Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette A.J. Zaldivar stands in front of her newly renovated home in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Volunteers Kathy Dawson and John Penisten haul broken concrete outside of a home.
Courtesy The home Zaldivar currently lives prior to rehabilitation.
Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Many of the homes in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood had to be gutted.
Darrell Post checks his work sketches as he renovates a home on East Fairfax Avenue. Before work began, the house was stripped to its studs.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Volunteers renovate homes in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood, this one at 1045 E. Fairfax St. VIDEO
Sunday, April 02, 2017 1:00 am
Neighborhood gets face-lift
Volunteers help rehab Mount Vernon Park
STEVE WARDEN | The Journal Gazette
It was a glorious Tuesday on East Fairfax Avenue in the city's southeast neighborhood of Mount Vernon Park. The early-morning clouds that threatened rain drifted away, and the welcome sun warmed the air that had been so cold the day before.
Young kids in hoodies or light jackets walked to Levon R. Scott Elementary, just down a ways on Fairfax. It was going to be a nice day.
Lately, there have been more nice days than there used to be in the neighborhood. The several blocks of small, aging homes bounded by East Pettit Avenue and East Paulding Road, South Anthony Boulevard and Hanna Street had seen troubled times over the years, with too many gunshots ringing out in the night that caused mothers to snatch their children away from windows.
Some families decided to pack up and get out, away from Smith and Oliver streets; away from South Park and Wilson and Gaywood drives. In doing so, the homes, many of them rented, became empty and neglected. Weeds and tall grass grew in the front yards where children once played.
There was no one to pick up the litter.
To a vandal, or anyone with mischief on their mind, an abandoned home is an invitation to destruction. And that's exactly what happened to many of the homes in the Mount Vernon Park area over the years. Gangs were visible. Drugs sold. Shots fired.
That is changing – not immediately, but it is in the process.
Michael Wells, who has lived in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood for eight years, stood on a friend's front lawn and looked across the street on East Fairfax. While two homes on the corner are being renovated, he nodded toward a tidy, handsome home with new gray siding that had just received a major face-lift, inside and out.
“I think that's beautiful,” Wells says. Then he pointed to another home next to it – the one on the corner of Smith and East Fairfax. “This house here, when I asked about it, they said the church bought it, and a family is ready to move in there. I knew the people that lived there before, and they didn't do anything.”
He takes a deep breath. “All this,” he says as he scans the area, “was just a mess.”
In the midst of children walking to school and squirrels running around trees yet to bloom is the high-pitch whine of a power saw. A team of four or five men wearing blue jeans and shirt sleeves rolled up, and a woman who helps carry chunks of concrete away from a house, are at work.
They are volunteers and have been for a over a year. Each Tuesday, they park their cars and pickup trucks on one of the streets and begin the task of altering a neighborhood.
Last summer and into September, they renovated the little gray house Wells now calls beautiful, and now they're at work on two other homes on opposite corners of Smith and East Fairfax.
“This group is here every Tuesday, pretty much all day, and then there are some of us who work another two or three days a week, depending on what their need is,” says Darrell Post, a 68-year-old retired consulting engineer. “I love it. I love to work with my hands; make a difference; do something creative.
“And it's all for the betterment of human kind.”
One is a blue house of 800 square feet, where inside, there are no walls and no rooms – just the rectangle shell. The other, across the street, is mint green. Mud and dirt are where a driveway used to be. A sheet of plywood is where a garage door once was before it was kicked in to gain entry.
Not long ago, the city condemned the property. But change is coming, because new windows have been installed.
It's a beginning.
The volunteers come from various goodwill agencies, including St. Vincent's Catholic Church. Most are retired. Some will have breakfast with each other before they arrive, and coming out every Tuesday also feeds their souls.
“For me, for a lot of this group, what attracted us to this was the ability to really make a difference in a community,” says Larry Rubrich, 68, a retired business consultant.
