youngstown State University student. He bought it in 1989, when he noticed a trend in the type of people living in the area.
“When I moved in, a lot of college kids lived up around here. Almost every one of these houses was a rental house. Very few had actual owner-occupants. I was one of two where the owner actually lived in them,” Kennedy said.
The problem with rentals, said Rod Foley, Youngstown police chief, is that crime tends to be higher in areas with high numbers of rental properties.
“It’s just transient. There’s no ownership to it. People move in and in a few months they move to another area. There may be people not even reporting half the crime because they just don’t want to be involved with it,” Foley said.
After Pilloli and others in the Wick Park area began pushing the city to enforce code violations on the rental homes, many of the owners left.
“(This) led to several major landlords – slumlords – to leave the area because they could not rent their properties out,” said Pilloli. “It turned out to be a double-edged sword for us.”
While there were renters, the houses were in various states of disrepair. After the enforcement effort, “These landlords pretty much just abandoned them and walked away,” said Pilloli.
He estimates 38 houses were left empty and eventually became prime targets for architectural thieves, who would remove intricate wood paneling and claw-foot tubs.
“I’m not afraid of someone taking my TV, I’m afraid of someone taking my door,” Kennedy said. “I can get another TV in 10 minutes, but another door, forget about it.”
Kennedy said much of this type of non-violent crime happened in the 1980s and ’90s. Today, the neighborhood is changing for the better, he said, with younger people moving into cheap homes and fixing them up.
The Parents bought their first house on Bryson for $8,500. While they knew they would face renovations challenges, they never thought poison ivy would be one of them.
“This house was completely overgrown with it. It was growing up the side of the house, the back of the house, the backyard, in our flowerbeds. From spring to fall, (we) have poison ivy. That’s the hardest thing,” Joe Parent said.
The expected challenges often involve getting money for the renovations.
“You have to do it all out of pocket,” Pilloli said. “That’s the major stumbling block right there that you can’t go to a bank like you can the suburbs and say, ‘I need $50,000 to fix this house.’
“They’ll come in and appraise the house and say, ‘I’ll give you $5,000.’ And it just doesn’t work, so the houses continue to fall into decay.”
The Parents have invested three years and between $20,000-$30,000 into their first house on Bryson. They have to pay for everything without loans and do much of the work themselves, which explains how Joe ended up with an unexpected skylight in that room off the porch.
“We’re going to do the roof on this and next door. That’s $10,000 to $20,000 – and then what do you do?” Rachel asked. “We work regular jobs. We don’t have a ton of money, so at some point we’re going to have to sit and lay low until we can do the next project.”
The Parents also face a unique challenge – living in the house they are renovating.
“Sometimes I hate it,” Rachel said. “I don’t have a real kitchen, I don’t have a real house with nice furniture. But I know that in the end, it’ll be worth it. I’ll have this nice finished house. I mean – my living room is as big as some of our friend’s houses. It’ll be a nice house to grow into and entertain.”
They hope their work will be infectious.
“Me and Rachel were strangers to this neighborhood and we drove past Rob’s house. That was one of the grand ones that seemed finished. We were like, ‘Somebody over here’s done it’,” Joe said.
Now he hopes to serve as inspiration to others.
“It’s great that Joe’s doing that. I’m glad, I think he’s in it for the long haul and that’s what it takes. You need people willing to move in and stay here,” Kennedy said.
Pilloli is another carrier of the “renovation bug.”
“I’ve convinced four people to move here from out of state. I purchased a house across the street and sold it to a girl from California who was tickled pink to buy a home for $32,000. She just sold her home out there for $350,000. So, to move into a place for a tenth of what you sold your property for is just amazing,” Pilloli said.
He also sold a house to a man from Rhode Island and two more to people from the Youngstown area.
Pilloli says this influx of youth will bring a new attitude to the area as well.
“The people who did come through and started purchasing these houses … (it) has been a positive thing because it’s a different mindset from what was down here before,” Pilloli said.
“Younger people think differently than the old guard that’s in charge of this town and that’s also going to bring the revitalization of this city.”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).