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In yards and parks, Toledoans strive to improve neighborhoods

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    Alfonzo "Fonz" Miles stands in Junction Park which is on the corner of Nebraska and Junction.

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    Junction Park is on the corner of Nebraska and Junction.

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    Alfonso 'Fonz' Miles stands in Junction Par. Mr. Miles wants to set up a program to help youth learn a variety of skills, like changing a car tire, fixing different car parts, carpentry or electric, to give them something to work for, rather than get involved in gang activity.

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    Renee Ford, right, and some of her neighbors get together at her house in East Toledo.

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    Marta Salinas, left, Tina Silva, and Delores Cranston chat at Renee Ford's house in East Toledo.

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    Marta Salinas, left, and Tina Silva, enjoy sitting outside and chatting.

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Renee Ford’s family wants her to move out of her Berry Street home in East Toledo.

Her son, Brad Bollinger, worries for his mother’s safety with criminal activity on the outskirts of her block; the “strange people” walking up and down the street.

A few miles away, on the other side of the Maumee River, Alfonso “Fonz” Miles of the central city has seen his share of neighborhood crime in recent weeks.The streets near his Belmont Avenue home are often deserted by a certain time of night, he said. Just going outside can be dangerous.

WATCH: Alfonso “Fonz” Miles talks about plan to revive a Toledo park.

But Mrs. Ford, 52, and Mr. Miles, 75, aren’t giving up on their homes or communities just yet. Instead they’re working to make their neighborhoods better places.

Their efforts underscore how Toledoans have their own way of looking out for each other. Whether it’s creating a block watch or calling to see how a neighbor is doing — the smallest actions go a long way.

“There are things we can do to help save some of these young people here,” Mr. Miles said. “Get off your duster and come on out and get involved.”

‘Fighting with the tide’

Police said building community helps solve crime in a city that, as of last week, had recorded 28 homicides and more than 90 people shot this year. On Friday, Toledo police shot and killed Lamar Richardson, 25, after he wielded a 9mm pistol during a pursuit that ended near Lagrange and Hudson streets in North Toledo. He was a suspect in several robberies.  

The benefit of strengthening neighborhood ties was on display in the Old West End recently when residents there helped lead police to a peeping tom accused of breaking into apartments for months, police said. 

Neighbors communicated with each other on social media and shared the suspect’s description. Their resourcefulness helped police track down Tyreece Richardson, 23, who is now charged with burglary, theft, and fleeing police.

RELATED: ‘Old West End Creeper’ possibly caught | Toledo woman shot after delivering pizza

“That’s how we would like to see it happen — getting out, knowing your neighbors, being vocal with the police department when you recognize something isn’t right,” Lt. Kevan Toney, a Toledo police spokesman, said. 

It’s a tactic that takes a while to develop but “we need people investing in their neighborhoods,” Lieutenant Toney said. 

Mrs. Ford has lived in the 900 block of Berry Street for nearly 30 years. She knows just about everyone. 

On a recent summer afternoon she waved to a neighbor as he biked down the middle of the East Toledo street. 

“You dropped your money,” he yelled. 

Mrs. Ford looked down and laughed. 

“You got me,” she said, realizing the man was joking with her.

Sure, there were problems in the past — mostly minor issues — but things started to change in May, she said. To combat some of the suspicious activity, she and her neighbors regularly connect to let outsiders know such behavior isn’t welcome. 

Mrs. Ford believes crime from surrounding streets is creeping onto hers. Over the past few months, she’s seen a woman performing sexual acts on a man in a vehicle. Neighbors told her a woman reportedly overdosed in a driveway. Mrs. Ford recently learned a neighbor’s property was spray-painted. 

Unknown vehicles pull up in front of Mrs. Ford’s home daily. People cut through a vacant lot across the street. Mrs. Ford said she suspects they’re going to neighboring streets, though she noted these people don’t stay long. 

Others have cut through a well-maintained vacant lot she owns near Berry and Earl streets. The parcel, which once housed a beautiful home that burned, now grows lush cherry trees. Mrs. Ford intends to turn the lot into a registered pollination habitation — a park for bees, butterflies, and bats.

She recently confronted trespassers there taking a shortcut to a neighboring street. The day after the confrontation someone defecated in the lot, leaving a trail of toilet paper behind.

She never intended the lot be used as a public toilet.

“I don’t want people cutting through. I don’t want them cutting through leaving garbage, but I definitely don’t want them cutting through and pooping,” she said.

Mrs. Ford also owns a second vacant lot, where a house once stood but was also demolished after a fire. On this lot, she installed a fence in the back to keep people from cutting through.

