Building a better South Park: The historic neighborhood’s unprecedented progress

06 Apr
[This essay appeared in the Dayton City Paper February 23, 2011]

Everybody loves it when the good guys win. The story of the renewal of South Park, Dayton’s largest historic neighborhood, is inspiring in its transformation and instructive in its struggle against urban blight and all its ills. Once perceived as a place to be avoided, South Park has regained its aura as a desirable neighborhood, poised to take advantage of two major societal trends: the younger generation’s migration to urban centers, and people’s awakened quest for community, meaning and social responsibility.

An influx of young first-time homebuyers is increasing the social capital of the 130-year-old neighborhood that even through its years of disinvestment (World War II through the 1970s), was regarded as friendly. The famous South Park parties have been in place for 50 years, along with its neighborhood improvement association. Which may be why, as other neighborhoods collapsed, South Park never completely lost its original function as a residential area for the mixed working class serving downtown employers. But it came close to losing its soul.

In the late 70s, the overzealous demolition of “outdated” structures was in full swing, threatening the 24-block area of more than 700 buildings dating from the 1880s. In 1981, the city came to the rescue with a historic overlay; in 1984, South Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The first wave of urban renewers, the preservationists, now had landmark standards, a weapon with which to combat blight.

According to 28-year resident, Pam Miller Howard, realtor and specialist in historic properties, “The South Park preservationists were the pioneers who took the early risk to renovate their Victorian homes without expecting a profit. Loans and insurance were nearly nonexistent. We had to convince local banks and CityWide Development to allow loans.”

Renovations were then typically multi-year projects and historic architectural details were highly prized. Teams sought grants for improvement of public green spaces, historic-style street lights, wrought iron fences, trees and landscaping.

“We were caught up in a fever to preserve Dayton’s architectural beauty,” said Howard. “By necessity, we formed community alliances to push our work forward.”

Throughout the 80s and 90s, grassroots efforts resulted in house values slowly going up, but the perception of the neighborhood as undesirable persisted. Property crime was a problem, as were absent landlords and abandoned homes succumbing to arson. But the character of the neighborhood was its strength.

“South Park’s success rests on its original 1880s framework,” said Aaron Sorrell, housing development manager for the City of Dayton. “It was conceived as an attractive neighborhood for NCR factory workers, who lived next door to NCR executives and accountants, thus the unusual diversity of housing stock. Large Victorians, two-story brick or frame houses, cottages and shotguns. The beauty of it is that by mixing it up, you’re not pitting one economic class against another. You are promoting the idea of shared values. Shared values hold a renewing organization together, and inform its actions which become meaningful shared experiences.”

While the physical layout of South Park contributes to its neighborliness, and an active neighborhood association aids its development, no single entity is strong enough to lift up a community on its own, according to urban historian Alexander von Hoffman. “For successful and sustained renewal, communities need a cadre of leaders who can change the perceptions and actual conditions that affect the reputation of their neighborhood,” von Hoffman said. “Leaders must coordinate the actions of its residents and create innovative alliances between local government, private investors, realtors, individuals, non-profit groups and law enforcement.”

In 1992, the preservationists were given a sweet victory: a house sold for over $100,000. In 1993, South Park got a leader of will and determination in the form of a stay-at-home mother of three, expecting her fourth. Karin Manovich and husband Mark moved to into a home overlooking Park Drive’s broad boulevard.

Karin, now executive director of Troy Main Street’s historic business district, served as president of Historic South Park’s neighborhood association for 12 of her 19-year residence. She recalled, “Back then it seemed like every bench along the parkway had bums drinking 40-ounce beer, day and night. When I took my children to the park, I brought along a broom and dustpan to sweep up broken beer bottles.”

Vagrants, when arrested for petty property crime, tend to be returned to the streets almost overnight to the utter frustration of their victims. Karin, however, has two great talents: a short fuse and a gift for strategy. Her natural reserve belies her Irish-American temper and tenacity, which come to the fore when confronted by criminals and conmen. Her network with local leaders and ability to mobilize the neighborhood against threats has been central to South Park’s battles against negative investment during the last decade. Some of these battles have become neighborhood lore.

In an effort that could be described as the South Park version of temperance legend Carrie Nation, Karin led neighbors in a campaign to remove the four liquor carry-out establishments that attracted the scourge of bums.

“Voting a precinct dry is incredibly complicated and time consuming,” said Karin, who delved into the arcane legal complexities to close the carry-out stores, but keep the dine-in liquor licenses that would later allow for establishments like South Park Tavern.

“We canvassed two precincts to get names on petitions to get the issue on a ballot and then voted into law,” she said. “I had one baby in a stroller and one my back, ringing doorbells after dark asking for people’s help in fighting crime and assuring them we were not taking away their beer.” Her fellow canvassers went door-to-door with beer in hand to show they weren’t anti-drink, just anti-crime. The carry-outs fought back, making the battle twice as tough and long, but the dry vote won the day. Removing the carry-outs reduced crime by 80 percent.

