The thing about Owl Creek, it was brand new.

Carved six years ago from a wetlands area tucked behind an industrial row off Voges Road on the far southeast side of Madison, the subdivision boasted houses that had not been lived in by anyone before.

That’s something remarkable among low-income families like those who live today in the duplexes that line Great Gray and Horned Owl drives.  “I was very, very happy. I felt very, very, very blessed,” Kimyatta Hawkins recalls of moving to Great Gray more than five years ago as one of the street’s first families. Since then, she’s seen a lot of neighbors come and go, while strife in the neighborhood has simmered up and sometimes boiled over.

Madison neighborhoods where spikes in police calls catch the eye of city officials — as they have in Owl Creek — are often those where the falling rents for aging housing stock attract low-income families and where slipshod screening practices let tenants with poor credit and worse behavior move in. That’s what happened in neighborhoods like Vera Court on the north side of the city, what is now called Bridge-Lake Point on the south side, and Allied Drive and Meadowood on the southwest side. Those neighborhoods represent nearly two decades of public and private investment — with varied degrees of success — to preserve the quality of life of which Madison is so proud.

The thing about Owl Creek is, the deterioration began even before the neighborhood on the edge of McFarland was built out; plans for the subdivision were snagged on the massive downturn in the housing market that ushered in a historically severe national recession. That’s a problem lots bigger than Owl Creek.

But what vexes Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is that despite the city being called on to intervene in isolated older neighborhoods in the past, he finds himself searching for a way to bring resources to low-income families in an isolated new neighborhood. The subdivision never should have been approved for development, he complains. “Given its remoteness, and what we’ve known for 40 years, it’s not appropriate for residents of limited income. We can’t approve developments like this in neighborhoods that are going to need substantial subsidies.”

Without regular Metro bus service, a neighborhood center or a full-fledged park, there is little for the neighborhood’s many children to do. Kids of all ages play in the streets, where their disputes sometimes turn into fights that occasionally include adults, say police.

Owl Creek is high on the radar of city officials, that’s for sure. Soglin recalls that after he took office again in April, “we began the process of identifying areas that need special attention, the first neighborhood on everyone’s list, from the alder to the police officer, was Owl Creek.”

City staff members are now working through the Neighborhood Resource Team program that Soglin revived upon his election in April with residents like Hawkins, as well as representatives from school, county and private agencies to help ensure that the neighborhood is a healthy place for families to live.  But the same economic crisis that shaped Owl Creek is testing the city’s ability to make financial investments to help turn it around.

From $9,300 to rent an apartment for community space to the estimated $345,000 cost to provide bus service to the neighborhood, the cash-strapped city is finding it hard to finance investments in Owl Creek.

But the answer may not be about money, says newly elected Ald. Jill Johnson, who represents the neighborhood. “A whole host of social problems have raised their heads in that area,” she says. “Money is not a magic solution.”

•    •    •    •

Owl Creek has not developed as brothers Doug and Marc Nelson envisioned it. Approved by the city in June 2005 for development of 69 single-family homes, 15 duplexes and four four-unit buildings, the subdivision was “100 percent” sold to a variety of builders by that August, says Doug Nelson.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, suspending oil production.

Nelson recalls returning from vacation to news reports predicting a spike in gas prices. Soon, concerns over utility costs flared and the price of building materials rose with demand to rebuild swamped New Orleans and the storm-savaged coast.

“That was the start of the decline in the housing market,” Nelson says in a phone interview. “A lot of builders made the decision to walk away from offers to purchase” lots in the Owl Creek subdivision.

Some of the builders followed through. Kathy and Ronald Grosso built a handful of single-family houses on Valor Way and seven family-ready four-bedroom duplexes up and down Great Gray Drive.

As other builders pulled out, lots in Owl Creek stayed vacant and ownership stayed in the hands of the Nelsons, who today hold title to some 50 vacant lots, many ungraded and overgrown with weeds, up and down the subdivision streets: Horned Owl Drive, Snowy Owl Lane, Valor Way.

Nelson, with his brother Marc, had developed several subdivisions as Nelson Group Development Corp. on the city’s east side in the mid-2000s, and got a lot a positive attention back then for Atwood Courtyard, a certified green affordable senior housing development in the east-side neighborhood where they grew up and where their office now is located.

