Some try to restore American dream in Oak Hill

If you play by the numbers, Oak Hill doesn’t have much of a chance. If you factor in human determination, the odds may shift.

Chris Davidson brings us a story about a priest, his parishioners and some local residents trying to restore more than their neighborhood. They’re trying to restore the American dream.

The Rev. Edward Noga, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in the Oak Hill neighborhood of Youngtown, stands at the corner of Cleveland Street and Oak Hill Avenue. The site used to have a factory, then a cornfield. Now, the residents are growing rye to put nutrients back into the industrial-scarred soil. Chris Davidson/TheNewsOutlet.org

The Rev. Edward Noga, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in the Oak Hill neighborhood of Youngtown, stands at the corner of Cleveland Street and Oak Hill Avenue. The site used to have a factory, then a cornfield. Now, the residents are growing rye to put nutrients back into the industrial-scarred soil. Chris Davidson/TheNewsOutlet.org

By most accounts, Oak Hill was done for.

TOM HETRICK: One-in-every-two property owners have stopped paying their taxes.

Tom Hetrick is a neighborhood planner with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.

HETRICK: It’s one of the parts of the city with the lowest median incomes – less than $15,000 per household per year.

Oak Hill is a section of the city bound by Indianola, Glenwood, Mahoning and Market.

The YNDC labels Oak Hill “extremely weak.” That designation means the city may not pump in additional monies toward stabilization efforts. But, Hetrick says, the numbers are only part of the story.

HETRICK: The rest of the story that is very interesting is what’s happened there. There’s a lot of green-space projects, there are farming initiatives happening there. A lot of people there that still care about the neighborhood, but also people who are becoming interested in the neighborhood who have started doing things there.

One of the developments is the Oak Hill Collaborative. It’s an outgrowth of St. Patrick’s Church. The collaborative houses community meeting rooms and start-up businesses including a grant writer, party planners, a seamstress and an urban farmer. Pat Kerrigan heads up the collaborative and St. Pat’s Parish Council.

KERRIGAN: It’s interesting for the success of our building here is that we have him involved with the project in so many ways

Kerrigan is referring to the pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Ed Noga.

KERRIGAN: He saved St Patrick’s Parish, I mean we have no reason to be there still. We are in an area that is not Catholic. Very few of our parishioners are in the area. They are from all over. They come from New Middletown, Trumbull County and Campbell.

Kerrigan says the church – at Cleveland and Oak Hill – is the heart of the neighborhood.

KERRIGAN: Oak Hill Avenue is two miles long from Mahoning Avenue to Indianola and St. Pat’s is dead in the middle.

The Rev. Edward Noga signs in at the meeting sponsored by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. at Oak Hill Collaborative. Noga, parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church and other residents are working to rebuild the neighborhood. Chris Davidson/TheNewsOutlet.org

The Rev. Edward Noga signs in at the meeting sponsored by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. at Oak Hill Collaborative. Noga, parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church and other residents are working to rebuild the neighborhood. Chris Davidson/TheNewsOutlet.org

Father Noga has lived and worked in the neighborhood since 1985.

NOGA: So within walking distance of where I live right now is a downtown that’s changing and a river that’s got a lot of possibilities – and the more that gets developed, like a lot of other things in life – it will spread

His neighbors are trying to save their piece of the American Dream.

NOGA: And, they’re seeing that dream being eroded because of a lack of investment by people who own properties don’t live here by a lack of community support

Out-of-town and negligent landlords hurt the neighborhood

NOGA: Your heart bleeds for people because they are impassioned and I know my neighbors are cutting five times as much grass as they own, they’re cleaning up trash that isn’t theirs. They don’t feel like it’s making a difference. They just feel frustrated.

Noga thinks the loss of population with the resulting vacant or abandoned homes could eventually produce cost savings.

NOGA: With a little creativity I think we could reconfigure the streets and get rid of a lot of things that in the winter don’t need to be plowed, in the summer need to be fixed and need to be lighted at night. I think we could reduce some of our costs, not all of them.

Noga helped form the group ACTION more than 13 years ago. Action stands for the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods.

He emphasizes cooperation, collaboration.

NOGA: If we were all Warren Buffets and could write checks for things that would be great, but none of us are. And so, the resources we still have is our pride and our work ethic. If you band people together as we try to do in faith-based organizing, you make people realize how much they can get done together

Right across from the church stands a field that once held a factory. Then, a cornfield. Now, it will undergo another transformation.

NOGA: City property is pretty stressed over the years with a lot of dumping and stuff. So after two years of actual planting, we’ve been encouraged to let the rye grow where it’ll put nutrients back in the soil

DAVIDSON: So, you’re going to be the catcher in the rye?

NOGA: The catcher in the rye. The priest in the rye.

And unlike J.D Salinger’s main character in his 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” it’s not just the kids Father Noga is trying to save. It’s their families, their neighborhood, the community and the American Dream.

For TheNewsOutlet.org, I’m Chris Davidson.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).

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