Isaiah 42:10 “Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise from the end of the earth! You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, the islands and coastal regions and the inhabitants of them – sing a song such as has never been heard in the world!”
Erie Mayor Joe Schember has done all of that since July 5, when his administration and a group of volunteers began visiting homes throughout the city’s east side to better explain Erie Refocused — the city’s long-range, comprehensive development plan — to residents. Those handling the canvassing, including Schember, have collectively visited more than 1,500 eastside homes thus far, and Schember said it’s been an enlightening and valuable experience.
The Erie Times-News sat down with Schember to talk about his immediate takeaways from those visits. Here is what Schember had to say.
Q: Mayor, you’ve been doing this for a few weeks now. Initial thoughts?
A: I’ve been out myself six times now. I’ve really enjoyed it. Going door to door was my favorite part of campaigning and the people on the east side are good people. That’s a big takeaway.
Q: What are some of your other takeaways?
A: Some of the people out there have lost hope. And it has to do with certain issues. The blight, the crime, the lack of activities for young people. What I’m trying to figure out now is, how do we restore that hope?
We also see a lot of good things going on over there. There are some great community gardens that are well-kept. I met a fellow over there who the police know from past experience, but now he lives over there, he bought a home and remodeled it. The home next door to him is in really bad shape, so he just bought that one and he’s going to do the same thing there.
What we need to do is somehow make an impact on this neighborhood, where people can see the change. I think that’s an important step, at least, toward restoring hope. You see poverty over there. We have to help them see opportunity so they feel hope. They see they can get a good job, get a better apartment, and their kids can do better than they did.
Q: What else are you hearing from residents?
A: One of the biggest surprises to me is how long people have lived there. I was thinking I was going to talk to a lot of people who’ve been there maybe a year or two, but the people I’ve talked to have been there an average of 10 years. Many of them were born and raised in that neighborhood, and now they’re living in the home they were raised in. That was neat to see.
People also appreciate what we’re doing, that we’re in their neighborhoods. They’ve said that.
People say they feel safe where they are, even if they say crime is a problem a few blocks away. One man told me his wife works at a local bar and actually got (briefly) kidnapped one night. That was a shocker to hear.
A lot of people want better schools. They want more things for kids to do. They’re a lot of concern for the conditions of the streets and the sidewalks. Personally, I heard a lot of complaints about the sidewalks and blight. We are debating how to address that. … One idea is to take one block and focus on that and just make it pristine with improvements, working with some local businesses. We’re considering a lot of things.
Q: Mayor, you said previously that you were surprised that roughly a third of the people you’ve talked to had never heard of Erie Refocused. How do you improve the communication?
A: That’s been a big shock and big lesson for us. We need to do a better job at communicating somehow. I’m not sure what the best approach is, but getting out and meeting people personally is one of the steps. I think that going forward, a lot of the engagement will need to be more one on one and more personal. You’re only going to reach a certain percentage through the media or even social media. The more we can do one on one, the better.
Q: Anything from this experience make you think differently about the implementation of Erie Refocused?
A: Well, one of the big things I’ve learned is that for people to embrace change, they need to see change in their neighborhood. If it’s across town, or downtown, or on State Street, it doesn’t impact them. If we can get changes into their neighborhoods, get positive things going on, that helps.
I think we continue the work on the core of the city. But I think we also need to spend time in the communities and figure out what we can do in neighborhoods to really make a difference. And we really plan on doing some things in the east bayfront that will make a difference.
Q: What’s next?
A: We’ll be out at National Night Out events (on Aug. 7) explaining the plan. And we’ll continue more one on one in the neighborhoods.
This has renewed the commitment in me to be open and accessible to all citizens. This reinforces what I’ve been trying to do. Sometimes, I worry about us slipping into old ways, getting complacent. I worry about burnout on my staff, because my staff is working hard and I’m concerned about them. But if we start sitting back and not working hard on this, that is probably the worst thing we could do. The collaboration that’s going on in our community right now is incredible. We have to keep that going.
Kevin Flowers can be reached at 870-1693 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNflowers.