Investing in near-downtown neighborhoods

For years, the old Franklin School sat empty on the Northwest side of town.

It was built in 1921, and after it closed in 1981, it was used by the U.S. Marine Corps as a Reserve Center and later by the Fort Wayne Police Department.

But when the police left the building in April 2012, neighbors started to worry what would become of it.

Instead of waiting to find out, they decided to take action.

They met to brainstorm what the space could be and decided it should be a park.

Then they put in countless hours to bring their vision to life.

None of them are paid for their service. They’re simply volunteers who do it because they love where they live.

They call themselves the NUG, or the Neighborhoods United Group, and they formed several years ago to fill a gap they felt in Fort Wayne’s four-quadrant neighborhood system.

The NUG’s founding members John Modezjewski, Bud and Jean Mendenhall, and Kay Smith Shoemaker met at meetings for Northwest Area Partnership. But they didn’t attend those meetings for long.

As residents in the older, near-downtown neighborhoods of the 46808, they felt they had different priorities and needs than neighborhoods in the 46818 suburbs.

So they formed their own group as a way to take action on priorities in their part of town, and the recently christened Franklin Park is the latest example of their work.

Despite being told time and time again that it couldn’t happen, the NUG rallied officials across the state, and raised money to convert the old school into a park designed by the Fort Wayne Parks Department to honor the building’s legacy.

Bloomingdale neighborhood resident Jean Mendenhall attended Franklin School, and it was her idea to leave structure’s iconic arches standing, a symbol of where the past meets the future in Fort Wayne’s neighborhoods.

That’s another concept that NUG members like Modezjewski take to heart.

While Modezjewski jokes about Fort Wayne’s “millennial hipster downtown,” he insists that he’s not against downtown development.

He just thinks that urban lofts aren’t the only type of housing millennials are interested in, and he sees evidence of it in the young homeowners who have moved into houses on either side of him.

As downtown becomes a destination, near-downtown neighborhoods are also seeing renewed interest from homebuyers, and the NUG wants to help these neighborhoods develop thriving communities of their own.

Four members of the NUG sat down with Input Fort Wayne to tell us more about their grassroots work on the Northwest side, and how other near-downtown neighborhoods can mobilize residents to see similar results.

From left, are NUG Members Jean Mendenhall, Kay Smith-Shoemaker, John Modezjewski, and Bud Mendenhall.

IFW: You’re all highly involved in your neighborhoods. John is the former President of North Highlands neighborhood, and Kay is the current President. Bud is the President of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, and Jean is the secretary. What do you love about this area where you live?

John: I didn’t like this area at first to be honest with you. We live right off Hamilton Park, and I’m not a real fluffy person. I didn’t think I’d like living off a park. I was looking more to flip it, and I’m still here.

I fell in love with this area. This is the gem of Fort Wayne because I’ve made some great friends here, and we’ve had some great experiences here together.

Kay: I’ve lived here since 1988, and John and my neighborhood, North Highlands, as well as Bud and Jean’s neighborhood, which is Bloomingdale, are similar.

One of the reasons we loved this area is the character of the neighborhood itself, and the houses.

Second, it was convenient to everything I needed at the time. I had everything at my fingertips. However, we’ve lost many of those things over the years.

It’s also easy to get in and out to where you want to be here. You can get anyplace in a short order of time. Traffic isn’t overwhelming like it is out in the burbs, and I think that’s why people move here.

Bud: My mother in law, she was up in age, and Jean and I helped take care of her. That’s what got us here. Then my wife started going to neighborhood meetings, and she became friends with them.

We just liked it here, and then when we went to leadership meetings, they said find out how many businesses are in your area. We never knew. We found we had 51 businesses in Bloomingdale, and it was the fifth most walkable neighborhood in the city at that time.

Now it’s about the eighth.

Jean: It’s gone down because other neighborhoods like Williams-Woodland have gone up.

IFW: Most of you are lifelong Fort Wayne residents, and Kay, you’ve lived here since the 80s. How has the city changed over the years?

John: The downtown deteriorated back in the 1990s. Everything kind of went downhill, and nobody was paying attention. The 2000s hit, and it was still the same old lethargic atmosphere.

Downtown didn’t change for 20 years. It was the way it was.

Kay: And unfortunately, the neighborhoods around it also suffered because maintenance just wasn’t being done. Nothing was getting done unless it was an absolute necessity.

Bud: They were annexing the suburbs, and they forgot about the heart of the city.

John: If you take highways 469 and 69, anything within that ring is where most of the complaints are coming from on infrastructure, streets, sidewalks. You name it.

