'Death of a blue-collar neighborhood'

CHAMPAIGN – Frances McArty says that sometimes she feels like she's "a ghost in a cemetery."

McArty, 89, has pictures of her earlier life, with her late husband, Charles, displayed throughout her house. She easily recalls past friends and neighbors, when nearby Mattis Avenue was just a country road, and the years she spent working at the Robeson's and Goldblatt's department stores.

But her sadness has less to do with her long, mostly happy life than with the state of her neighborhood.

McArty, who has lived in the same home in the 1700 block of Glenn Park Drive since 1938, now finds herself surrounded by abandoned homes.

Seven homes, some of which McArty saw the owners build with their own hands, are now abandoned on the north side of the road, with the utilities cut off, awaiting demolition.

The owner of the homes is the company that operates a factory just north of McArty's home: Alloy Engineering & Casting.

Alloy bought the homes gradually through the years and plans to demolish them later this year. The homes were getting older and costing more to maintain, and company officials decided they wanted out of the rental real estate business, said Dave Dankert, project manager for Wireco Inc. of Avilla, Ind., the parent company of Alloy Engineering & Casting.

Ideally, the company would like to persuade the Illinois Department of Transportation to let it build a truck entrance off of Mattis Avenue into the plant site, Dankert said. But he added that the state has been cool to that idea.

Trucks, several a day, now get into the plant by turning onto University Avenue and then north onto Victor Street, which intersects with Glenn Park Drive.

Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight said the city has told Alloy it would not support rezoning the residential properties to industrial. So Dankert said the properties appear likely to be converted to green space.

And in the midst of it all, McArty has no intention of moving and giving Alloy complete control of the north side of Glenn Park Drive.

The very topic fills her with righteous indignation.

"They're killing this whole area," she said. "They're not just taking two blocks. We fought for those streetlights. We fought for one-way streets. As long as we owned these homes, we were fine. But once the factory started buying these homes, we were in trouble."

Dankert said his company has not offered to buy McArty's home, well aware through word of mouth what the answer would be.

McArty calls the situation "the death of a blue-collar neighborhood." She said the homes to be torn down could be restored and made into good, affordable housing for younger people if Alloy would sell them.

It is a topic that dominates her thinking. Sometimes late at night, unable to sleep, she takes pen to paper and writes about her old neighborhood.

One of her former neighbors was a man named Shorty Bryant, now dead, who built his house with the help of a friend after he recovered from wounds sustained in World War II. It's one of the homes slated for demolition.

"During his recovery, he vowed to himself he would build a new little house for his wife and their three girls," she wrote. "That's just what he did. His friend and he worked hours on weekends, holidays and vacations. They dug the basement manually with spades and shovels. They laid the block foundation, the frame, the plumbing, the electric, the plaster, roofing, set windows and doors – even added a front sun porch.

"The girls had their own bedroom; the parents had one, too."

Another essay by McArty recalls a close friend, Evelyn, who used to visit daily:

"This morning the sun was so beautiful, coming softly through the east windows in the dining room. For a brief moment, I forgot Evelyn was dead. Seems like she had just visited me yesterday afternoon after work! I loved those visits. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried. Our children were married; our lives were changing. You were always so eager to share your day's happenings with me."

The white two-story home where McArty lives was where she and her husband, Charles, spent most of their lives together and raised two children. The couple was married for 67 years before he died on April 3, 2001.

The McArtys married in 1933 in Covington, Ind., while Frances was still a teenager. Fearing the reaction of their parents, they didn't tell anyone of the union for their first year of marriage.

McArty said she wasn't especially impressed with her future husband when she first met him, but for him it was love at first sight.

"After we married, he said, 'I took one look at you, and you were all I ever wanted,' " she said.

And her love for him grew over the years.

"The longer I stayed with him, the more I loved him," she said. "Every other love story we put to shame."

She recalls her salesman husband's Popeye-like forearms and his strong sense of integrity.

"He would die before he broke his word," she said.

Now, McArty's health is precarious. She has high blood pressure and believes she suffered a minor stroke. She suffers from macular degeneration and doesn't get around all that well.

Her granddaughter, Michelle Namoff of Champaign, helps McArty continue to live independently, assisting her with shopping, laundry and other tasks.

"She wants to keep her independence," Namoff said, explaining that her grandmother, feisty as she is, relied a lot on her late husband to make decisions and sometimes needs some guidance.

Namoff recalls how McArty used to drive a sporty 1953 MG convertible and take her to garage sales about town as a girl.

"She's full of life," Namoff said. "She's always had a spunky personality. It's only recently she's gotten depressed."

A persevering type, McArty asks a visitor if there's still a possibility the factory could be persuaded to sell the houses to a renovator. Informed that the company already obtained demolition permits, she grows momentarily silent.

But her spirit quickly re-emerges. She warns that people living on the south side of Glenn Park Drive had better put up a fuss if they want to preserve their neighborhood.

"It is not too late to reverse this travesty," she says. "I know what's in those houses. I know how they're built. I know they're worth saving."

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