URBANA — Robin Arbiter has planted seeds for change in her southeast Urbana neighborhood — literally and figuratively.
"It's really important to not confuse people with their environments," said Arbiter, a member of the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee who turned out Saturday to help pick up trash around Lierman Avenue, Washington, Lanore, Austin and Hunter streets with about 20 other people.
The neighborhood has been marked by increasing crime in the last few years, in part due to rental housing that has fallen into disrepair due to foreclosures and owner neglect, and due to what some see as a lack of services.
Having lived for 11 years in the Aspen Court apartments on Hunter Street, just south of Washington, Arbiter is well aware of what's going on around her and has joined forces with others to try to improve it.
Arbiter's property manager, Beth Laughlin of Green Street Realty, was publicly praised by Urbana Police Chief Pat Connolly last week for her efforts to improve that property and to work cooperatively with police to make life better for the Aspen Court tenants.
But Arbiter said not all of the rental housing along Lierman gets that kind of positive attention from its owners.
"An environment is partly defined by what exists or does not exist. In our neighborhood we don't have parks with recreational features. We don't have immediate or easy access to much needed or helping services," she said.
"Because we're next to ... zoning that encourages things that cater to addictions rather than strengths, and because this is a poor community that can't easily travel to where opportunities exist, there's a need for development of resources within a half-mile of Lierman Avenue," she said.
She acknowledged that recent crime reports show that area has a high percentage of calls for police service but said many of those calls are from people with drug addiction or mental health problems.
"Somebody from this neighborhood trying to get help has to travel pretty far to get it," she said. "Frances Nelson (Health Center) is two bus rides away. Champaign-Urbana Public Health is in north Champaign."
"If we can make a community center within a half-mile of this neighborhood then we can perhaps get agencies to bring services to our neighborhood directly to where they are needed," she said, lauding the Public Health District for its "Wellness on Wheels" van that comes to the neighborhood weekly with such offerings as contraceptives.
The community center is the loftiest of three goals that the committee, dubbed LNAC. has set for the area. The committee has existed about three years but has ratcheted up its efforts to work with the city in the last six months, Arbiter said.
The other two goals may be easier to attain, said Dennis Roberts, the Urbana City Council alderman who represents the area.
The second is a community garden proposed for a city-owned lot at the corner of Lierman and Washington, the same place Roberts was handing out supplies for volunteers on Saturday.
Roberts explained that the .98 acre lot was previously owned by the Urban League and, at the request of LNAC, the city recently bought it at auction for development for future affordable housing. Since the housing isn't on the near horizon, the committee proposed offering garden plots for a nominal rental fee to area residents.
Roberts said Mayor Laurel Prussing recently approved the city running a water line to the site, University of Illinois architecture students have helped design the garden, which will start with 12 to 18 plots, and First Federal Savings is donating tomato plants. They hope to break ground for the garden by the end of the month, he said.
"I've got seeds already started," said Arbiter.
The third goal LNAC has is a "recreational park" as opposed to just the primarily open space in the form of ball fields that now exist at Prairie Park.
Roberts said he'd like to see a "small pocket park that would provide a gathering space for the community, something that would actually have flowers and a basketball hoop and take some of the activity away from the Home Run," the convenience store on East Washington Street that acts as a de facto community center for area residents. The Phillips 66 station next door to it is about the only other place in the area where you can buy a beverage or candy bar.
Roberts said street lighting is scheduled to be installed at Hunter Street and Austin Drive and Hunter Street and Lanore Drive in July, the beginning of the city's next fiscal year.
"It's lighting that was needed even without the fights," Arbiter said of those corners, dark from the heavy growth of mature trees. "We hope the lighting will improve safety for homeowners, area residents and police trying to do their jobs."
Arbiter said the park district also recently put three picnic tables at Prairie Park, a small but positive step.
"This gives people in the neighborhood a chance to go to the park and have a picnic," she said, adding that LNAC is also hoping for the installation of a stationary grill.
Police Chief Pat Connolly said there's no question that the efforts of LNAC and area residents — like James Winston, a barber who made a video on appropriate citizen interaction with police when stopped — are making a difference in that part of town.
"We are getting more calls about police being more visible and neighbors are getting to know each other and speaking with one another. Calls for service are down but it's because of a high police presence," Connolly said.
"This can't be a short-term project. It has to be a long-term project. Ultimately, our goal is to look at a consistent reduction in crime and that happens only through continued cooperation with a whole lot of people."