Gannon Helps Erie's Lower West Side Get Organized

Posted: May 24, 2013It's a neighborhood with a storied history.  It was here, at the foot of what is now Cascade Street, that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's fleet for the Battle of Lake Erie was constructed.  A few decades later, it was the site of a free black community called New Jerusalem that harbored freedom seekers on their way to Canada.

The Lower West Side was a place of tight-knit neighborhoods, but the forces of economic and social change have frayed many of the connections that had sustained the neighborhood for so long.

This is also the neighborhood that is home to Gannon University, and is the heart of the area addressed by the University's Erie-GAINS (Erie-Gannon Alliances to Improve Neighborhood Sustainability) initiative, a long-term, mutually beneficial community initiative designed to expand the University's efforts to support the common good of the neighborhoods surrounding the campus.

With its great store of intellectual and social capital, Gannon University is ideally positioned to assist community organizations.  But what if no organization is in place? That was the situation in the Lower West Side. 

Into the breach stepped Erie-GAINS.  Working in concert with the Erie's Housing and Neighborhood Development Service (HANDS), a private not-for-profit organization, and Bayfront NATO's Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, Gannon participated in the creation of the Lower West Side Planning Collaborative.

"Our hope is that this organization can be the force for positive change, following the example of the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network in Little Italy or the Bayfront East Side Task Force," said Erika Ramalho, Gannon's director of community & government relations. "By virtue of their existence, such organizations are eligible for funding through the Neighborhood Assistance Programs offered by the PA Department of Economic and Community Development."

Until such funding is secured, though, Gannon is moving forward with initiatives in the neighborhood.  One has been completed:  a survey of the housing stock, conducted by students, which has been entered into the University's sophisticated Geographic Information System (GIS) that permits mapping and analysis of data, so that resources can be allocated to areas with the greatest need.

The next data set to be added will be part of an ambitious project by Christopher Magno, Ph.D., program director and assistant professor of criminal justice.  Magno, who was just named to one of the University's prestigious Cooney-Jackman Endowed Professorships, will pursue research on neighborhood safety and signs of deterioration in the Lower West Side.

He will examine interrelationships among visible neighborhood characteristics that suggest deterioration--broken windows, vandalism, lack of street lights, graffiti, and abandoned buildings-measure social services available to neighborhood residents, neighborhood safety and security, and the incidence of crime and violence. Gannon students are participating in his research, an example of the types of community partnerships that are a part of Gannon's newly adopted Strategic Plan.

"The MLK Center continues to focus on the quality of life for our community, enhancing work, study, play and health," said the Center's executive director James Sherrod. "Our joint efforts in the neighborhood support MLKs mission and help identify goals for our community development."

Thanks to the efforts of all involved, the making of history in this historic neighborhood is far from over.