Innovative moves by South Park included the creation of a non-profit development corporation which renovated seven long-vacant problem properties, as well as the formation of a for-profit investment group to purchase the building which today is South Park Tavern. Gunfire, police calls, noise and crime were eliminated once the neighborhood acquired the building and delivered it into friendly hands. “We all lost our money in the deal, but gained safer streets,” Manovich said. “There are no regrets.”

Of course, South Park wasn’t the only neighborhood fighting for its life in the 90s. CityWide Development, Dayton’s non-profit development arm, in conjunction with Home Builders Association (HBA), the nonprofit group that promotes Homearamas, purchased properties and staged Rehabaramas in McPherson Town, Huffman and other historic districts. South Park lobbied for its own. In 2001, eight blighted homes were saved by the Rehabarama team. The effect was immediate. Property values rose 30 percent. Concurrently, CityWide offered matching grants for owners to do exterior improvements; the money was quickly claimed and the improvement engine kept going.

Shortly after the Rehabarama, Kevin Moran bought his second South Park house. In 1997, at age 24, he had purchased his first to renovate and rent. Now married to Amanda, the couple wanted a bigger home in which to raise a family. “That’s the great thing about South Park,” says Kevin. “You can buy a starter cottage, upgrade to a big Victorian to raise your kids, then trade down to a smaller home when the nest is empty.”

Between 2001 and 2006 there were no public funds for Rehabarama, but South Park now had a critical mass of activists who were determined to keep the momentum going with aggressive marketing tactics such as home tours, events, even videos. Ironically, the beginning of the national housing crisis, 2006 and 2007, would be its crucial turnaround years. The public perception was destined to reverse as the neighborhood galvanized for its most intense renewal effort yet, one that would take 7,000 hours of tightly organized volunteer time from over 250 residents and result in over 6,000 visits to the neighborhood.

According to urbanist von Hoffman, renewers can be long-time residents who refuse to accept the downfall of a community, who have the persistence and belief that you can make a difference. And some are catalysts who make it a full-time cause. Manovich, always on the lookout for friendly investors, met two such catalysts. Michael DiFlora, a retired engineer, had already rehabbed 100 homes throughout Dayton, but realized by concentrating his efforts on one neighborhood, he could have greater impact. Developer Theresa Gasper straddles two worlds. She is both a catalyst and former resident whose mother was a neighborhood activist. Theresa’s dream was to save the house she grew up in and help raise up the neighborhood that four generations of her family, and now her children, called home.

In early 2006, Manovich quietly spearheaded negotiations with the City of Dayton and HBA to stage a privately funded Rehabarama. Michael and Theresa purchased a whopping 30 homes for $2.9 million, renovating 10 in time for the 2007 Rehabarama that would push South Park over the top.

The efforts inspired another ground swell of homeowner improvements through the streets of South Park. This time there was an epic spike in home sales, including the first homes sold for over $200,000.

It could be that stars were aligning. Or it could be that the South Park Neighborhood Association never stops looking for fruitful partnerships. In 2007, the Dayton chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded South Park an in-kind grant, the AIA 150 “Blueprint for your Community,” selecting it from among neighborhoods and municipalities in a nine-county area because of its track record of community volunteerism. The grant brought more media attention and a means to share the neighborhood’s vision of the future.

It was during his work on the AIA 150, with 30 fellow architects and 150 residents, that Matt Sauer of Rogero Buckman decided to buy into the neighborhood, restoring one of its cottages. “South Park was a revelation,” says Sauer. “The neighbors are creative, committed and smart. And old houses are surprisingly solid, with good shells that can adapt to a contemporary flow.”

The icing on the cake was the 2008 Neighborhood of the Year Award for Physical Improvement granted to Historic South Park by Neighborhoods USA, a national non-profit organization committed to building and strengthening neighborhood organizations.

Yet, after two decades of concerted struggle against overwhelming odds, Historic South Park is not something all shiny and new. There is still work to be done. The neighborhood association is now led by community-minded Millennials, the younger generation, who want to grapple with the outside world and win. According to president Amy Lee, media coordinator for the Kettering Foundation, South Park is gearing up for the April 30 Spring Home Tour, and another concerted push against blight and absent landlords.

For all involved in its renewal, there is a reward beyond increased home values. South Park is rich in social and cultural capital. Manovich speaks to the sense of belonging, of the good feeling of taking care of ourselves and others. “You end up with unexpected friendships across ages and interests, brought about by working together,” said Manovich. “No one’s materialistic and competitive. You can live beneath your means and just be yourself.”

When asked what he sees as the future of South Park, Sorrell is optimistic. “The story of South Park mirrors the city it’s part of,” said Sorrell. “It’s proving itself the leader of its own economic transformation, with the city coming in to help. That work has been followed by a full circle of investment in the area by the University of Dayton, GE Aviation, the Aerospace Hub and Miami Valley Hospital. The future of South Park is amazingly bright, as it is for the entire city.”

By bringing a 21st century urban culture to what was once thought to be a relic of the past, Historic South Park is a spur for positive change. It is the future.

To read some interesting footnotes to this essay, see David Esrati’s post.