URBANA — Researchers in south Urbana have discovered a link between fresh vegetables and an increase in community well-being.
OK, so the researchers may not all have Ph.D.s but they know that a community garden tended with lots of love by a bunch of different folks with the same goal has had a positive effect on their neighborhoods — even in the face of an increase in crime.
A year ago, police were responding almost daily to calls of robberies, stabbings and shots fired on Florida and Lierman avenues and Hunter and Austin streets, just to name a few of the hot spots.
A fight on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, in the 1100 block of Austin — between what police described as two feuding gangs — required almost two dozen police officers to restore order. Estimates of the number of young people involved range from 30 to 70.
That melee sparked a new-found interest by long-time residents to do something to restore the luster to an area once considered a nice place to live.
"Things are looking up, not just because of the police but because the neighbors are starting to take control and they're doing good work. Once we get the community involved working with us and on their own, it makes things better," said Urbana police Lt. Bob Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald represents just one of the groups doing its part to improve life in south Urbana.
Others include the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee, neighbors from subdivisions near there, more than a half-dozen churches, several city departments and council members, apartment owners, and area businesspeople.
Among the tangible accomplishments:
— A community vegetable garden on a city-owned lot on the southeast corner of Lierman and Washington Street.
— The closing of the blighted Urbana Town Homes apartment complex on Lierman.
— The banning of alcohol and drug paraphernalia sales at the Home Run Food Mart on Washington.
— Two street lights on Hunter at Austin and Lanore Drive.
— And increased security at several apartment complexes.
Individually, they may seem small. Together, they're making a difference, according to at least a few area residents.
"The garden has done a lot of good," said Lizzie "CoCo" Carter, a resident of Lierman Avenue for about 13 years.
Carter is one of two people managing the garden, deciding who should work in it and supervising the children who have taken an interest. The garden was built in August after months of planning by LNAC and the city. They hope to add to its size in the future.
"I see people coming out and talking to each other. I'm getting to see old people coming out that wasn't coming out," said Carter, who observed that many of the neighborhood teens have been locked up.
"The garden is huge, especially for the young kids," said Clyde Walker, LNAC vice president and the very last person to move out of Urbana Town Homes, once known as Woodstone Apartments, in early October. He had been there about 13 years. He said he loved his Lierman Avenue apartment when he moved in with his two sons but conceded it had become run down and suffered from a lack of security in the intervening years.
Around the corner from that apartment complex is the Home Run Food Mart, 1509 E. Washington St.. A police sting in May and June found that the owners were selling crack pipe kits. They were criminally prosecuted and voluntarily gave up their liquor license. A change of ownership is in the works.
Fitzgerald said before the liquor license was recently granted to the new owners — One Stop Food & Liquor — security improvements outlined by police, including fencing and surveillance cameras, had to be made.
Walker observed that the community garden has given neighborhood children "something to do and take ownership of, something to focus on other than to be distracted by other things that get them in trouble. It helps them build self-esteem."
"We all thought it was kind of amusing that as much of a drought as we had this summer, the moment we got the garden up, it started raining. The synchronicity is incredible. Things have just flourished," he said.
He wasn't referring to just the three harvests of vegetables that have been distributed to hungry neighbors this growing season.
Although it's been around since 2009, LNAC has "taken off" in the last year, Walker said. He and several others have credited his Lierman Avenue neighbor, Robin Arbiter, for her patience and persistence in pulling together the right people and the right resources to make improvements.
"We became incorporated in July and things are going really well for us," Walker said of LNAC, which is still hoping to come under the umbrella of an area church for tax purposes.
While positive about what LNAC has accomplished, Arbiter said "the neighborhood remains challenged." LNAC would like to see a community center and a park with recreational features in the neighborhood.
"Many residents need greater access to education, employment, healing, mentoring, and better housing, as well as to food and other basic necessities. Without thoughtful improvements to the physical and social environment, the neighborhoods will not be stable, and families will be disproportionately at risk in every sense," Arbiter said.
She said eight area churches have expressed a willingness to help, and Nancy Barrett has agreed to be the "coordinator of faith-based volunteers."
Barrett lives in the nearby AMVETS II subdivision on Adams Street, which this time last year was struggling with problems at The Pointe, an apartment complex in the 1600 block of East Florida Avenue that wraps around to South Philo Road.
After two shootings there last fall, the police worked with the apartment property managers to beef up security and "have done a phenomenal job with turning The Pointe around," Barrett said.
