Paving the way for Jeep factory makes for bumpy emotional road

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Phyllis Knopp speaks of her neighborhood in the past tense.

“It was a great place to live. The people were friendly. They helped one another out. The kids could play in the street.”

Most of her neighborhood is still there, but the clock is ticking. Mrs. Knopp lives on Cecilia Avenue, part of a small working-class neighborhood the city is buying and tearing down.

Officials say it’s for a good cause, patching together the land for an expansion of the Stickeny Avenue Jeep plant, but that doesn’t make it any easier for people to leave their homes.

To make matters more traumatic, the neighborhood has turned from a safe haven to a scavenger’s heaven.

“You see lots of people driving through slowly, people looking at the empty houses for something to steal,” said Frank Gordon, who has lived in the neighborhood 34 of his 70 years. He says he’ll go to Michigan in the summer.

Chrysler’s multibillion-dollar presence in Toledo includes $1.2 billion to build a Jeep factory at the company’s Stickney Avenue site and improvements at the aging main plant on Jeep Parkway.

The company will retain 4,900 of Jeep’s 5,600 jobs.

When Chrysler agreed to stay, part of the city’s financial incentive package was that it would hand over the small neighborhood between I-75 and the current Stick ney site for a vehicle storage area and parking.

The city agreed to purchase the homes and businesses along those three short blocks – bounded by Stickney, Cecilia, Elden Drive, and the interstate – demolish the structures, and turn over the land to the auto giant.

The agreement affects 83 homes and 18 businesses.

“It’s been traumatic,” Mrs. Knopp said, sitting in her living room in the neighborhood she’s lived in for 40 years. “For older people, change is hard.”

After a homeowner closes a deal with the city, he has 30 days to salvage whatever he can from his home before it is demolished. Most move out their belongings quickly, but residents say the leftovers have become easy pickings for criminals and delinquents.

The home across the street from Rose Marie Amborski, who has lived in her house for almost 55 years, was vacated a month ago. On April 18, someone broke in, she said. The thief took a steel door the owner had bought for $500 and was going to give to a relative. He stole the toilet.

Ms. Amborski said that in the last week, she has chased away people who wanted to steal cupboards in the kitchen and a small shed in the backyard of the house across the street.

Mr. Gordon said someone broke into an abandoned home two doors down from his house last week.

“They broke the door, then tore apart an air conditioner,” he said. They took the unit’s coil.

Dozens of homes have been left vacant on neighborhood streets, but as of last week, only two had been demolished. Several residents said they see cars of strangers driving through the neighborhood, and they are afraid that their homes are being cased.

In the other homes, owners and neighbors have created their own security systems – from leaving guard dogs to nailing up signs asking vandals to stay away.

“When they hit that house [across the street], I was mad,” Ms. Amborski said. “I put up signs on the windows to keep them away.”

She said her biggest worry wasn’t for the last scraps of property left in abandoned homes – it’s for the residents who remain.

“There are some old women who are alone in their homes here,” she said. “What if there’s no lights on the house and some criminal goes in there at night?”

Residents say they wish police were more active in the neighborhood to keep the scavengers away.

Toledo Police Capt. Derrick Diggs said he was unaware of looting problems in the neighborhood and that police have not scheduled any special patrols in the area.

“If it’s happening, [the residents] are not reporting it,” Captain Diggs said.

People still in the neighborhood have begun to serve as their own ad hoc security service. Several said they haven’t been able to sleep at night since their negotiations with the city began, so they spend their waking time watching for scavengers in the dark.

“Since they’ve told us we had to leave, I haven’t rested since,” Mr. Gordon said. “It’s made me physically sick.”

Most homeowners in the neighborhood, though, say they have been treated well by the city, getting prices close to what they think is fair market value for their homes. Councilwoman Edna Brown, whose district includes the neighborhood, said she hasn’t got ten any significant complaints from her constituents.

When they began negotiations, city officials said they expected to pay between $15,000 and $60,000 for each property, and they say they’ve mostly met that target.

Chrysler set a deadline of December, 1999, for the city to turn over its residential land. Two parcels of industrial land have an earlier deadline, one in July, 1998.

The city is ahead of that schedule. Bob Reinbolt, the city’s Jeep project coordinator, said he expects all the industrial land will be acquired within a week or so, and more than half of the neighborhood’s homeowners have settled with the city. He said he expects the rest will be completed by the end of July.

But just because homeowners seem willing to make a deal with the city doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. Many residents, particularly older ones, are upset they will have to leave their paid-for homes for a mortgaged house in an unfamiliar part of town.

Sharon McQueary bought her home in October, just a few months before she was told she’d have to leave. Last week, she was holding a garage sale to get rid of old baby clothes – anything to make it easier to pack.

`I was mad when I heard the news,” she said. “Three months here, and they say, `Oh, we’re stealing your house.”‘

She said she won’t be staying in Toledo. She’s planning to take whatever she can from the city’s settlement and build a home in Ottawa County.

“To buy a house like we have in some other part of Toledo might cost $120,000,” she said.

Now that the loss of their homes is a foregone conclusion, the most important decision left for some residents is to decide how quickly to get out.

Mr. Gordon said he’ll stay until July 17, the last day he can stay under his agreement with the city. Ms. Amborski said she’ll leave when she finds a new place, but said she isn’t in a rush.

Linda Martz, Mrs. Knopp’s daughter, asks the point of staying any longer than necessary.

“Who wants to stay here? What kind of protection do you have? It’s kind of scary seeing strange people walking around looking in houses.”

On one abandoned garage, a departed neighbor has struggled for a more optimistic tone. “Good luck!,” a message reads in spattered white paint. “God bless us all! Keep praying! So long!”