Photo by Robert K. Yosay | The Vindicator
By Emmalee Torisk
Chuck Schell stood in a freshly cut patch of grass. Behind him, the boarded-up entrance of an aluminum-sided rental unit, one of several in the row, warned in orange spray paint: “Keep Out!”
A sheet of plywood with the bar code sticker still attached replaced a shattered window. From the ceiling spilled a jumble of wires. Triangles of glass rested on the terra cotta roof and, directly below, just a faint imprint of the house number that had long ago fallen off.
Schell glanced back.
“It looks better than it did,” he said.
Schell is a resident of Campbell’s Blackburn Plat, a complex of prefabricated concrete housing units constructed by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co.’s Buckeye Land Co. nearly one century ago, following a strike, for laborers and their families. At one time, the amount of units numbered in the 200s.
Today, despite fewer residences and decades of neglect, several Blackburn Plat residents like Schell are working to clean up and maintain the units, as well as the neighborhood.
“It’s not the buildings that are the problem. It’s the people that are making it a bad place to be,” Schell said. “I’d really like to see the place come back to life with decent people involved. It’s not as bad as people think.”
When constructed, Blackburn Plat’s one- and two-bedroom rental units were equipped with the era’s modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity. They were among the earliest uses of concrete for domestic architecture.
Many units have since been stripped of their utilities, used as a dumping ground or a haven for squatters, and even set on fire. Although designed to be fire and vermin proof, several units’ original wooden staircases, woodwork and other fixtures have been damaged or decimated.
Still, the buildings remain. They’re so sturdy, Schell said, that it would be a shame to tear them down. And, if some entity attempts to, Schell said he’d strap himself to a front porch to prevent their demise.
Schell’s plan is simple: to get the units fixed up, self-sufficient and livable. He’s attempted this, at various points, since the age of 18. Then, he helped return several units to a livable state. Now, they’re “all busted up again.”
“The more up and running units you have, the more of a chance these places have of staying here,” Schell said. “I grew up here, and I have a lot of memories here. I can look at a boarded-up unit and tell you who lived there 20 years ago. I can remember what it looked like then. Every time I try to leave this place, I end up back here.”
Condition determines the length and intensity of the renovation process. Some units, Schell said, take only a few days, while others require more than a month of work, beginning with opening all the windows and doors, scrubbing down the residence and removing all trash. Schell does most of the work himself and fixes up each apartment, room by room.
Last year, he bought a unit on Delmar Street for $300. The water line had been ripped out, but all other utilities were practically intact. After two days of cleaning and one day of restoring plumbing fixtures, Schell made the apartment functional again — for $75.
According to the Mahoning County Auditor’s website, the 624-square-foot residence built in 1921 and its property is valued at $700. Schell has purchased other units for anywhere from $500 to $1,300, again spending no more than $500 on repairs.
Schell owns and maintains 10 individual units, spread throughout the neighborhood, but he also cares for properties without his name on the deed. From early in the morning until late at night, Schell, along with his one full-time employee, who trades work for rent, cleans, paints, boards up and secures units in Blackburn Plat. Other neighborhood residents and volunteers maintain the area and their individual properties as well.
“Every day it’s a new project,” Schell said. “It seems like I just get done mowing my lawns, and it’s time to do it again. Mow them, weed them, use the blower, clean the walkways off, sweep the porches off. I keep everything clean.”
The neighborhood literally built by Youngstown Sheet & Tube is bisected by Jackson Street, which, at one time, separated the foreign-born white and the black residents.
Blackburn Plat residents could easily walk downhill to their jobs at the mill, but the walk home — uphill after a full day of work — was “obviously hard,” said Donna DeBlasio, an associate professor of history at Youngstown State University.
Still, the units “were probably better than a lot of stuff that would have been available to a lot of workers in that period,” DeBlasio said. And, although they were made small, to discourage taking in boarders, the apartments could be affordably rented for 25 percent of a worker’s wages.
Youngstown Sheet & Tube divested, or sold, Blackburn Plat, along with its three other housing complexes, in the early 1940s.
Therefore, each unit in Blackburn Plat has its own deed. Many are abandoned. Many are owned by out-of-town landlords. Even more have absentee owners who are virtually impossible to contact or identify. Often, even if owners are found, they are unwilling to sell their properties or demand inflated, unreasonable prices. This, Schell said, is a major problem.
“You have to be here to own something here,” Schell said. “I’ve seen people come in here, buy an apartment and say, ‘I’m going to fix this one up. I’m going to rent it out. It’s going to be beautiful,’ and they just let it sit. People break into them [and] they tear them up because they’re just sitting there.”
As a result, some former residences have been condemned and must then remain vacant until the problem is abated or terminated.
Contrary to popular opinion, even though the Blackburn Plat units are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they can be torn down as long as the effort is not a federal undertaking, which requires review, DeBlasio said.
City Administrator Lou Jackson said Campbell has no plans to demolish the former worker housing, with the possible exception of a few units that are beyond repair.
“The condition’s not too bad,” Jackson said. “Every time one unit gets empty, it’s boarded up for security reasons. People drive by and see it boarded up, but that’s what we want. It prevents people from getting in and demolishing from the inside.”
DeBlasio said she’d like to see the Blackburn Plat units restored to productive use, especially if they remain as working-class housing. It’s what they were intended to be, she said, and that is part of the location’s past.
She’d also like to see the university acquire an apartment for use as a museum. Regardless of the structures’ future use, their value is “immeasurable.”
“In preservation in general, what tended to get preserved was the really pretty stuff,” DeBlasio said. “Working-class anything, it’s harder to find because it’s considered more expendable. You kind of need both though. We can learn a lot by reading those buildings and how people lived.”