We Used to Live in the "Emptiest Neighborhood in America"

I especially like the “used to” part of that title!  I found out about this dubious honor this afternoon as I was leaving work.  I picked up a copy of the current issue of The Other Paper, and the front-page story was “The Big Casino Gamble.”  If Issue 2 passes next Tuesday, there will be a casino on the site (if not the actual building) of the old Delphi auto parts plant on the west side.

Not sure how I’ll vote.  I’m enough of a libertarian (the lower-case letter is not a typo) to have a laissez-faire attitude about gambling, and say that people have a right to waste their money any way they see fit.  At the same time, I am enough of a Quaker to have issues with unearned wealth.

Less than a third of ZIP code 43228 is occupied.  We moved there in the summer of 2000, mainly because I was working full time at Medco Health, which is four long blocks north of the ex-Delphi Plant.  I wanted to be able to walk to and from work.  This helped especially when I would work overtime after my normal shift; I could leave work and not have a 45- to 60-minute ride on the bus afterwards.

With Susie not quite three years old, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park West.  Outwardly, the place was fine.  The buildings were structurally sound, we liked the layout of the apartment, and there was a Meijer grocery/department store within walking distance, along with several little convenience stores.

I can’t pinpoint a specific incident or series of incidents that made me think the neighborhood wasn’t safe.  We were one of the few Anglo families in the complex, and many of our neighbors were Hispanic or Somali.  That limited Susie’s socialization, because we couldn’t break the language barrier.  I remember one morning seeing Susie sitting on the living room, half buried in her many stuffed animals and dolls.  She hugged several of them and, with a big smile, said, “These are my friends.”  That was too close to the truth, I’m sorry to say.

Down in Athens, my mother had heard bad things about the neighborhood, and I remember reassuring her on the phone, “It’s 100% safe.  There are cops all over this area all the time.”  It wasn’t until after I hung up that I realized I probably didn’t set her mind at ease.  Yet I spoke the truth.  The police were out in full force the first weekend of every month, keeping parties and other activities under control.

When we lived there, the complex had a swimming pool and a small playground.  One summer afternoon, I took Susie to the playground, and she was sitting on the ground and her little hand came very close to the needle of a used syringe.  I bent the needle and saved it, and showed it to Lincoln Park West security, who could really do nothing.  There’s really no way of knowing if a heroin addict had tossed the syringe there, or if a careless diabetic had done it, but it still unnerved both Steph and me.

While taking Susie to the pool, a loudmouthed girl of about 11 or 12 regaled me with stories about a pervert who lived in the complex.  She said he had grabbed her and tried to stick his tongue in her mouth.  I had reason to doubt this girl’s truthfulness, but I never felt safe bringing Susie there again.

The kids who lived in the complex were a pretty rough bunch, but they had manners.  One morning, I was walking to work on Westport Rd., near where I would cut across Westland Mall’s parking lot to get to Medco.  About seven or eight boys, ages six to nine, were on either side of the street throwing rocks at one another.  It didn’t look like it was entirely in fun.  One of the boys saw me and held up his hand, “Wait!  Man crossing!” he shouted.  There was a total cease-fire until I had passed, and then they resumed the battle.

In the summer of 2001, I took a part-time job in the stock room and loading dock at the Sears in Westland Mall.  It led to some extra money, and the overwork and the stress of two jobs led to my first psychiatric hospitalization.  When going from Medco to Sears, I could watch the decline of Westland Mall.  (I thought at first that Sears anchored the mall, but this was not true.  Sears predated the mall.)  It seemed that every week, there would be another storefront that was deserted, another business that had folded.  The only time now that Westland Mall shows any signs of life are when the black-helicopter crowd and other Y chromosome-deficient people congregate for the C & E Gun Shows.

More and more empty apartments seemed to dot the Lincoln Park West complex each month.  Catholic Social Services rented several apartments as offices, mainly serving the newly arrived Somali refugees and helping them settle into American life.  Machines in the laundry room constantly broke down, and management did not issue refunds.  The outdoor pool seemed to get filthier as the summer progressed.  One of my Medco co-workers who saw it began to refer to it as the Elephant Urinal.

We left Lincoln Park West that fall for Franklinton (The Bottoms), the neighborhood just west of downtown.  This meant I had to resume riding the bus to work, but I was happy to be out of that neighborhood.  I could stand working there, but living there was demoralizing.

Less than a month after I left Merck for my job with the Industrial Commission, tragedy struck at Lincoln Park West.  A fire set by arsonists destroyed one building, leaving 10 people dead and over 50 homeless.  All of the residents were Mexican, and the language barrier prevented them from effectively communicating with the fire department and the 911 dispatchers.

This is the front page of The Columbus Dispatch the day after the fire.  I
apologize for its quality and legibility; I scanned this from the clipping that
I kept in my diary from the fall of 2004.
No one has been arrested for this fire.  There were billboards showing artists’ sketches of two men “wanted for questioning,” but they resembled the descriptions of the beings who supposedly landed at Roswell, N.M. in 1947.  The fire rated a brief mention in The New York Times, and a friend in Rhode Island who was a frequent guest to our apartment in Lincoln Park West recognized the building when he saw the fire on CNN.
My guess is that if Issue 2 passes, once the casino opens on the old Delphi site, there will be many Medco employees going there on their lunch breaks, or cashing their paychecks at the nearby Huntington Bank and blow most of it.  I never went a week at work without hearing someone talking about how close they came to winning the Mega-Millions the night before, or how many tickets they were going to buy that night.
My gambling experience is very limited.  I know that the odds always favor the house, so I’d never spend hours in a casino, let alone get on a chartered bus to Wheeling Island or Rising Sun, Ind.  When I was living at the YMCA in downtown Columbus in 1986, I often went Saturday nights to bingo at Holy Family Catholic Church, in the basement of the building that had been its school.  The most I ever won was about $75, but I realized that the money I spent there went to maintain its soup kitchen and food pantry–services that I would put to use.
My only extended gambling spree was in the spring of 1987, when I took Greyhound from Athens to San Francisco.  On the way out, I went through Nevada, and experienced culture shock when I saw one-armed bandits and video poker machines everywhere I went.  They were in the bus stations, and even in the little mom-and-pop stores out in the desert, where the bus was making its mail run.  I spent a quarter or $.50 in each one-armed bandit I saw, just because it was a new experience.  By the time the bus crossed the California border, I may have been $2 or $3 ahead.  (The California border was impossible to miss.  The lights for the “Last Chance Casino”, in a little dot on the map called Verdi, Nev. on I-80 were visible at night for miles.  My eyes were still blinking from the glare when I saw the sign saying that Governor George Deukmejian welcomed me to California.)
Steph and I went to San Francisco for our honeymoon, and we traveled by Amtrak.  There was a brief stop in Sparks, Nev., the “City of Promise.”  Sparks, like Verdi, is in Washoe County.  The California Zephyr’s stop was on an elongated cement platform.  There was nothing to do during the brief stop, not even a Coke machine or a newspaper vending machine.  (I found out later we weren’t even in a real train station.  The stop was in a freight yard and the nearby building was the Union Pacific Railroad’s yard office.)
Why such a forlorn stop?  Amtrak had lost passengers when the station was in Reno, which is so close that some refer to the two as Reno-Sparks, twin cities.  During the brief rest stop, people would get off the train and head to the casinos, and they would stay there and be left behind.
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