His level best

& lt;a href=mailto:rgsmith@vindy.com & gt;By ROGER SMITH & lt;/a & gt;
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mike Damiano stands in the 800 block of Elm Street and points his arm in every direction.
He tells a story about the big multifamily building over there. About the nice mural painted inside the bungalow over there. About the odd person who lived in the Victorian over there.
Damiano is pointing at nothing. They are vacant lots created by years of demolition.
As the city's housing and demolition director, Damiano has presided over 6,600 razings in his 26 years. You would think all the dilapidated houses would fade from his memory after so many years. You would be wrong.
"You remember them all; how you did it, what the circumstances were. Maybe I have too good a memory," he said with a laugh.
Press him on why he can recall all these houses and he keeps joking, as is his nature.
Finally, almost offhandedly, he relents.
"All the crap you go through over the years," Damiano said. "It's frustrating because I never seem to make any headway."
Back in his office, Damiano points to a file cabinet stuffed with hundreds of folders. Each carries the record of a condemned house.
"Each one of those has their own story," he said.
Vindicator series
The Vindicator will be telling such stories in the coming months, posting the city's demolition list of 500-some houses at www.vindy.com. The list, updated every month or so, will let residents see which addresses are -- and aren't -- scheduled for razing. The Web site also gives the city's estimated time for when each house is to be demolished. The city demolishes an average of about 300 houses a year, depending on funding.
In addition, the newspaper periodically will publish stories about issues surrounding demolition in Youngstown.
Take the case of 1817 Elm St. on the North Side.
Damiano pulls that file because it's typical of what a property goes through to get on the demolition list and the headaches along the way.
The four-bedroom, one-bath, two-story house was built in 1921. Families called it home for 75 years. The house became vacant around 1996, neighbors say.
Began in 1997
The sad saga of 1817 Elm, one of eight houses on the street scheduled for razing, started in February 1997. City records aren't clear on why. The file shows only that somebody in the office looked up the property's background information.
Residents and city council members are a regular source of complaints about eyesore houses. City housing inspectors, however, identify the majority of potential demolitions, Damiano said.
Doors and windows at 1817 Elm weren't boarded up, which generated the first notice from housing inspectors in May 1997. The city asked the owner, listed as Hind Salman of Arbor Circle in Youngstown, to cover the openings. Graffiti and bad gutters meant another notice soon after.
Inspectors filled out at least five notices threatening legal action between 1997 and 2001 as the house deteriorated. The city boarded up the house in late 1997. The owner, meanwhile, did nothing.
Citations may have been issued over that time but not recorded in the file, Damiano said. Inspectors issue warnings on many deteriorating properties but take far fewer to court. There are far more cases than there is time or inspectors to follow them all through court, Damiano said.
State of property
Red and white graffiti scrawled across the front porch of the Elm Street house remains today. Electric wires and the meter are ripped away. The windows are broken and the roof is buckled. Trash and brush are scattered in the yard. The inside is gutted, though Damiano has seen worse.
He can tell which houses still have a chance and which are beyond repair and have no future. Windows and doors, kitchens and bathrooms, and roofs and furnaces usually tell the tale. When those features are destroyed, so is the house, Damiano said.
Some property owners argue against demolition. They pledge they will fix up the condemned house. One in 50 or 100 actually do, Damiano said.
Finding owners is an achievement in itself.
At 1817 Elm, there was no response from the owner to letters sent to the Arbor Circle address through the years. Some digging through phone listings in early 2001 turned up a Cleveland number and address for the Salman family.
The next steps
The house was in bad enough shape by late 2001 that Damiano took the next step in demolition, ordering a title search. An inspector sent a demolition notice to Salman in Cleveland the same week. The certified letter came back unclaimed.
Property owners accept only about 25 percent of such demolition-related mail, Damiano said. Owners refuse about 30 percent of the letters; the rest never reach them. Most have moved or died.
Legal advertisements printed in newspapers threatening demolition follow. Occasionally, somebody who knows something about a property -- or even the owner -- will call after seeing a legal ad.
Not that it usually matters.
"I know it's not going to get any better," he said. "You know nothing's ever going to happen. It just gets worse and worse and eventually it gets knocked down."
A year passed and the city sent another demolition notice to Salman in late 2002, this time to the Youngstown address, where it was accepted. More legal ads followed just to be sure there was enough notice to satisfy a court.
With that, the city condemned 1817 Elm St.
Still standing
There is no sense of accomplishment, however. The house isn't gone yet. The eyesore may not be leveled for months or years because there is more to consider.
Damiano uses instinct when deciding on scheduling a house for demolition. He compares a property to others in the ward that are candidates for razing. He also considers a property's location.
Priority goes to decrepit houses that are on main streets, near a school or shopping area or where the neighbors are most vehement.
The Elm Street house fits a few of those descriptions. Elm Street runs through the North Side. Eight other homes nearby are in at least decent shape. One has a fresh paint job. A neighbor a few houses away has dogged Damiano for years. Even a pair of 4-year-olds playing next door to the eyesore one day earlier this month echoed the neighborhood sentiment.
"Take this house down! Make it nice and clean it," said CeAndre Backus, emphasizing how he wants a clean patch of green grass to play on in its place.
CeAndre and his buddy, Dawyne Harris, admit playing around the condemned house even though they're not supposed to.
Ward by ward
Damiano keeps a running file of the 25 worst properties per ward and bids out all the work through one demolition contract. He rotates demolition contracts among the seven city wards. For example, this month Damiano is preparing to bid out the 25 worst houses in the 3rd Ward. Then he will move to the next 25 worst in another ward.
Before a house comes down, however, there is a state-mandated historical review. He must send pictures and documentation to the Ohio Historic Preservation Office before leveling the property. The office usually doesn't block demolitions. Occasionally, though, the state will stop the razing of a home with an unusual type of roof or facade.
The city can award a demolition contract if there are no preservation issues.
But there's lots of bureaucracy first: City council action. The finance department. A 100-page booklet of demolition regulations. A pre-bid meeting. Picking the lowest qualified bidder. The city's board of control. A letter directing the contractor to start demolitions. The company's schedule.
Only then does a house come down -- if there are no complications.
And all this time, the addresses of many more dilapidated homes drip into Damiano's office. His workdays just run into one another.
"The day goes like that," Damiano said, snapping his fingers. "The weeks go. The years go."
& lt;a href=mailto:rgsmith@vindy.com & gt;rgsmith@vindy.com & lt;/a & gt;