Fitzgerald agreed, applauding the property managers there as well as Campus Property Management and the owners of Crestview Commons for improving security at their complexes and making tenants more responsible for their behavior.
Barrett is captain of her Neighborhood Watch group and belongs to the South Philo Business Committee, a group of neighbors and business owners on and near South Philo Road with whom Fitzgerald meets quarterly.
"We talk about crime in the area, what the police are doing, tips to make their businesses safe, and what the city is doing to promote the area. It's just to give businesses and neighbors a chance to know what's going on," Fitzgerald said.
James Winston, owner of Service Barber, which recently relocated from 11041/2 E. Washington St. to Sunnycrest Mall, said he intends to attend the Nov. 12 meeting of the South Philo Business Committee.
An active supporter and former board member of LNAC — mostly because his parents live in that neighborhood — Winston said his goal has been to get the neighbors to interact, which is key to the health of any neighborhood.
"I remember when I was a kid, neighbors were closer. That's not a Lierman problem. There are people who live in the richest neighborhoods who don't even know the neighbors down the street," he said.
Winston applauded Urbana police for their efforts.
"The police department is showing that community some serious love out there. The police department has said to us, 'If you see something, call us.' They have been right there with us the whole time," Winston said.
"People are more comfortable calling police and we have more foot patrol and officers making contact with people down there," confirmed Fitzgerald.
Police Chief Pat Connolly said many entities have come together to address the problems, including LNAC, Neighborhood Watch groups, and Mayor Laurel Prussing's problem properties team, which has representatives from the police, fire, legal, and community development departments, who meet regularly.
"Collectively, it's amazing how much smoother the system works," Connolly said.
"I can tell you it's not only becoming better because of those things, but because of the enormous effort Bob Fitzgerald has committed to that project. He's organized quarterly business meetings. He's personally passing out invitations to those folks. He's trying to generate more involvement and slowly but surely, it's working," Connolly said. "It's a combination of a whole lot of folks who recognize we (police) can't do it by ourselves."
Paul Taylor, owner of ESS Clean Inc., with offices on East University Avenue in Urbana, is among those people. He provided a place for the garden planners to disassemble the wooden pallets that were then repurposed into the raised vegetable beds. In late August, he and several of his co-workers helped build the beds and his company fed all the workers who showed up that hot Saturday.
"We want to see the community improved. We want to see people who are living in locations that are struggling ... we like to see those conditions improve. And we feel strongly as a business that has benefitted from this community, that we should be giving back," he said.
Taylor recently renewed his commitment by making a $2,000 donation to LNAC.
Ward 5 Alderman Dennis Roberts said "that's an incredible change from where we were a year ago."
Roberts and fellow city council member Diane Marlin of Ward 7 have worked on issues that government can to effect change.
Marlin pointed to the passage of the rental registration ordinance in April 2009 that gives the city a "systematic way of knowing who the property owners are and other information such as the number of tenants" and the November 2011 passage of the aggravated nuisance ordinance.
"That allows us to go after landlords who don't voluntarily act responsibly," said Marlin, adding the city has employed it once.
Marlin and Roberts also worked with LNAC to have the community development department acquire the lot for the garden and run a water line to it.
Eventually, the lot is intended to be developed with affordable housing, said Robert Myers, city planning manager.
"It's going to take several years to work out the details, but it's certain it will be used for that," he said.
Roberts said he'd like to see townhouses similar to those built along Bradley Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets in Champaign or something like Crystal View Town Homes on Stebbins Drive off North Broadway Avenue in Urbana.
Myers said getting Urbana Town Homes demolished will help.
"Properties like that have a blighting influence beyond their own borders," he said. "That brings up an important point: We can't paint southeast Urbana in one particular light. There are a few problem pockets. The vast majority of southeast Urbana is very solid and a wonderful place to live and shop."
Myers points to the The Pines and Stone Creek Commons near the intersection of Windsor and Philo as well as the businesses along South Philo Road.
"I just want to remind people that the business district has come so far. I started working here in 2005 and it's so much better than it was at that time. It's more vibrant. It looks better," Myers said.
And so does Lierman.
Winston admits he was a naysayer about the garden.
"When that idea first came up, I just didn't see it. I said, 'What's that going to do? We need jobs.' Robin (Arbiter) lives in Aspen Court and she had a vision that this thing could do what it is doing. Hope is made visible. It represents the whole neighborhood. Look at the fruit it's bearing," he said.