News and Tribune

Columns

March 6, 2014

SUDDEATH: Flames spark need for better enforcement

NEW ALBANY — As I drove my parents toward our dining destination Saturday, they gazed out their windows and noticed the collection of broken down buses and cars on a hillside off Spring Street near the Clark County border.

We’re not from around here, and they don’t visit much, but they quickly pointed out what many outsiders notice when they visit.

“What’s up with the junk everywhere?” asked my mother.

Good question, and one that I’ve learned — after living here for almost seven years — has a complicated answer.

Less than 24 hours after my mother made that comment, they were back on the road home, and there was yet another vacant house on my block in flames. The blaze marked the second major fire I’ve seen in my neighborhood in the past five months, and at least four buildings in the vicinity of Culbertson Avenue and Silver Street have burned in the last year.

As of press time, there have been no arrests, and it seems to me that no one in a position to make a difference really seems to care. Once the flames have been doused, the good guys leave the scene, but the fire remains in a figurative sense.

The vacant house next to my place suffered severe fire damage last summer. The new owner did some minor repairs in the fall, but piles of junk remain in the backyard.

The city — after some urging from yours truly — issued a violation and were in the process of cleaning the property on Wednesday. While New Albany wasn’t exactly quick to react to the problem, at least something is being done. But what would have happened if I wasn’t a journalist?

Just because New Albany is an old river city doesn’t mean it has to look junky. And it’s more than just a cosmetic issue, it’s a safety concern. Empty buildings, overgrown lots and properties full of junk — what message do you think that sends to the public? What message does it send to criminals?

If multiple structures can be set on fire in a neighborhood without anyone being held accountable, why would people want to move to your community?

Is it an economics issue? If Culbertson Avenue were located in Silver Hills, would we still only see public officials when there’s a pot bust and a press conference?

Well, I live on this block, and I can tell you firsthand what residents feel. They feel ignored, and they are angry. They believe the city will only respond after someone is seriously hurt, and by then, it’s too late. They have taken their own photos, filed their own complaints, and waited patiently while more houses go up in flames and little is done to prevent it.

Let me be frank in stating that New Albany’s codes problems go well beyond the city’s responsibility. The first and main issue is there are landlords who don’t take care of their properties. Sure, some of them may have fallen on hard times, but some own other local businesses and properties, and seem more concerned with making money than taking care of their lots or vetting to whom they rent.

The media has culpability considering we are supposed to be watchdogs for the public, and the fact that this blighted behavior has been occurring for years means area journalists haven’t done enough to expose problems.

Residents also have some responsibility, because the people ultimately select leaders, and if you ignore the ballot box, expect to be shunned by elected officials.

If New Albany — its residents, property owners, city officials and journalists — will expose young minds to blight every day, why would anything different be anticipated in other urban neighborhoods?

I believe this is the biggest issue facing New Albany. Codes are more important than street direction discussions, business growth and infrastructure projects. If properties aren’t going to be maintained, codes enforced, and law violators arrested, few people are going to come to New Albany to live, work or play.

If funding is the issue, then how about a fresh look at what our priorities are in the city? About 85 percent of the general fund budget is dedicated to police and fire protection in New Albany. Would we be safer if a more proportionate amount were spent on codes enforcement and to pay for demolition of vacant structures?

And where does Floyd County government stand on cleaning up New Albany, which foots about half of the county’s tax base?

Would entities like the Horseshoe Foundation of Floyd County consider providing grants to demolish troubled houses? The organization provided funding and pushed for the once vacant building at the corner of Culbertson Avenue and Eighth Street to be saved, so what about taking the next step and helping the rest of the neighborhood?

How about the state of Indiana, considering it contributed to the blight in New Albany? Top state officials were on hand a few years ago for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Linden Meadows. Once the plan fell through and the subdivision became a dilapidated mess, we could hardly get a state official on the phone to publicly discuss the matter.

Certainly several residents in my neighborhood believe the current system is failing them. Sure, the reports taken are appreciated, but where’s the prevention? Where’s the follow-up? Where’s the equal protection?

City of New Albany, what’s up with the junk everywhere?

— Daniel Suddeath is a staff writer with the News and Tribune. Reach him at daniel.suddeath@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2151.

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