MURPHYSBORO — Flowers were in full bloom along each side of the house's stone steps and more blooms were seen in hanging baskets on the house on North 14th Street. The lawn was mowed and edged.
Mayor Will Stephens stopped his car in front of the house, went up to the door and knocked. When the homeowner answered, Stephens thanked that person for taking such pride in their property.
Of late, the Murphysboro City Council has focused on the way the community looks and discussed ways they could get people to take more pride in properties that have become unsightly.
About 43 percent of properties in Murphysboro are rentals and many have fallen into disrepair. Even owner-occupied homes have created reasons for concern.
As early as this week, Stephens and Murphysboro city alderman Herb Voss plan to meet, along with some concerned residents, to talk about work West Frankfort has done establishing codes for improving the city's aesthetics.
"A pleasant community appearance adds to home values, helps attract business investment, and just improves the neighborhood reputation," write the authors of the Useful Community Development website. "Research shows that beauty is one of the top three factors in creating community attachment, or loyalty, to your particular town or city."
Pride and inspiration
On a scale of one to five, Stephens said he would rate Murphysboro's beauty as a three.
"We’ve got a lot of industrial areas that have deteriorated over the years, so that’s one of the issues," Stephens said. "On the residential side, we’ve got a lot of great landlords. I think we’ve also got some landlords that could use some inspiration, and that’s part of the conversation we had the other night, about adopting some inspection controls on rental properties because I think that’s where the majority of our issues come now.”
According to the city code, one of its housing code's objectives is "to preserve or increase the municipal tax base by arresting — and ultimately, reversing — the spread of blight."
This year, the city's code enforcement office has written fewer than 25 tickets for code violations, primarily for uncut grass or otherwise not maintaining the property.
In Alderman Dan Bratton's opinion, some city residents seem to have lost pride in their properties.
"People of Murphysboro need to reclaim a pride of ownership," Bratton said, "just generally have pride of ownership or rentership."
The council member said that would look like a homeowner or renter maintaining his or her property, trimming shrubs or trees, mowing the yard and raking up leaves and not allowing gumballs, the fruit from sweet gum trees, to flow into the city's sewer system.
Is beautification tied to economics?
Not necessarily, some of the city officials said.
“I guess the answer to that question is, obviously, when people are struggling and on the lower rung of the economic ladder, they’re not going to have the resources to buy mulch and flowers every spring and fall to put around the house," Stephens said. "And I don’t expect people to have to do that."
The median income in Murphysboro for 2013 was $28,000.
"I think Southern Illinois, as a whole, has struggled economically, and it certainly plays a part in it, but I also know people who are certainly not wealthy who take great pride in their property," he said.
The city does not have a beautification committee, but instead has beautification projects under its Public Improvement Committee.
Restoring the welcome sign
Working to enhance your property doesn't really take a lot of money, just concern, according to one Murphysboro woman.
Jamie Green said she grew up in Murphysboro and was always struck by the large sign at the city's east end welcoming people to the city.
She moved away and moved back in 2011. She said she was surprised at the area, which had a non-working light. She complained. When that was fixed, it showed even more how unkempt the area was.
"Then it was kind of an eyesore and you could see how it just wasn’t very maintained," Green said.
Green said she learned that the person who maintained the landscaping in the area had likely passed away and no one had stepped up to take over. This past fall, she volunteered, attracting five other volunteers to help.
David Murray, an engineer, designed the retaining wall, and he and Green's husband, Shannon, installed it. Burkey Excavation donated the dirt, and Bost Trucking donated mulch. The city helped to connect a hose for watering, when necessary.
Murray's wife volunteered to help Green plant some of plants that had been identified as native or close to maintenance-free for the area inside the retaining wall -- mums, bluestem grass, black-eyed Susans, primroses and purple poppy mallows.
"It was something that felt like I could do that would making the (area) look different," Jamie Green said. "I wanted it to look like it did when I was younger."