They weren’t the only developers who got caught as the housing market went from bad to worse in the years since Katrina. “Go to any suburban area and look at the vacant lots out there — nobody’s building anything,” Nelson says.

Vacant or not, the lots are on property tax rolls and contributing to $401,723 in delinquent taxes owed countywide by the Nelson Group, says the Dane County Treasurer’s office. The brothers owe additional taxes on properties held by other entities.  “You can only do what you can do with the resources you have,” Doug Nelson says of the back taxes. He maintains that inflated property assessments on the unimproved lots are sinking struggling developers. “The city is putting developers out of business.”

Nelson quibbles with the city building department’s assessment of how the vacant lots must be maintained — the company recently was ordered to mow several — and shrugs off official concerns over what is happening in the neighborhood. “I don’t know how that involves me,” he says. A Nelson company manages only five occupied units, he stresses.

Grosso Investment Properties, based in Cottage Grove, dropped plans to build two four-unit townhouses on Great Gray Drive in 2008 in the face of criticism from city officials over management of their properties. The firm lost two duplexes to foreclosure earlier this year, as well as two single-family houses on Valor Way.

Calls to the company seeking comment for this story were not returned.

•    •    •    •

Ask the people who live in Owl Creek what the neighborhood needs and they talk about parks and sports programs and bus service so kids can get to activities somewhere else. 

“There’s not anything for the kids to do. There’s no bus line,” says Jason Newell, who lives in a duplex on Horned Owl Drive owned by the Nelsons. City authorities paint the neighborhood as troubled, but Newell says that with nowhere to go and nothing to do, kids are bound to get into scrapes. “They don’t have a way out of here. They’re hot and irritated and they start throwing rocks at each other. What do they think is going to happen?”

Some of the concern over the neighborhood is just racial stereotyping, Newell insists. “There are a lot of black folks here. Some people see that and think that means there’s a lot of crime.”

Police do report a high level of activity for them in the neighborhood. Calls for service for a roughly four-block area of the neighborhood totaled 98 in 2010 — up from 41 in 2007 — and 58 for the first six months of 2011.  Lt. Wayne Strong says the majority of calls to the area have been for what are called “quality of life” issues, including juvenile disturbances that sometimes drew in adults, but those have subsided this summer. Shootings, stabbings or significant drug activity have not been a problem, he says.

Jermaine Greer, who also stays on Horned Owl, says someone who doesn’t know the neighborhood could be alarmed just by the presence of so many kids who gather on the streets, sometimes into the early morning hours. “From the outside looking in, it’s a lot of kids,” says Greer, who says he has helped organize football games and taken neighborhood kids fishing. In hot weather, they’re drawn to the backyard pool at his girlfriend’s house like a magnet, he says.

The large duplexes translate to a lot of children; the Madison Metropolitan School District last spring estimated 102 children in elementary through high school in the neighborhood.

The biggest problem is kids who are not supervised by their parents, says resident Sonya Schwanke, who lives on Great Gray Drive. “It makes me nervous: really small kids hanging out, not supervised by their parents,” says Schwanke, who has four children of her own. She is concerned not only about who might harm the kids, but also about what kind of trouble the kids get into.

Schwanke says she’s pulled back on letting other kids share her children’s toys after borrowed things were never returned. “If these kids had more structure to keep them busy, half the stuff that goes on today wouldn’t go on,” she says.

Hawkins believes “it takes a village to raise a child,” but confesses she is frustrated by bullying and disputes among kids that sometimes end up involving adults. “It’s little kids, middle kids, big kids and mommas and aunties,” she says, moving a hand up step-to-step to describe who is involved in fights on the street.

Sometimes the things that end up bringing the police are people just taking things too far, she says, like kids of all ages getting too wild while cooling off in an open fire hydrant during a recent hot spell.

The city this summer installed a tot lot with swings and a slide where Horned Owl dead-ends, but residents dismiss the mini-park with a shake of the head. Parents of young children are put off because the park is very close to a wooded area, and its equipment is too small to occupy older kids. “There’s too many kids on this street for that itty-bitty park,” says Schwanke.

What the city should install, say several residents, is a basketball court.

Kids in the neighborhood are so desperate for something to do that they walk miles, sometimes on highways without sidewalks, to recreation fields three miles away at La Follette High School, to parks in adjacent neighborhoods, and to use swimming pools in nearby hotels, says Marisa Newell, 18.