“Javier's vision is inspirational. Instead of politicians who go in (to a community) and throw money at it, he went in there and said, 'We can do this. It's going to take some hard work, but we can improve this, and we can make a difference.' ”
Javier Mondragon not only serves as the pastor at Many Nations Church of the Nazarene on East Fairfax, just a block away from the two homes that are being renovated, but in 2011 founded the Bridge of Grace Ministry Center that has lit the fuse of hope within the entire Mount Vernon Park neighborhood.
More than 300 volunteers, many of whom live in the area, are reclaiming their neighborhood, whether it's cleaning the streets or serving as after-school education mentors or helping with summer camps for kids.
Nearly 10 years ago, Mondragon, 42, and his wife, Annette, came here from Mexico and moved into the single-story limestone home next to the church.
“2008 is when I moved into this neighborhood,” he says. “We didn't have kids. Now I have three kids. My goal is like everybody's. I want what everybody wants, just to have my kids play in the street and don't have to worry about them getting shot or something happening to them.”
The recession of 2008 particularly crippled Mount Vernon Park. People lost jobs and couldn't keep up with their mortgages or rent. As families moved elsewhere, crime moved in, and Mondragon watched his neighborhood crumble around him.
From his home, he'd notice the vacant lot across the street would grow into a small jungle, so much so that he'd have to repeatedly ask the city to cut the grass. It was during one of those calls when someone told him that he could buy it if he wanted it.
“I said, 'Really?' ”
For $350, Mondragon bought the lot that will soon be a park. That was just the beginning.
'Just a blessing'
Through foundations, donations, materials assistance from retailers and the band of volunteers that remodeled it from floor to roof, the little gray house on East Fairfax has been occupied since late October by 22-year-old A.J. Zaldivar.
The house, she said, is one of the parsonages owned by Mondragon's church. Because she is the worship director and the educational program manager for Bridge of Grace, she lives there rent-free. It was part of the agreement.
“It's great. I love it. It's awesome. It's super nice,” Zaldivar says. “I didn't think I would be living in a beautiful home like this for a while, but I love it.”
She talks about the goodness of others, from the community she now calls home to the volunteers who arrive on Tuesday mornings. She calls it “amazing.”
“I've never heard of anything like this before, of people just coming and giving their time,” Zaldivar says. “It's putting their hard work into helping the southeast part of Fort Wayne. I think it's amazing that we have volunteers who do that.
“A lot of our programs, they're run by volunteers, so it's not only in building the houses, but it's also in the educational programs. Just all the stuff we have going on, so many people are involved that it's just a blessing.”
“Blessing” is a word used often around here, from Zaldivar to Wells across the street to the volunteers to Mondragon, whose vision started the process six years ago.
“I was a gang member in Mexico,” Mondragon says within his office church, where a sign over his left shoulder reads, “Grace is not a little prayer you say before receiving a meal, it's a way to live.” He was the youngest of six children of a single mother who worked two and three jobs.
He knows what it's like to struggle; knows what it's like to steal and dodge the law. Because he knows the way of life within his own community is one reason why he is so ready to change it.
“We have people who have attended our church here, and I've known them since they were kids, and I know some of them got involved with the wrong crowd,” he says.
The change is coming, Mondragon says assuredly. One day at a time. One child at a time. One block at a time. One Tuesday at a time.
The rebuilt homes? Yes, they are indeed nice. But that's not going to solve the problems in Mount Vernon Park.
“You want to make the homes affordable,” Mondragon says. “We're not giving homes away. We're selling it to them. How do we make sure they have enough to pay their mortgage? We just don't want to give it to them, and then they would lose the house later because they didn't have enough training and the practice of managing their finances.”
So through Bridge of Grace, adults, as well as children, are being taught the skills of life.
Wells stands tall and surveys what is around him and, for the first time in who knows how long, talks about the sense of pride of living where he does.
“People are starting to keep up their yards more,” he says. “Like my neighbor over here, Brad. When he does his yard, it's like, 'OK, let's beautify this.' The lady across the street, I help them out. There's a guy who watches the kids as they catch the bus every morning. We take care of each other.”
The air is warm. It's a glorious Tuesday.