A community organization that maintains green space bordering West Peoria is hoping to get more volunteers involved and invested in its future.
Over the last 30 years, the Western Avenue Greenway Project has purchased run down properties and gradually converted six city blocks into a linear, park-like setting.
“Yes, it was considered controversial, but we had empty houses all over Peoria. Rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, middle class neighborhoods," Greenway Project board member Project board member Dan Callahan said. "While we don't like to advertise that they were taken down, the important thing was: there was a strategy.”
A stark contrast to the "crass commercialization" and rapid development taking place in the mid-80s, Callahan added.
“Just in a matter of years, it went from being a problem zone, to being one of the healthiest parts of the surrounding area,” Callahan said.
The stretch of land along Western Ave., from Callender Ave. to Main St., now contains landscaping, berms and architectural artifacts, recovered from the old Saint Francis Hospital.
Cars whiz past the pocket park, which is situated across the street from a car wash, a liquor shop, and a title loans store. And if you weren’t looking for it, you might miss it.
But for the few neighbors whose homes still remain on this portion of Western Ave., the Greenway is a slice of heaven.
“If it were gone, it wouldn’t be a neighborhood anymore,” resident Walt Herron said. "I would miss it."
Herron’s lived on the grassy expanse for more than two decades. He remembers when the rows of abandoned houses and run-down rental properties lined the block all the way up to the street.
“There was a house here. There was about four or five houses on this block," Herrod said. "I’m the last house that’s standing.”
He says, since the Greenway Project got involved, the area has become a more pleasant, safer place to live.
“I was here when it used to be just deteriorating houses, and driving up to the street was not very pleasant,” Project volunteer Dolores Sylvester said.
“But when they did this, they created this park-like atmosphere and this feeling, like, it's everybody’s town, not just the one neighborhood,” Sylvester said.
The "one neighborhood" being the more affluent Moss-Bradley neighborhood.
The Western Avenue Greenway Project doesn’t receive funding from the Peoria Park District or from state or federal government. So volunteers, like Sylvester and Sharon McBride, are out pulling up weeds on a humid morning.
McBride, who lives in West Peoria, says she loves how the Greenway connects communities.
“It just makes a nice entrance coming into West Peoria,” McBride said.
The women agree, there’s something this space could definitely use -- young people.
“I don’t want to knock the millennials, but, they have to be taught that you need to go out and become involved,” McBride said. “You always hear that everybody is so busy, but I raised four kids under four years old and did a lot of things at that time too. So I don’t buy that.”
There could be a glimmer of hope for the future, though, just a block south of where they’re working.
Another resident, Denise Wakefield, is tending to a community vegetable garden, a relatively new feature of the Greenway Project.
“Collard greens, tomatoes, and okra,” Wakefield said.
She lives in another house that still stands on this stretch of Western Ave. She moved here six years ago.
“I was just looking for a place to stay, and I wound up finding this. I love it. My porch is full of plants. My grandkids run around...It’s peaceful,” Wakefield said.
Her granddaughter Caydn is a few yards away, watering a row of cabbages. The dirt is saturated with puddles, but Caydn’s outfitted with forest green rubber boots that go past her knees.
Wakefield says the best part about this park is it brings together all walks of life. She enjoys sitting on her porch watching people go by.
“Everybody. From all over: West Peoria, on the side of Bradley,” Wakefield said. “No matter what color they are, we live in the same neighborhood, and we all work together, and we keep the area clean.”
Wakefield and the volunteers say they hope the next generation continues the effort.