Taking Back the Blight

A ragtag "neighborhood association" hits revitalization where it hurts

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, CORNER OF STUDEWOOD AND EAST NINTH STREET -- Some two dozen Heights residents march the chain-linked periphery of The Lincoln Man's recently opened used car lot, pumping homemade signs -- "Save Our Studemont!" and "Go Back to North Shepherd!" and "Bad Credit? BIG Problem!" -- into the morning air.

According to an informal poll, most of today's protesters have moved to the neighborhood within the past two years, paying $200,000 and up for reproduction Victorians and settling quickly into neighborhood association memberships, vigilant in defense of the residential charm on which their property values rest.

One man, Tommy Hilfiger shirt tucked into his khaki shorts, shakes a fist at an inert Chevy Nova promising "cold a/c" and tries to rouse the crowd:

"Are we going to let these seedy businesses invade our neighborhood and infect our children's quality of life?"

"NO!" comes the unanimous response.

Shermann Bilks, meanwhile, wearing tattered cutoffs, an equally tattered beard and a thrift-store T-shirt that fails to contain the tangled thicket of hair sprouting like crabgrass from his impressive belly, stands off to one side, running color commentary on the proceedings.

"Can you believe these chickenshits? Look at this!" Bilks snorts, fishing a greasy wad of canary-yellow paper from his pocket and thrusting it in a reporter's face. The paper is a flyer urging citizens to join the "SOS" (Save Our Studemont) campaign.

"One drive along North Shepherd," the broadside reads, "blighted with car lot after car lot, is enough to show why the residents of the Heights and the Woodland Heights must unite to protest this lot. Let's stop this one, and throw a wet blanket on others who have no regard for the neighborhood. We have only ourselves to defend the neighborhood."

"Blight my ass," roars Bilks, waving a hand across the vista of the lot, where several Ford trucks and a variety of ten-year-old domestic sedans await a second, or third, chance on the road. "I don't suppose these people ever trade in a car. Noooo, and they wouldn't be caught dead buying a used one. Lease crowd.

"What they're calling blight, man, it's just not right. Hell, I used to live in this neighborhood, over on Rutland, 'bout ten years ago, in the house my dear dead granny built in 1924. She taught me how to tend chickens in the back."

Across the street, a woman with blond hair tied back in a black velvet scrunchy deplanes her shiny black Range Rover and pulls her own sign from the cargo bay. Sighting Bilks, she cuts a wide path around his corner of turf before hoisting her placard in line with the like-minded crowd. It reads "N.I.M.B.Y." in six-inch rub-on lettering.

"These people here, man, they would have run me out on a rail, but I'm telling you that was a nice little neighborhood before everybody started hanging their goddamn porch swings out. These new folks over here have got their butts in such a pucker you can't hardly drive a pickup down the street without fresh crown molding tacked up in the cab."

Bilks nods toward the Range Rover and snorts.

"These chickenshits'll probably drive that poor bastard outta here one way or another," Bilks says, gesturing at the cowering shadow of a man peering out from behind the blinds of the trailer that serves as The Lincoln Man's sales office.

"But if they're gonna keep protesting everything that ain't in the running for yard of the month, then somebody oughta step up for the blight. You ask me, we need more of it, not less."

Bilks pauses and scratches the side of his nose for longer than is strictly necessary, as if mulling an idea that has never quite occurred to him before.

His eyes suddenly light up, and his left hand, still grasping the SOS leaflet, begins to tremble.

"Save our Studemont my ass. We need our own neighborhood association. Someone needs to save our blight!"


Shermann Bilks lives a few blocks off Canal Street about ten minutes east of downtown in a neighborhood shadowed by light and not-so-light industrial plants, stocked with elderly housing in varying states of disrepair and peppered with the sort of small business establishments urban planners euphemistically call "residentially inappropriate."

Bilks's rent is $350 per month. Several days a week, the prevailing breeze puts him downwind of a sewage treatment plant on Waco Street, fragrant with the smell, oddly, of boiling cabbage.

"It's a sulfur compound," Bilks volunteers. "Your nose adapts to it after a while and you don't smell it anymore. That's true."

His house is what Heights realtors advertise brightly as a "tear-down." Its cinder-block piers have settled unevenly over the years into an otherwise hardpack dirt lot, skewing the deteriorating clapboard into wrong angles. What's left of a half-porch strains to support a sagging orange velour couch occupied by two full black plastic trash bags. Apparently unoccupied garage apartments attached to neighboring houses loom and tilt over the tiny backyard, also dirt, in the center of which Bilks has installed a halved 55-gallon drum, open-side up, in a rough furrow. At dusk the coals are already glowing, and a discarded window-size burglar grate laid across the opening waits ready to serve as a grill.

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