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A morning with Craig Stahl

Matt Westerhold • Mar 23, 2010 at 6:26 PM

Saturday morning I went to Central Park, where I planned to mow the grass. Thought it would be a good idea. Just wanted to spruce the old place up a bit. The notion to do it hit me with a quiet Hamiltonian zeal; almost Zen-like. But a bunch of people -- they called themselves "volunteers" -- also showed up.

It was an organized volunteer cleanup across the neighborhoods surrounding Central Park, and somehow I got paired off with ex-officio mayor Craig Stahl. Whew. If I can handle three hours with Craig, how bad can waterboarding be? I bravely wandered up West Madison Street with the mayor, picking up litter along the way. The first block was pretty clean. "Looks like Dave Waddington and Dan Kaman have already been up this street," I told Stahl.

We walked past Madison Elementary and wondered aloud what would become of it, whether it could be redeveloped as an apartment building, condos or an office complex. "That's one solid building," Stahl said. "A good investment for the city's future."

Just past the school we looked at a home that's been abandoned and condemned for years. "We should go inside and meet the rodents that live here," I said.

My discomfort with the prospect of three solid hours with Craig Stahl waned as I vented about dying neighborhoods and the lack of action by the city to build a viable plan to reclaim Sandusky. This home is finally scheduled for the wrecking ball next month, Stahl said, but I pressed on about housing rehab loans that aren't available in the city because the city hasn't met state and federal grant standards to bring that money here.

I pointed out the city corruption that led to the federal housing scandal where up to $1 million in federal funding was wasted on bogus work and bogus contractors, and the city could be forced to repay the money.

"Is there ever going to be a plan to reclaim these neighborhoods?" I asked Stahl. "To make the federal programs right again?"

I hammered Stahl with questions about problems that were not created on his watch, and to which there are no easy or quick fixes. I know that, and it's not fair to hold him accountable for everything. I did hold him accountable for the corruption that led to police Chief Kim Nuesse's firing, I told Craig, and it was a problem he needed to fix. "How do I fix that?" he asked.

In the next block we met a woman with a story to tell, but who made sure I knew she had no intention of allowing me to use her as a source for a news story. "Don't you dare put my name in the paper," she said. "You do that and you'll have more trouble with me than with anyone you tangle with."

Her tidy, one-story home in the 1100 block of West Madison St. is immaculate, inside and out. But in her backyard she showed us adjacent properties — one on McDonough Street and two on Shelby Street — where the backyards that abut hers are overgrown and strewn with junk. One of those homes is a government-owned metro rental property, she said.

"We shouldn't have to put up with this," she said, pointing at the debris.

The woman was charming even though she had some reluctance in talking with me. She even convinced me later to help her install a new door knob she'd bought for her front door.

Craig kept trying to re-assure the woman — and everyone else we talked with along the cleanup route — that he and I get along just great.

"People are surprised," Stahl said. "But despite everything, we really do like each other."

"No we don't Craig," I would say each time he repeated that statement.

There's a great Buckeye tree still standing in the next block and soon we were on my very own home turf. My original first neighborhood where I earned every skinned knee I ever got. It's the first block of Madison heading into town off Camp Street, where I had the chance to talk with some of my old neighbors from way back then, and one of my first best friends, Tom "Tommy" Schmenk, his brothers Denny and Joe, and his nephew Sam and their families. I also talked with Ken Jesberger and Mr. Feltner. Their families have been living on that block of Madison Street since the 1960s and before.

My editor tells me I have to put some sort of heartfelt ending here, but I'm just at a loss for words. It was a pretty powerful morning, meeting all those old friends I knew way back when. I wonder, when my old neighbors finally leave that old neighborhood, who will replace them? What will become of the neighborhood? The city?

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