James London stands six-foot-six and weighs 348 pounds, so his nickname, “Big Jim,” is no misnomer.
And to the residents of the South Side Youngstown neighborhood where he makes his home, what he’s accomplished far exceeds his physical size.
Nearly eight years after he moved to the Idora neighborhood – an area where his real estate agent advised against buying anything – the transplant from DuBois, Pa., is the founder, president and driving force behind the Idora Neighborhood Association. Those efforts started with London’s desire to form a block watch after his van was broken into six months after he moved into his home on Volney Road.
“I decided to do something about this,” he recalls. “Something” evolved beyond the block watch he intended to start into a neighborhood association hailed by civic leaders as a model for other such groups in Youngstown.
On disability because of work-related injuries, London focuses his energy on the neighborhood association and the organizations under its umbrella, all staffed by volunteers. “I do what I can for the community,” he says. “I feel anybody can do something.”
Based on his background, London would seem an unlikely neighborhood champion. A self-described “major drug dealer” during the 1980s, London says his “world came crashing down” in 1989, when one of his customers was busted and turned him in to the authorities.
Facing a potential 28 years in prison, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two to five years. Initially serving his time in the state penitentiary in Pittsburgh, he subsequently spent six months in Mercer, Pa., and ended up at a halfway house in Sharon.
“After about six months in prison I realized I really needed this,” he reflects. “I really needed this prison because my life was not going properly.” He determined to straighten out his life with the help of correctional officers who “took a liking” to him, he says, and helped him through the process. During his incarceration he earned his General Educational Development certificate.
Upon his release, London found work on natural gas rigs and ended up getting a commercial driver’s license. After an accident on a rig, he began hauling steel over the road during the mid-1990s.
As he waited at mills, he read computer magazines and studied the then-emerging industry. He took a job as head technician at the Staples store in Hermitage before opening his own computer business, which he ran two years while driving for a lumber-hauling company that his mother owned.
“I didn’t have enough work in the shop to keep it open, so I closed that down,” he recalls. Around the same time, in 1999, he was at the B&B Backstage to attend a concert featuring Nazareth, Molly Hatchet and the Hern Brothers.
Short by one, the promoter asked the imposing London to watch the back curtain, leading him to another career for the next two years, a bodyguard for entertainers. Although he turned down the opportunity to tour with Pat Benatar both because he had a young daughter – today 19 – from an earlier relationship and he would have only one day a year at home, he ended up working for acts that included Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat and Benny Mardones.
An accident in 2003 resulting from setting up for an event at the Eastwood Mall cut that career short. As he lifted a sandbag, he felt what seemed like a shock. He realized immediately something had happened to his back. “I ripped the L4-L5 discs out of my lower back and that ended my career for tour[ing],” he says.
At the time he was living in a 1,300-square-foot house in Brookfield, along with his girlfriend who’s been with him now 13 years.
She had a job in Niles, but they decided they wanted a larger house and told their real estate agent they wanted an ”old school” mansion. The the only place they’d find such a home was Youngstown, the agent informed them, warning they didn’t want to move there. “He said that area’s going down,” London remembers.
London took it upon himself to drive around the city and happened upon Mill Creek Park to see what houses might be for sale, and also used the online Multiple Listing Service system.
Once London found the house he wanted, in the Idora neighborhood, he returned to the agent, who warned him that the area would be “done” in five years. London persisted, and he purchased the house in March 2006.
At the time, he admits, he didn’t have the “love for community that I have now.” If the neighborhood deteriorated further, he considered the possibility of converting the house into dorms for college students.
After the van break-in, London wondered whether he had made a mistake moving after all. Determined that he hadn’t, he attended the meeting called to discuss the plan developed for the Idora neighborhood as part of the Youngstown 2010 initiative. Much of the talk at the meeting centered on crime, he recalls, and he stood up to express his interest in forming the block watch.
At the same meeting, he encountered Ian Beniston, deputy director of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., then a graduate student who was volunteering with the city.
London is “obviously a guy that’s hard to miss,” Beniston says, but he determined London was also someone he needed to talk to. “I was searching for folks in the neighborhood who were willing to step up and take a leadership role,” Beniston says. London invited him to his house to talk further, and the two spent hours talking on a Saturday following the neighborhood meeting.
The two began documenting and mapping blighted properties in the neighborhood, with Beniston emailing him from Ohio State University where he was pursuing his graduate studies and coming back to Youngstown on weekends.
