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West 83rd Street gas explosion remembered at Detroit Shoreway’s Annual Meeting

by Joe Narkin

(Plain Press, April 2011) When 57 homes on West 83rd Street were damaged or destroyed by a natural gas explosion on January 25, 2010, a neighborhood’s infrastructure was ripped apart, but a community’s spirit came together, said Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone at the Pope John Hall of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church during the 38th Annual Meeting of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO) on February 25, 2011.

“This was a horrific event that literally and figuratively rocked this neighborhood,” but, in the immediate aftermath, residents of Ward 15 and surrounding communities rallied to provide assistance to residents who were displaced from their homes, said Zone. A community-wide effort to raise funds for blast victims, highlighted by a spaghetti dinner attended by 900 community members on Superbowl Sunday two weeks after the blast, raised nearly $50,000, including a match from Safeguard Properties, according to the Councilman.

In order to assure that the resources derived through fundraising efforts were targeted to those who needed them most, a Resident Advisory Council was formed. For the leadership role that she played on this Council, Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka presented long-term community activist Gloria Aron with the Irene Catlin Leadership Award.

“It may be a surprise to you that the vacant house next to you may have gas in it,” said Aron, referring to ongoing efforts of the Resident Advisory Council in advocating for changes in public utility policies designed to prevent such a disaster in the future.

Aron has also taken a leadership role in the Detroit Shoreway Block Club Housing Coalition — a group that has the threefold mission of assuring a safe community; of restoring vacant residential properties; and of developing new, affordable housing, with a focus on rental units for low-income families.

“We say to owners of vacant houses, ‘fix it or lose it,’” said Aron. “We will be behind every vacant house until it is either demolished or turned into housing for a family,” she said.

Consistent with her role as a community organizer and advocate, Aron took the opportunity to secure pledges from officials present at the meeting that they would continue to support the efforts of the Detroit Shoreway Block Club Housing Coalition.

Aron asked Executive Director Jeff Ramsey for a commitment that DSCDO “will continue to staff the Coalition and to make all resources available.” She asked Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone “to push city departments to work with us and stop stonewalling us on property inspections.” Aron also asked Judge Pianka to meet with the Coalition in the community. Under instructions from Aron, all agreed.

Councilman Zone announced that a house, at 2040 West 83rd Street that was condemned in the wake of the natural gas explosion, would be transformed into a temporary public art project–in healing remembrance of this catastrophic event.

Conceived by neighborhood resident and art student Richie Piiparinen, the home will feature sensor-animated silhouettes that will be visible from the street level through Plexiglas covered cutouts in the exterior of the structure. The silhouettes will reflect the experiences of neighbors at the time of the event. A storyboard, outside the home, will share the thoughts and reflections of impacted neighbors.

This $10,000 public art project should be ready for display in May and remain in place for a three-month period, after which the home will be deconstructed with the goal of recycling and reusing materials. Some of the materials will become part of a permanent display in the public reading garden of Clevland Public Library’s Lorain Branch at the corner of Lorain Avenue and West 83rd Street.

Fire investigators determined that the fire and gas explosion on West 83rd Street was deliberately set within the vacant home. William Calderwood, 57, of West 83rd Street was seen stealing appliances and copper from the vacant property prior to the explosion, according to witnesses. Calderwood was subsequently acquitted of arson charges, but was sentenced to 3-years in prison for theft from the vacant property. Calderwood’s own home was destroyed in the blast.

Community Spirit Awards were given to seven businesses and residents that have improved the quality of life and sense of community in the Detroit Shoreway Neighborhood.

Noah Hrbek, who partnered with Alex Nosse and Chino Vasquez, was recognized for his decorative painting of trash receptacles. Kirk Bolden was honored for his efforts in graffiti removal. Earline Potts, coordinator of the A Touch of Class Program, received the award for her work with teen women.

Also receiving a Community Spirit Award were Bobbi Reichtell of the Franklin Boulevard Block Club for a Christmas Luminary Project, June Smith and Judy Galardo for their efforts with the Lorain to Fir Block Club, Bill Merriman for his efforts in delivering furniture to individuals displaced by the West 83rd Street gas explosion, and Jim Szakacs of the Nehemiah Mission, a program of the United Methodist Church.

Neighborhood Improvement Awards were given to Stephanie and Terry McCafferty for improvements to their home on Franklin Boulevard and to Diana Cyganovich for a major renovation and expansion of Cogswell Hall, a residential support program for homeless persons.

Four restaurants receiving Neighborhood Improvements Awards were roseangel, Frank’s Falafel, Indian Delight, and the Big Egg.

Sustainability Awards were granted to John Yokie, for his efforts on behalf of the Liberian Community Garden of Wakefield Avenue, and Margaret Armstead of the EcoVillage Garden and Produce Project.

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