Residents heartened by change in the Fourth Ward

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, January 13, 2013

— Things are getting better.

That's the word coming from people living in the Fourth Ward—one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

People are buying homes in the Fourth Ward and moving in from places such as Madison and California, bringing with them babies and elderly mothers. Others have lived in the Fourth Ward for years and have seen the area improve.

Most say they are attracted by the character and affordability of the homes. Sometimes, the prices are half of Madison and even other parts of Janesville.

Some buyers said they had to push their real estate agents to show them homes in the area.

Most Fourth Ward residents said they feel safe. One couple, though, said they wish they could move their home across the Rock River.

First home

Zack and Bree Sowieja moved from Madison on Dec. 14 after they bought their first home at 808 W. Holmes St.

They bought about 2,000 square feet for $85,000. A similar home in Madison would have cost at least twice as much, Zack figures.

In addition, the city used federal money to upgrade the home with new mechanicals and other improvements, such as lead removal.

It was a deal the couple with one child could not ignore.

"We immediately fell in love with it," Zack, 25, said of the Victorian-style home that includes original trim and a stunning foyer and staircase.

They commute to their jobs in Madison.

Zack said he researched the area and saw its history of crime and drug-related problems.

"We have also seen the city doing a lot to improve the area," he said. "We figured it would be alright. Plus, we've lived in Madison, and it has unsafe areas, as well."

Since they moved in, they haven't encountered any problems, Zack said. They feel safe.

More than hoped

Angela Cardinal moved from California with her mother and adult son into a home at 182 S. Jackson St.

They had vacationed in Wisconsin and found it to be beautiful.

They looked for homes all over Janesville.

"But when you are looking in (the Fourth Ward), you know, what I could get for the money ... it just seemed like a good deal. Homes in this area, they're just so charming and beautiful and have so much character."

She also likes its proximity to downtown.

Nathan Bussan renovated her home, converted it back to single-family residence and added energy-saving features.

She paid $85,000.

"So far, I like it even better than I thought I would," Cardinal said.

Within a day or two of moving in, several of the neighbors brought over baked goods and flowers. Everybody has been friendly, she said.

The police patrol the area often.

"I haven't felt unsafe at all," she said.

'Wait and see'

Michael Wooden, 35, Candice Ruppert, 32, and their three children live across the street from Cardinal.

They have more reservations about the area.

The couple moved from Memorial Drive more than a year ago because they fell in the love with the house. They paid $60,000 for about 2,400 square feet.

"We came in and saw the potential, and it was worth every penny," Wooden said.

Wooden grew up in the Fourth Ward, so he knows its history.

He said the neighborhood isn't dangerous, but he called it "iffy."

"There's been issues," Wooden said. "It's sad because we really don't let our kids play outside that much."

Once, a group of unsupervised kids threatened their children. Many parents who live in the Fourth Ward do not supervise their own children, Wooden said.

"When your kids go outside, you don't want them to be threatened by some idiot," he said. "You want to let them ride their bikes and not worry about them. That's annoying."

Residents deal drugs a couple of houses down, and the police are there all the time, Wooden said.

"The biggest things is, nobody uses the sidewalks," Wooden said. "They all walk in the middle of the street, and they talk as loud as possible."

Ruppert does not walk outside alone at night.

Wooden said his oldest child attends Marshall Middle School and invited five classmates to a birthday party. Four didn't come, and the family found out later it was because the parents feared the Fourth Ward was too dangerous to send their children.

"I wish this neighborhood would be different," Wooden said. "We want to move this house somewhere else."

Investors can buy a house in the Fourth Ward for $40,000, do nothing to it and make money renting it out, Wooden said.

There's a strong possibility the couple will sell their house when they finish remodeling.

"If there's a plan in the works to root out some of the crappy people, I got to see it," Wooden said. "If this neighborhood did start kind of improving, I would stay. If more people owned their homes down there, that would be great."

It sounds as if the city is on the right path, Wooden said.

"Some of our neighbors are fantastic," he said.

"I never moved into a neighborhood before were people showed up with cookies," he said. "It was like on TV.

"Now, I know why. They were very happy to see us."

No worse

Derek Schyvinck has lived in his home on South Jackson Street for a decade.

He bought the house against his better judgment after his wife fell in love with its character and size. They had four little children at the time.

At first, he had concerns.

"There was a lot of traffic—the street was one way then—and a lot of people walking around on the streets," he recalled. "I work in mental health and was seeing people I was familiar with."

Over the last decade, the atmosphere has "absolutely" improved, he said.

"I can honestly say that I don't feel that things are any worse here on Jackson Street than anywhere else that I've lived," Schyvinck said.

Homeowners are moving in and improving the properties, and the landlord next door keeps the property in good shape, he said.

The couple has enough confidence in the area that they plan to make improvements of their own.

Second generation

Stephen Pickering grew up in the Fourth Ward. Now, he and his wife, Cameron, are back in their own home at 120 S. Cherry St. raising three children.

The home they bought six years ago for $95,000 would have cost them $100,000 more across the river, Stephen figured. They also got a home improvement loan from the city to remove lead paint.

The Fourth Ward has improved "90 percent" over the last six years, he said.

Stephen grew up in the neighborhood "when it was really bad," he said. He recalled delivering papers and changing directions to avoid certain crowds.

"We don't run into that anymore," Stephen said.

Cameron grew up on Black Bridge Road and recalls when she was young being scared to go to the bowling alley in the Fourth Ward. She said she realizes that was not an accurate perception.

Cameron said she is not afraid to walk anywhere in the Fourth Ward. She keeps a close eye on her children outside, but she doesn't think she is different than parents living elsewhere. They also have a security system.

"I've talked to a lot of people in a lot of different neighbors," Cameron said. "They agreed: Having small children, you just don't let them run around the same way you used to.

"What we see on this particular block is really good," Cameron said.

Many of the homes are rented but well maintained.

"The city has been working so hard to (bring) change, to get rid of the troublesome landlords who will rent to anyone. If we could have more homeowners with families, that would be a big deal.

"The city is not giving up," Cameron said. "If we continue to work, we will make this neighborhood better.

"And that's going to make the entire city better."

Last updated: 8:03 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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