Beniston also took London around the city and introduced him to people in the community.
“I started seeing a lot of things,” London says. “There’s a lot of nice people here, especially in the community where I live.” At that point, he decided against converting his house to a dorm and instead to work turning the community around.
The Idora Neighborhood Association formed as a formal nonprofit organization in 2007. Its early efforts involved signage for the neighborhood, funded from a $1,200 grant from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, which over the years has given grants totaling $15,200 to support its efforts. Those include funding for a mural and $5,000 earlier this year for the Glenwood/Warren gateway project.
The fledgling group also launched an initiative aimed at so-called corner stores that were less than sanitary and magnets for neighborhood crime. The group has worked with various organizations on several rehabilitation and beautification projects.
London’s impact on the Idora neighborhood “has been extraordinary,” remarks Presley Gillespie, YNDC executive director. “He has a relentless passion to transform his neighborhood and recognizes that change will not happen if we wait for someone else,” he says. “From teaching kids to fight blight to tackling crime, his contagious spirit inspires all residents to take courageous purposeful action. He is a great example of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, when they have the desire and unwavering commitment.”
The organization today encompasses the block watch of which London is captain, a “sunshine” committee who welcomes new residents to the neighborhood, and a 4-H Club he advises, the Idora Wildcats, established in 2009 and named after the iconic rollercoaster, the lead attraction at the former Idora Park.
London wasn’t familiar with the amusement park, which closed in 1984 following a fire that damaged much of it including the Wildcat, and began researching it after coming here. “What made it special is the same thing we’re doing here in Idora Neighborhood,” he says. “It was bringing people together for a simple cause of having fun.
The 27-acre property, acquired by Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church in 1985, has sat vacant as the leadership of the church has pursued a $50 million “City of God” for the site. The absence of any progress “is an issue” with neighborhood residents, who have waited patiently to see something happen with the property, London says. While returning the property to its use as an amusement park is unrealistic, London believes something like an indoor/outdoor water park could be sustainable.
Unsuccessful in his efforts over three years to discuss with the church leadership using the property for the neighborhood association’s annual IdoraFest, London says the pastor of Mount Calvary contacted him eight months ago about attending one of the neighborhood association’s meetings, where he again laid out the church’s vision for the site.
At the meeting, London recalls, he stressed that little has happened with the property since the church acquired it but that the neighborhood group wanted to work with the church. “We live here,” he says.
Since that meeting London says the church has contacted him about five times. Although the church’s lawyer advised against having last year’s IdoraFest on the property, the church has expressed interest in working with the neighborhood association and continuing discussions toward having its annual event on the site this year.
“They want to work with us,” London says. “We came to the understanding that we need to work together to make this … 27 acres come back to life.”
This year, London says, his top priorities are to advance the Idora Wildcats, provide housing at low or no cost to veterans and their families (he and the Idora group are collaborating with Home Depot on such a project now), encourage more home ownership and move forward with a landlord accountability and tenant rights and responsibilities’ program.
City and community officials acknowledge the impact London has had in the Idora neighborhood and beyond. “People are coming to the realization now that without that local leadership and without the local passion, you really can’t effect change as effectively,” says Bill D’Avignon, Youngstown’s community development director. London is “a unique individual who has a lot of passion and concern about this neighborhood.”
London’s “grassroots leadership model” has started to help others make positive changes in their own neighborhoods, Gillespie adds. “Big Jim proves that change is possible with determination, and he is truly an inspiration to me,” he comments.
Beniston characterizes London as “the quintessential neighborhood champion in the city.” While people associate London with the Idora neighborhood, the YNDC official says the neighborhood leader has made efforts to go to other neighborhood groups to share what he’s learned. At one point, he reports, one neighborhood organization sent London a letter asking if he would take over. “He has a passion that only continues to grow for doing the work and improving the neighborhood,” he says.
London says he is “always thinking” about the next step for the community. He unwinds from stress by first resolving the cause of the stress. He enjoys working on projects with kids, “remote control anything,” listening to music, reading about electronics and “chilling out” with his pets, which include his three dogs, chinchillas, a bird and fish.
He admits to some surprise at the reception that he, an acknowledged former “menace to society,” has received in the neighborhood.
The community “accepted me with open arms” and allowed his and Beniston’s vision to come alive. “That was a big surprise to me and I’m very pleased that that has happened,” he says.
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