Tyler Fitch said he and his wife, Marianne Downey, knew they had found the house they wanted the moment they first walked in.
Newlyweds at the time, the couple were on their way to look at another house three years ago when they saw a "For sale by owner" sign in the yard of a smaller, wood-frame house at 503 E. California Ave. in east Urbana.
"We saw this house and we knew," Fitch said. "We looked at all the refinished wood floors and we loved it."
The neighborhood's brick sidewalks and the fact that their first visit was at night, with the street lit by old globe lights, helped seal the deal.
The couple bought the house and started their life together, with Fitch's daughters from a previous marriage, Shelby, 15, and Elizabeth, 9, as part of the blended family. Downey was relocating from Indianapolis.
Little did Fitch's neighbors know it at the time, but a future neighborhood activist had just moved in – one who is helping to revitalize nearby Victory Park and the surrounding neighborhood.
The 43-year-old Fitch is among a handful of residents who are the drivers behind the Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association. The group helped raise $30,000 for new playground equipment for Victory Park and worked closely with the Urbana Park District on plans to update and improve the park, located between Main and Green Streets and just west of Cottage Grove Avenue and east of Lynn Street.
"He's been a real mule of a worker," said Chris Stohr, president of the neighborhood association. "He basically took the Victory Park project on and pushed and organized. It was his leadership that helped get that along."
Stohr said Fitch hasn't just contributed his time; he has also contributed money to the neighborhood association and its efforts.
Urbana Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5, said Fitch indicated early on that he would be willing to work to improve his neighborhood, which is bounded generally by Vine Street on the west, Main Street on the north, Washington Street on the south and Glover Avenue on the east.
"When he came on board, he said 'I'm interested and willing to do something,'" Roberts said. "Any organization is extremely happy to have somebody willing to be active in it. He's put energy into the various projects we've had."
The Victory Park project is a textbook case showing how a group of concerned citizens can get things done. The neighborhood association approached the park district two years ago with concerns about Victory Park not having had any improvements for nearly 20 years, and they said they would be willing to help.
The group then helped the park district raise $30,000 of the $50,000 cost of buying the playground equipment, which was installed last year. Volunteers helped finish the job, spreading wood chips around the equipment.
The park district also was awarded last fall a $150,000 state Open Space Land Acquisition Development grant for the park, which is being matched by the park district. With that money, a concrete walking path will be installed around the perimeter of the park and a pavilion will be constructed, with both projects scheduled to begin this spring, according to Ellen Kirsanoff, development coordinator with the park district. The money also will be used to upgrade the park's lone tennis court and to install community gardens on the northeast side of the park.
Fitch "was integral to the whole process," Kirsanoff said. "He was in every meeting and he was very involved. He did a great job."
The neighborhood wasn't just a passive observer, either. Residents pushed successfully to relocate the park's play-ground from near Main Street to near Green Street, and also lobbied successfully to be able to install the community gardens. Fitch helped survey neighborhood residents to develop a park master plan that guided such decisions.
"We're really excited about the community gardens," Downey said. "There's an apartment building near the park, and they would like to be able to have a garden."
The park district liked Fitch so much, they appointed him to the district's advisory committee in April 2005.
The neighborhood association also raised several hundred dollars and installed entryway signs welcoming visitors and residents to "historic east Urbana." They helped convince the city to begin a regular maintenance program for brick sidewalks, which are common throughout the neighborhood.
They're also working with the city to create a walking/bicycle path on the north side of Green Street that could provide a link between downtown Urbana, Victory Park and Weaver Park in east Urbana.
The neighborhood is full of smaller, older homes. Perhaps the neighborhood association's biggest goal is to keep east Urbana primarily a single-family residential neighborhood.
"There's nothing snooty about this neighborhood," Fitch said. "It is working-class people, hippies and grad students mixed together. It's pretty diverse.
"We don't resent the people who rent here, as long as they don't tear up their properties," he added.
Fitch was born in Urbana but grew up in Lawrenceville in southeastern Illinois. He received his bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and his master's degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Both are in political science. He worked for five years for the state legislature in Springfield in the Legislative Research Unit, which provides bipartisan research and analysis.
He moved back to Champaign-Urbana nine years ago and works as the director of planning and policy analysis for the University of Illinois Foundation.
He and Downey enjoy living in Urbana and appreciate how responsive and accessible the city council and park district board and staff are.
"I like local politics because it's common citizens who just want to make their community better," Fitch said.
Downey, who also is active in the neighborhood association, marvels at how average citizens can get things accomplished locally.
"We say we want the park district to do something about Victory Park, and a year later, it's done!" she said. "We'd still be talking about it in Indianapolis."