By Linda Loomis | Original Article
Dec. 4, 2018

Oswego homeowners Mark and Kim McPherson had been discouraged watching the deterioration of their East Sixth Street neighborhood over the past few years. Older homes, neglectful landlords, and an aging population were all factors. Friends told the McPhersons they should just move.

Instead, the couple decided to reverse the downward trend by working with Oswego Renaissance Association to enlist other homeowners and, working together, reclaim their neighborhood. Kim volunteered as a block leader, and at their home, the McPhersons replaced a deteriorating wooden porch with durable, composite decking. And, in the spirit of ORA, Mark helped an older friend, someone he considers a second mom, do landscaping work she wasn’t able to do on her own.

Block by block, one neighborhood after another, the city of Oswego is emerging from rust-belt decay and becoming a model of revitalization. The impetus behind the painted homes, restored facades, terraced gardens and general upgrades is the non-profit Oswego Renaissance Association. The program provides limited matching grants for clusters of residents who form block groups and make commitments to meet together, plan and carry out individual projects. Funds are also available for painting and other improvements in identified neighborhoods.

Paul Stewart, a member of the SUNY Oswego psychology department faculty, founded ORA several years after he and his husband, Steve Phillips, bought and renovated a house in 2008 that had previously been home to a fraternity. Although they enjoyed city living and wanted to live near the college, the couple was discouraged that Oswego was seen as a fading community.

“By 2010-2011, I realized things around us were not changing for the better,” Stewart said. “Hope was fading, poverty was increasing, and all indicators for the future of the city were trending downward.” He thought people didn’t see the value of investing in their property.

“We decided that if we were to stay in Oswego, we had to help create the community we wanted to live in and be part of,” Stewart said.

Experience had already taught him a healthy community would not evolve from better code enforcement, an influx of federal or state funding, or firmer regulations from the city — all things that are important but are not sufficient on their own.

Stewart noticed what happened as he and Phillips continued to make improvements to their W. Seneca street property. Neighbors followed suit and some positive change took place.

As a statistician, Steward wanted to back up his observations with facts, so he studied the ‘Healthy Neighborhoods’ approach.” It’s a concept promoted by David Boehlke, and it asks people who want to reinvigorate their neighborhoods to invest three things: money, time and energy.

A market analysis report prepared in 2014 by urban planning and development firm czbLLC for the Renaissance Association, clearly showed Oswegonians had the money to support improvements, but they lacked the confidence.

Stewart calls it “social capital” and it is working in Oswego. Statistics show that for every dollar in grants, private residents spend approximately $3. In 2017, more than $2 million was invested in Oswego as more than 150 residents received grants through the Renaissance Block Challenge, Neighborhood Pride, or Paint Oswego.

That year, 15 separate city blocks had five or more participants that each received a matching grant toward the first $1,000 spent toward exterior home improvements and landscaping. More grants have been awarded this year, and instead of “creeping blight,” Oswego is experiencing “expanding pride.”

That pride goes deeper than improved resale values and pleasing visuals; it reaches into the social aspects of neighborhood living as well. Brian and Jenny Ackley, who purchased property at 40 W. Oneida St. in 2012 and moved there permanently in 2016, say ORA has helped them form a community.

Brian brought neighbors in the Kingsford Historic District of Oswego together this spring, and when more than the mandatory minimum of five agreed to participate in the Block Grant Challenge, he volunteered to fill the required role of block leader.

The Ackleys applied their grant toward completing a project of painting the trim on their house, repairing and painting their garden fence, painting a property line fence, creating new flower beds with 350 bulbs planted, and cleaning overgrowth in a back garden.

“The sum result of these projects was quite impressive,” Brian says. He adds that people are eager to continue their projects next year and are hoping to draw more neighbors into the improvement efforts. Neighbors have begun opening up to one another, inviting people to backyard gatherings and special occasions. One homeowner had a fall gathering that included college student renters who had returned for the academic year.

“Encouraging people to join together to improve their neighborhood is just as important as the financial investment,” Brian says.

Sherry Tolley Keytack says she’s proof that small projects can yield big results. She is part of the East Fourth and Utica streets Renaissance Block that has received funding for three years. She used this year’s grant to make repairs on her front porch and add new handrails and a mailbox. In previous years, she has planted a curb garden and added a new water spigot and exterior electric cable. She has painted the exterior of her East Fourth Street home with a Paint Oswego grant.

“I love to look down my street and see that it looks much prettier than it did a few years ago,” Keytack says. “More people care about their property. I’ve come to learn my neighbor’s names and gotten to know them better than before.” She says they share a new “we’re all in this together” vibe.

Across the Oswego River, Jonel Langenfelder, who has painted trim, added rain gutters, installed decorative lighting and replanted gardens at her home at 14 W. Fifth St., says she and her neighbors have become “a tight knit group.” They hold block parties, produce a festive Halloween, have barbecues together, and cooperate in displaying seasonal flags. The June Pride flags helped one new couple decide they wanted to live in the lakeside neighborhood.

“They thought our flags were an indication of our openness and welcoming spirit,” Langenfelder says. “I think that is so fabulous. I’m all about community, and that is what the ORA Block Challenge does. It builds community one small project at a time.”

Janet and Sherwood Anderson, who moved to 40 W. Cayuga St. four years ago and have used to grant to kick-start a series of renovations to their home, agree with Langenfelder.

“Being transplants from out of state, Our involvement in ORA initiatives has been a factor in helping us meet and become friends with out neighbors,” Janet says. “It has fostered a sense of community in our neighborhood that is very refreshing.”

Stewart points out the residual benefits of the city’s renaissance include cooperative projects carried out by residents who pool their resources. Oswego now has new playgrounds built by people in the neighborhood, an annual Porchfest in what has been called “the city of front porches,” and the replacement of a deteriorating sidewalk railing and installation of decorative lamp posts to cap off one block grant group.

Kim McPherson says healthy neighborhoods are within the grasp of everyone. “If you think it’s impossible, then think again,” she says. “It starts with a supportive mayor and city administration, and it proceeds with drivers like ORA and its funding partners. But the spirit for success comes from the people. I feel that the change in our neighborhood is a great start to a positive change in our city.”

Major funding comes from the Richard S. Shineman Foundation, Pathfinder Bank and, with in–kind administrative support, SUNY Oswego. Stewart says other donations and support come from community members. Applications for the 2019 season of grants will be available in January 2019.