The food deserts, where are they? In the near downtown area.

Kay: We’re called the edge neighborhoods.

John: As Fort Wayne grew. The urban edge wasn’t updated to take care of that. And now it’s causing a lot of problems.

There is a tunnel finally going in on the south side to help with sewage overflows.

That helps the Southeast and somewhat the Southwest, but not us on the north side. Even the growth of downtown will be stunted from old infrastructure.

Take the sidewalk issue. Before the NUG, you couldn’t even walk this neighborhood because the sidewalks were so bad.

Kay: In North Highlands, we were the first neighborhood to get our sidewalks 100 percent paid for, and they did almost all of them. I’d say a good 85 percent.

Bud: We got ours done years ago in Bloomingdale, and now we’re getting some more.

IFW: Speaking of the sidewalk improvement project, tell us how you accomplished that.

John: We started it with the ADA act. We have a lot of people in wheelchairs who live here.

Kay: And we said we have people who can’t navigate the sidewalks because the concrete is broken up.

John: We think, and we plan with the NUG. It’s not a haphazard thing. We’ve all been around long enough that we know that if we’re afraid to say what we want in our neighborhood, then we’ve got a problem.

IFW: How did the NUG get started?

Bud: We formed the NUG because we felt like the neighborhood partnership system wasn’t meeting our needs.

We don’t keep minutes or have bylaws. We meet around a table like this and discuss issues. Then we pick up a project, and we go after that project, and we’ve gotten a lot of them done.

Years ago, the neighborhoods ran things at the partnership meetings. Then under Mayor Graham Richards, they changed the partnerships to quadrants.

Kay: The NUG was formed to fill the void of what the quadrant system created because the neighborhoods that are involved with the NUG all face similar problems. We all live in older neighborhoods, and we all deal with basically the same type of issues: sewage, sidewalks, gutter issues, and crime.

Under the quadrant system, we get grouped in with subdivisions that are 20 years old. My house was built in 1928.

John: If you start looking at it, there’s a big difference.

Bud: We’ve got 11 neighborhoods in the NUG.

John: And we’re getting paid nothing to do it. But we don’t care because our mantra is neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods.

It’s not about what I can get, or what you guys can get; it’s about our neighborhood.

The Goshen Avenue Improvement Project is scheduled to be completed in 2019.

IFW: The City is meeting with your group and other Northwest neighborhoods about a new roundabout project called the Goshen Avenue Improvement Project, which could bring façade upgrades to your area. What do you think of the idea?

John: My opinion is we need to get the roundabout and the streets, all of the infrastructure, updated. That’s great, but we aren’t going far enough.

What are we going to do after that? Are we going to plan for that success, or wait for it?

We’re sitting on one of the biggest assets Fort Wayne has with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, and if you drive down Goshen Road, how are you going to get there?

Bud: What John is saying is we want to connect to Sherman Boulevard and Wells Street.

Jean: But you have to take baby steps with things.

John: That’s the great thing about the NUG. We can disagree, but we’ll put together a plan that we’ll all work on. There will be follow up on all this just like Franklin School Park.

IFW: What are some changes you would like to see in your neighborhoods specifically?

Kay: What I’d like to see is our services come back, so I don’t have to leave my neighborhood anymore.

When I moved into my house, my neighborhood had a drug store, a dry cleaner, a (grocery), a pizza place. I could go up to my strip mall and get everything.

I want to be in my neighborhood to do my shopping as much as possible.

John: We have more in common with the millennials than we do differences.

IFW: Speaking of millennials, what makes your neighborhoods attractive to new homebuyers?

Jean: Our homes are smaller here, so they’re good starter homes for the young people.

Kay: Mine’s a finisher home, thank you. (laughs)

John: Mine’s a retirement home.

Our neighborhoods offer everything to everybody. If you want to view it as a starter home, that’s great. If you want to view it as I do for retirement, that's great.

If you talk to the kid next to me who works at Edy’s and his wife, it’s their dream. It’s what they were thinking of when they were renting an apartment.

You go to the other side of me, and it’s how they want to raise their child.

You kind of go, “These guys are millennials, but they’re just like me.” Millennials have the same dreams and aspirations that I think all of us do.

I think it goes back to, there has to be some equity between downtown and neighborhood spending.

We’re investing in millennials downtown, but millennials are investing in neighborhoods.

IFW: What advice do you have for other neighborhoods that want to form groups like the NUG?

John: Don’t take no for an answer.

Kay: And don’t wait for somebody to do it for you. I was raised that way. You have helping hands on the end of your wrists.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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