Warren is being rebuilt. One house at a time. Some residents living in the area just north of downtown Warren are working diligently to turn houses into the homes of their dreams. Buying older homes, often damaged or abandoned by previous owners, the residents are restoring the properties to their original beauty.
Some of the rehabilitations have been lavish, making the houses stand out from the rest of the neighborhood, while others are understated, blending with properties surrounding them.
"Our goal is both to make a beautiful and comfortable home for our family as well as inspire others who see what is being done to do what they can on their own properties," homeowner Frank Ortzen-Abbott said. "There are some properties in this city with which people can create quite beautiful homes.
Rebekah, Eliza and Frank Ortzen-Abbott sit in front of the home they refurbished on Washington Street N.W. in Warren. The family has also been rehabilitating an older home that had been abandoned by its former owner and stripped of all of its contents.
"It may not be easy, but great satisfaction can be derived from the work," he said.
The area includes the Historic Perkins Homestead Neighborhood as well as an area recently identified by some as the city's garden district.
The Perkins Homestead Neighborhood is bordered on the east by Park Avenue, on the west by the Mahoning River, on the south by High Street and to the north by Summit and Atlantic streets. The garden district is bordered by Atlantic Street on the north, Elm Road on the east, High Street on the south and Park Avenue on west. It is 22 square blocks.
With more than 100 vacant houses in this area, it has drawn the attention of numerous neighborhood groups and officials. Just this past week, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman took a walking tour of Washington Street N.E. to view the blight and discuss ways to better use federal and state money to raze vacant and derelict homes.
"This area has a high concentration of vacant properties and there will be an increasing numbers of vacant lots once the Moving Ohio Forward demolitions are completed," said Dennis Blank, a spokesman for gregg's garden, which, among other efforts, is seeding vacant city lots with wildflowers. "We are trying to make the neighborhoods desirable for people to live in again."
Some residents have already begun the hard work on their own.
"We decided to stay"
On Washington Street, Frank and Rebekah Mancino Ortzen-Abbott are rehabilitating their second home since moving to Warren.
The couple moved here in 2006 from near Cadillac, Mich. They had moved to the United States from London, England, six months earlier.
"We had a friend in the military who was moving back to the United States at the same time we were considering a move," Rebekah said. "They provided her a container to move all of her furniture. She had enough room in it to also move all of our items."
Their friend moved to Liberty.
"At the time, we had a choice of either staying in this area or moving to Oregon," she said. "We decided to stay."
They purchased a fire-damaged home at on Washington Avenue N.W. for $30,000. Because of a combination of finances and time, the couple decided to do as much of the rehabilitation work as they could themselves.
Frank, who already had some basic do-it-yourself home remodeling skills, increased his knowledge by talking to and working with area contractors. He was unafraid to completely mess up a project in the interest of learning new skills.
Rebekah took a job with Ajax Tocco Magnethermic to bring some income into their home. They chased away the prostitutes and other unsavory elements that congregated around the house by using video cameras.
"I would not say anything to them," Frank said. "I would just point the camera. Eventually, they moved elsewhere."
While working on this home, the couple often walked the neighborhood and spotted 272 Washington, which was going through foreclosure and a sheriff's sale. It eventually went back to the Geauga Savings Bank.
"We called the bank and offered cash," she said. "They sold it to us in 2008. It was about half of what we purchased the other house."
It was not until 2009 when they could move into the house. Frank stayed at home to work on the property and to take care of their daughter, Eliza.
"The house was completely stripped," Rebekah said. "It was not fire-damaged, like the other house, but it needed much more work. It did not have a kitchen."
As they worked on the home, the couple, who are vegetarians, began planting what has grown to 36 raised-bed garden boxes in the rear of their property. They purchased another property directly behind their home on which they are now clearing and planting an orchard of apple and pear trees, grape vines and other plants.
"We are not self-sufficient on food, but we want to get to a point where we could be," he said.
Using the skills learned in the rehabilitation of the two houses, Frank is now working with area contractors, so Rebekah quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom. The couple has made their home their business, calling it Harrington House and Gardens, giving tours of the house.
"We're going to continue slowly rehabilitating the house," he said. "We want everything to be done right the first time so we will not have to do it again."
"There is so much opportunity here," she said. "We could not have done what we are doing here anywhere else."
"We could not have done this (anywhere else) without being millionaires," he said. "You could not get this much land."
"There is a pride in ownership"
Leaders at Divine Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ, 500 Vine Ave. N.E., spent more than $30,000 building concrete wheelchair ramp, painted the exterior trim of the brick building and did other work on the building.
"As we were doing this, we noticed some other property owners doing work on their properties," the Rev. Preston May said. "I think when people see others doing something to improve their homes, they also want to do something."
May said the neighborhood has been moving in a positive direction in the 11 years since they moved into the temple. There is less prostitution and crime in the area, he said.
"With the demolition of some abandoned houses, there are fewer places for people to hide," May said. "I would like to see more people buying homes to live in them, instead of buying properties to be used for rentals."
"People generally take more pride in properties when they live in them," he said. "There is a pride in ownership."
As more houses come down around the city, May hopes that officials consider creating mini parks where benches and concrete trash receptacles can be placed.
"I would love to see play areas with swing sets, slides and other recreational are place to give young people places to go and something to do," he said.
"I was optimistic about what could be done"
Shawn and Marianne Marko purchased 169 Washington St. N.W. in 2007 for nearly $50,000. They have been spending on improvement projects ever since.
The large property had at one time been split into a four-unit office and apartment complex. A Warren G. Harding graduate, Marko, 43, said he fell for the Victorian-style architecture the moment he saw the property online.
"I could see in one room from the window," Marko said. "I saw it has some nice woodwork in it, so I was optimistic about what could be done."
Marko, a music teacher at Stambaugh Academy and professional musician, never imagined the level of work needed at the house.
Since purchasing the property, the Markos have put on a new roof, painted the exterior, had some plumbing and electrical work done and tore out some walls.
There still is a lot of work to do.
"If we want to bring back the full dining room, we're going to have to take out bathrooms that are on both the first and second floors," he said. "We're taking out some of the carpeting so we can refinish the hardwood floors."
Eventually, Marko wants to take out the paved parking area in the rear of the property, plant grass and place a fence around it.
"We want to make it a backyard again," he said.
Marko described older Victorian-style homes as hungry.
"They will take whatever you are willing to put into it," he said. "If it is your home, you're willing to spend the money to make it comfortable for yourself and your family. You may have to invest more than you ever will get out of the house if you sold it."
Marko said there's a combination of homeowners who are putting money into their investments while simultaneously there are still some rental properties that attract more dangerous elements.
"I am concerned because I have a kid now," he said. "I sometimes question whether we've done the right thing, whether we will be able to allow my child just to go out and play."
Councilman Greg Bartholomew, whose 4th Ward includes a portion of both the garden district and Perkins Homestead, said the efforts of these and other residents help their neighborhood because it encourages others "... to step up their game."
Bartholomew believes as home ownership becomes stronger in areas crime goes down because stable neighbors tend to not only watch over their properties, but those of their neighbors.
"It is a deterrent," he said.