City officials fear best way to clean up neighborhood is to level it — and at least some of the residents agree
CHAMPAIGN — Two months ago, a FedEx carrier tried to deliver a package to a white, two-story home with a good view of the Canadian National railroad tracks and an Ameren Illinois substation. No one was home.
That is what is revealed by the first of two messages stuck to the lonely home's front door, just a few steps across a porch whose boards threaten to give way when they're stressed by the weight of anyone who approaches.
The other is an April 24 message from the city of Champaign: The grass is too long, and the owner needs to cut it before the city does it for him and bills him for the cost. Many of the homes here are more than 100 years old, and a high proportion of them are occupied by renters instead of their owners.
This is just another notice in a long line of property code violations that plague the neighborhood.
This year, the home at the corner of Roper and Chestnut in the Bristol Place neighborhood was assessed at just under $14,000, and it is one of the more extreme examples of how crime and property maintenance problems can devalue a neighborhood.
And it is one of the reasons city officials want to level 76 homes and start fresh.
In the city's lowest-valued area with one of the highest crime rates, Pat Posey lives on the neighborhood's worst corner at Clock and Bellefontaine. In 1998, police estimated a drug transaction went down in the Bristol Place neighborhood every two or three minutes.
Posey owns one of the neighborhood's nicer homes, a blue one-story house that Habitat for Humanity built five years ago, but she and her husband have been awakened by a bullet driving itself through the bedroom drywall. It is not so much the neighborhood's residents that drive the crime rate, Posey said, but the people who come into the neighborhood from other parts of the city.
But she has lived on Bellefontaine Street since 1967, and she still cannot figure out why it is an attractive neighborhood for crime.
"I lived here 40 years, and I still can't answer that question," Posey said. "But it's the best place for a good fight."
The Rev. Eugene Barnes, who operates the Metanoia Centers kitty-corner from Posey, has a theory: "It appears no one cares."
Let a neighborhood seem to disintegrate, Barnes said, and criminals see an opportunity in the lack of the residents' and the city's concern.
The city has addressed Barnes' concerns in abbreviated steps over the years, but officials are starting to roll out their biggest plan yet: Buy all the homes — through eminent domain, if necessary — and tear them down.
What is left will be a blank canvas.
"We wanted to be pretty sure if it needs to go that way," said Greg Skaggs, the city's community development specialist. "That was the last resort."
Buying, demolishing and preparing the seven blocks for redevelopment will cost $7.4 million. That includes the required assistance the city — and likely the Housing Authority of Champaign County — will provide to help relocate the neighborhood's residents.
What will rise from the dust is not clear yet, but city officials know they are not going to rebuild 75 to 100 single-family homes. They also do not want to build exclusively low-income housing.
"We're not interested in building islands of poverty any more," said Kerri Spear, the city's neighborhood programs manager.
It is also unclear if the neighborhood's residents will want or be able to return.
"What is being proposed is the breakup of a community," Terry Townsend, an activist and former Housing Authority commissioner, told the city council last month.
Townsend worries about gentrification — the displacement of the poorest of residents to make way for those who are more affluent. The focus, he said, should be on affordability and accessibility.
"Clear and simple, you're going to gentrify that neighborhood," he said. "This is the breakup of an African-American community."
Barnes said he sees it differently. He has been in the neighborhood since the demolition of the infamous "green apartments" at the corner of Market and Bellefontaine streets, one of the havens for much of the area's drug activity.
He said the area is much improved since the green apartment days, and the residents who remain deserve better.
"These people are part of the city," Barnes said. "They're part of the citizenry. They deserve the same kind of attention as the people down in Devonshire."
City officials are using it as reminder of what can happen while a neighborhood decays.
"One of our goals is to not ever have to do this again," Spear said. "We think we can do that with Garwood. We think we can do that with Garden Hills."
Meanwhile, Posey is getting ready to move — she was disappointed when she learned that she would have to leave her home and the neighborhood, and she does not want to think about her next step yet. She doesn't know where she'll go, and she doesn't know if she'll come back.
But she is not resisting the change. She thinks it's about time.
"We need to see something different in this neighborhood," Posey said. "It deserves it."