Owl Creek kids started showing up at Wednesday evening youth services at the Evangel Life Center a couple of miles away on Femrite Drive, says youth pastor Adam Clausen. “We were awed by the huge influx,” he said of the dozen or so teenagers who came to services with younger brothers and sisters in tow. Many low-income youths participate in the church’s youth group, and Clausen says he and volunteers tried like they usually do to connect with and lend support to the young people. “For a lot of them, the family situation is difficult and it’s hard for them to open up and trust non-African-American people,” says Clausen, who is Korean.

The church started sending a van to Owl Creek to pick up youths, but ended that service in the spring after recurrent behavior problems with some of the kids, and a reported rock-throwing incident targeting the van, Clausen says. What some of the kids from Owl Creek need is one-to-one mentoring of the kind his church is not equipped to provide, he says. “We see ourselves as a church, not a social program.”

•    •    •    •

Ask the members of the Neighborhood Resource Team working in Owl Creek what the neighborhood needs and you’re likely to hear about meeting space. The lack of a common space makes it hard for residents to gather and get to know one another — a development that would work not only to defuse disputes, but also to help people discover how they can help one another, says Catherine Wildenberg, a public health nurse with the joint Madison-Dane County public health department.

“When people are not connected to their community, they become isolated and aren’t able to share resources,” says Wildenberg. Developing connections, or “social capital” as she calls it, can make a big difference in day-to-day life for individuals and the community. “It can mean someone can give you ride, or you have someone to watch your child while you go on a job interview. All those things can build up to having a healthier life.”

The Bridge-Lakepoint-Waunona Neighborhood Center, which has provided transportation to bring Owl Creek kids to its facilities more than three miles away, joined with the health department and the Madison Metropolitan School District to apply for an Emerging Neighborhoods grant from the city this spring. The group sought $9,300 to rent an apartment within walking distance for one year that would be used to interview residents, host community meetings and conduct other organizing efforts.

The proposal didn’t make the cut, however. The city received applications for more than $219,000 in funding, but had only $50,000 to spend for the grant program. City and county workers are now planning to use upcoming school enrollment sessions to make face-to-face contact with Owl Creek parents.

•    •    •    •

The effort to organize residents of Owl Creek faces another challenge that’s been seen in other neighborhoods: a transient population that doesn’t put neighborhood organizing at the top of its priority list.

Hawkins says she’s committed to finding the time to work with officials to improve the quality of life in Owl Creek, but the duplex where she lives has been foreclosed on, and it’s likely she’ll have to uproot her family when her lease expires in February. “Unless someone buys this house and says, ‘Kimyatta, you can stay,’ I’m moving.”

Soglin clearly is frustrated by what he characterizes as planning missteps, but city planning division director Brad Murphy says the Owl Creek subdivision plat fit with the uses identified for the area in the Marsh Road Neighborhood Plan. And neighborhoods routinely are developed before bus service is established. “It would be difficult for the City Council to say they will not allow an area to develop until Metro service is provided. You can’t provide bus service until there is enough housing to support extension of a route.”

But the same experience that speaks to the risks of isolated neighborhoods also tells Soglin that the city knows how to intervene. “We’ve learned over the years that if there is the willingness to commit resources, poverty can be overcome.”

Nevertheless, he dismisses the $345,000 cost of bringing bus service to the neighborhood as “totally over the top; it just cannot be done.” The city is looking at a property tax increase and across-the-board spending cuts as the 2012 budget is being prepared in a struggling economy and with a projected $5.6 million less in state aid.

Rainey Briggs, the new principal at Glendale Elementary School, says community agencies like the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA should be involved in bringing resources to Owl Creek, including some kind of neighborhood center. “If there isn’t anything there for kids to do, there are going to be time when things aren’t going right,” says Briggs, who grew up in Madison area neighborhoods once notorious for crime.

A lack of money doesn’t mean there can’t be progress, says Briggs, who cautions against overstating the challenges in Owl Creek. “There are tons of people who may be willing to volunteer to be part of something different,” he says.

Ald. Johnson also says that money isn’t the only way to build a better community. “The answer may come down to conflict management, with providing different models of behavior, the involvement of parents, that kind of thing,” she says.

In the meantime, recurrent problems have so frustrated some residents that they are souring on the neighborhood that promised so much. “I love my place, it’s new,” says Schwanke. “But I hate it over here, I really do. This could be a beautiful neighborhood, but we need help.”

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