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How Do You Make Someone Care?

Author: Todd Bushway 

I am frustrated when I see properties, either residential or commercial, where the owner has chosen to ignore the basic maintenance of the property – picking up trash, regularly (and neatly) mowing the lawn, keeping shrubs and bushes neatly trimmed and underbrush and weeds removed. This is not actual structural work on the property, but basic care that can be done with no special skill or tools beyond that found in a typical homeowner’s garage. Professional landscaping is terrific, but that’s not what I am talking about.

The result is the entire neighborhood suffers. I cannot imagine that there is anyone who would want to live, work or own a business near a property that is poorly maintained – the entire community benefits when each property owner takes care, and the community dims, even if just a little bit, when a few chose not to care.

This first set of photographs (lead image) show a pair of apartment buildings located directly across the street from each other on Amherst Street in North Buffalo. One owner keeps its property neat and well maintained – the other does not.

Updated side note: The building in the lead image is currently under renovation by a new property owner. New windows are going in, and the grounds are being spruced up. 

What makes this so frustrating is that the landscaping at the well maintained property is not complicated or difficult – the plants and shrubs are basic, inexpensive and found at almost every local nursery (or Home Depot, less than a mile away) and no special tools or expertise needed to do the work – just the effort and a lawnmower, shovel, rake clippers and perhaps a string trimmer. Not exactly the sort of things that a commercial owner of an apartment building should find unreasonable to acquire and use.

This second pair of photographs shows the sidewalk on Elmwood Avenue, just south of Forest Avenue.

Elmwood Avenue, as are many other commercial streets, is lined with tree wells. The wells are a great idea if taken care of, a potential eyesore if not. There does not appear to be any City plan or maintenance of these wells, leaving that to the property owners in the area. The photos show the possible outcomes – one set of wells is kept neat, the other overgrown, with trash strewn about. It does appear that at one time, someone made an effort with the near well in the overgrown picture – there are edging stones around the well. And, as the first photo shows, the effort need not be a huge undertaking. While some other property owners have planted flowers and other plants in the tree wells, the neatly kept gravel found here is more than enough for a clean and well-kept appearance.

I am sure that this type of contrast can be found at hundreds of locations around WNY, regardless of the community – rural, suburban or urban. I recognize that these owners are probably not violating any city code or ordinance and these examples are mild compared to what some residents face. Putting aside that and the question of how an unkempt and filthy property makes good business sense, I ask the following:

  • How do you get someone to care?
  • What should be considered acceptable and who gets to set that standard?
  • What, if anything, should the community at large be able to do is this kind of situation?

Since these examples come from the more well to do and celebrated neighborhoods in the City, that fact alone, (or shame, if that’s the right word) has not caused any concern for these owners. I can understand that for some areas, this type of visual neglect rightly sits behind other, more pressing socio-economic issues, although that should not serve as an excuse for those property owners with the basic resources to care for their property. Occupying a lower rung of the socio-economic ladder should not sentence that community to needlessly overgrown or trash strewn properties. Economic resources are required for structural repairs or other work, such as a new roof or a full paint job. Picking up the trash, cutting the grass and trimming the bushes or trees requires mostly effort, not money. Far too many absentee landlords or other non-resident owners of property seem equate ownership in a poor or downtrodden neighborhood with a lower standard of care.

Who should take up the slack? Do responsible people, by taking on the additional task, further enable the wrong? By not confronting the lousy neighbor, do we take the easy way out, the path of least resistance?

On the block were my first house was located, there were several absentee landlords (including the owner of the property next door) whose actions appeared to start and stop with collecting the rent checks. Despite their claims otherwise, basic maintenance did not occur (a couple of fresh paint jobs wouldn’t have hurt either, but baby steps first). Continued entreaties to the owners resulted in empty promises at best. After getting no real help from City Hall, I, and my neighbor on the other side of the house, just did the work ourselves. We cut the lawn, trimmed the hedges and other shrubs, added a few flowers when planting our own, raked the leaves and took care of sidewalk in the winter. I’m sure our actions did nothing to make that irresponsible neighbor step up, and we probably allowed him to increase his rents, now that the place looked presentable. My motivation was simple – avoid seeing an overgrown mess every time I went outside.

What happened when it’s not as simple as my former block or there isn’t a single person capable or willing to take on the work? Should a community group such as the Elmwood Village Association pick up the slack and add basic street cleanup to their list of tasks, instead of working on things that add to the community? What happens if there is no community organization? Should a commercial street in a mixed use neighborhood require a Saturday volunteer event to pick up the trash and pull some weeds? And what happens when the vulgar outnumber the responsible.

To me, when this happens, it’s almost always a statement by the owner the he/she/it simply doesn’t care – not about their own property and not about people and community who share the same environment with them. The question then becomes, how do you make someone care?

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