Lansing Mayor Andy Schor (left) acknowledged a panoply of partners working to improve the Baker neighborhood at a press conference Thursday at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Afterwards, resident Virginia Bauman (above) told the group what it was like to grow up in the neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s.
It wasn’t unusual for Andy Schor to stick around after a press conference to take a few questions.
But the first question was a bit striking.
A huge Eurasian eagle owl from Potter Park Zoo, wrangled by zoo staffer Dennis Laidler, gently “whoooed” several times that afternoon, and aptly so. The nascent resurgence of Lansing’s Baker neighborhood, the subject of Thursday’s press conference at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, is more a matter of “who” than “what.”
“We’re here to celebrate the power of partnership,” Schor said.
Schor took the opportunity to recognize a broad coalition of groups and people, from the YMCA to Americorps and the Land Bank to community cops, clerics and cleanup volunteers who are joining forces to help out a challenged South Side neighborhood.
One of Schor’s first acts as mayor was to create the Dept. of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement, which follows an “asset-based community development model.”
“In the Baker neighborhoods, the assets are many,” Schor said. “Longterm committed residents, new residents with fresh energy, established faith-based organizations and new organizations like the Cedar Street Art Collective.”
The owl was there to represent one such asset, the Potter Park Zoo. A “Zoo in Your Neighborhood” program distributed 114 free passes to Baker Neighborhood community partners last year.
The Baker (sometimes called Baker Donora) neighborhood stretches from the Grand River on the north to Mt. Hope Road on the south, and from Pennsylvania Avenue on the east to South Cedar Street on the west — about 650 rooftops.
Schor and Police Chief Mike Yankowski, who sat nearby, announced that victim and property crimes in the neighborhood have decreased 33 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Some of the numbers thrown around Thursday were less reassuring.
Jeanna Paluzzi, director of the Ingham County Land Bank, said the Baker neighborhood has seen tax foreclosure on 17 percent of its 700 parcels since 2005. Out of 70 parcels owned by the land bank — more than 10 percent of the neighborhood — 62 vacant homes were demolished and five have been rehabbed. Paluzzi and others are trying to flip that liability into an asset.
Paluzzi invited residents to “ingrain their presence here by taking on a side lot to increase the size of their yard.” One key vacant property in the neighborhood is on the verge of renewal, according to Rawley van Fossen of the Capital Area Housing Partnership.
Van Fossen told the group Thursday about the planned redevelopment of the 200,000-square-foot Walter French Academy at 1900 S. Cedar St., built in 1925 and vacant since 2008.
“Our goal is to submit this project for funding, which will bring new housing to the area and provide historic renovation of the historic auditorium and gymnasium,” van Fossen said.
Another vacant lot is a pocket park, with a pavilion, a fence decorated with murals and sports rental equipment, thanks largely to the grant writing skills of Elizabeth Stewart, a seventh grader at Everett High School, who also got a nod from the Mayor Thursday.
An impressive series of speakers touted public art projects, art workshops, food drives, dance lessons, life drawing courses and other activities going on in the area’s re-purposed spaces, including the Cedar Street Art Collective (formerly Dicker and Deal resale shop) and the former John Bean factory.
Vicki Hamilton Allen, president and CEO of Capital Region Habitat for Humanity, said that 200 volunteers were mobilized in the Baker neighborhood in 2018 to repair siding and porches and build wheelchair ramps on 15 homes in the area and and even replace a few roofs, in tandem with a federal home loan bank based in Indianapolis.
Hamilton Allen said Capital Region Habitat has invested $100,000 in the neighborhood, along with several partners, including the Capital Region Community Foundation. After the mayor opened up the session for comments, a white-haired lady tentatively stood up in the back of the room and proceeded to steal the show.
Virginia Bauman, 81, grew up with five brothers a few blocks away from Bethlehem Church, at 527 Avon St. She lived there from September 1946 until she got married in 1959 and still lives in Lansing. She told the group about walking to Christiancy Grade School and Walter French Junior High and Lansing Eastern.
“My brothers and I played touch football in the street,” she said. Her oldest brother was a soda jerk at a Britten’s Drug Store a block away. “In the winter, we walked down Baker to ice skate at Sycamore Park.” She praised the assembled partners for their work in helping out the neighborhood.
“Well, you can’t top that,” Schor said. When the press conference broke up, some neighbors buzzed around Bauman for more stories about the old days, others schmoozed for a while over Valentine’s Day cupcakes and everybody got back to work.