While other nearby vacant lots are infested with tall grass and collect piles of refuse, Mrs. Ford has made good use of her empty space. It includes a fire pit, a horseshoe game, mint and lilac plants, and a garden full of cucumbers, corn, watermelon, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and a variety of peppers.

Mrs. Ford encourages family and neighbors to gather there because “East Toledo used to be about neighbors watching each other’s backs.” 

It’s the first step in fighting crime: Looking out for what’s unusual in her immediate community, she said. Mrs. Berry said many of her neighbors are just as passionate about keeping up the neighborhood. 

“You gotta stop it before it gets bad. Because if you come in after it’s already gotten bad and you try to change things, then you’re fighting against the tide,” Mrs. Ford said. “But if you already have a place that’s good and you’re showing people it can be good, then you’re fighting with the tide.”

On a warm July day, Mrs. Ford along with a few other women from the block sat around a table under a shaded awning snacking on tamales and fresh fruit. They chatted about family, health, cooking, and the neighborhood.

Marta Salinas, 82, has lived in her Berry Street home for more than 50 years, across from Mrs. Ford’s garden lot. 

“I hear her working out here all the time,” Mrs. Salinas said. “I can’t get too much done at home because I’m in pain. I get outside just to see the neighbors working in their garden.”

A boiling point

Mr. Miles, who lives on the 1100 block of Belmont Avenue, says he’s had enough after a recent string of gun violence near his home — many of the shootings involved teenagers or young adults.

He said hearing gunshots is nothing new, but the past few weeks have been different. It’s reaching a boiling point, but Mr. Miles said it’s only going to get worse without intervention.

On June 5, Sadari Knighten, 28, was fatally shot after she delivered a pizza to a home in the 800 block of Hoag Street — just around the corner from Mr. Miles’ home. Then, there were four shootings in a row — two at night and two during the day. The month ended with the June 27 fatal shooting of Spar’Quelle Codo, 20, a few doors down from Mr. Miles’ home.

“The only thing we can do is to keep it at a low key, but it’s going to explode,” Mr. Miles said. “That’s what the Bible says. Unless the higher echelon get their act together and realize this is a spiritual warfare that we’re going through.”

Mr. Miles, a near lifelong resident of the Glass City, stood in the unkempt grass of Junction Park looking defeated on a recent July day. Empty chip bags and other debris littered the landscape.

The Libbey High School graduate said city leaders have forgotten the inner city, which often needs the most support.

He wants to give back to better his community. On his own terms.

As a young boy, Mr. Miles said his father gave him a painting job to complete for $50. He enjoyed it and he enjoyed making money, so he turned it into a job doing handiwork for clients.

Mr. Miles wants to take his skills and pass them on to neighborhood youth, possibly joining with others in the community to teach teenagers plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, or maybe car repairs; something for youth to work toward, rather than go down the wrong path.

But he also wants a space for families to gather and enjoy themselves; a place to hold cookouts and sporting events, activities to get back to what really matters.

“I’ve been dragging my feet on this here,” he said. “I should have been on it but there comes a breaking point — like that young lady [Ms. Codo] who got killed. She didn’t deserve to get killed.”

Mr. Miles originally had his sights on Junction Park, which is owned by the city of Toledo. In his plan, he wanted the city to lease the space to him for $1 a year and he would be solely responsible for caring for the property, he said. Instead, city council recently approved a grant that will allow for an outdoor stage and seating area to be built there.

His backup plan is to use Indiana Park, which is also owned by the city. Mr. Miles said Indiana Park is in better condition, has swings, a softball diamond, and basketball court, along with room “to have some teaching.”

Mr. Miles has not taken his idea or plans to city officials, he said.

“We need to get out here and we need to start doing something,” Mr. Miles said. “Let me take the reins without the city doing something. Well, now they’re going to come up with all the legality, all the red tape they’re going to throw at you.”

It’s the first time city spokesman Ignazio Messina has heard of such a plan, but he said he’s sure city officials would be willing to listen.

“It sounds like he wants to be a great part of Toledo,” Mr. Messina said. “We can connect him to the right people. We’d have to look at what he wants.”

On Belmont Avenue, Mr. Miles knows nearly everyone’s name and their story.

Even in the middle of Junction Park’s field, passing motorists recognized him, honking to get his attention. Mr. Miles waved and hollered to ask how they were doing.

“I know what the young people want. I know what we have to do to try and turn the situation around,” he said.

Mrs. Ford, who said she previously worked in a nursing home, knew patients who spent their whole lives moving to a “better neighborhood” until they moved into the facility. 

“Unless you can move up 10 steps, the bad neighborhood is catching up with you,” she said. “So you’re better off staying in the neighborhood and keeping it as good as you can.”

Contact Allison Dunn at adunn@theblade.com,419-724-6506, or on Twitter @AllisonDBlade.

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