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Just three years ago, many of Connecticut Street's grand, century-old buildings were riddled with graffiti.

Drug dealers boldly ran their businesses on the corners.

And abandoned homes -- many built in the early 1800s with craftsmanship that can't be duplicated today -- had turned into flophouses for prostitutes and pimps.

But after residents and business owners put their heads together and some service organizations started combining resources, this nine-block neighborhood is on the road back.

Large-scale projects -- like D'Youville College's $11 million expansion -- and the small businesses that have made visible improvements within the last couple of years are fueling the renaissance.

Business owner Robin Johnson and Linda Chiarenza, executive director of West Side Neighborhood Housing Services at 359 Connecticut St., helped initiate it.

"What really started it was I was going to leave Connecticut Street. It was bad and not safe, and my clients didn't want to come down here. Then Linda got together the community leaders, and I saw everybody really did care about community but didn't know how to go about changing it," said Johnson, owner of Vilardo Printing at 326 Connecticut. She also is the first president of the Connecticut Street Business Association, created in 2001.

The association then became part of the West Side Community Collaborative, which has been successfully attacking crime and driving out slumlords for several years on nearby Massachusetts Avenue and Rhode Island, 14th and 19th streets.

The strategy behind the collaborative is to have neighbors do more for themselves, said Harvey Garrett, its crime and safety coordinator. With the guidance of the collaborative, the Connecticut Street neighborhood is becoming a thriving community again.

"We've put in about $100,000 in this building over the last five years. Of that, the city probably kicked in about $10,000. That includes $2,000 from the (city's) facade improvement program and $5,000 for something else," said Michael Pierro, owner of Mineo and Sapio, a sausage manufacturing company at 410 Connecticut.

Pierro bought the company in 1984. Three years ago, he decided to invest in upgrades, even though he wasn't completely comfortable with the neighborhood, which he has seen go through the "whole life cycle."

Ultimately, however, the capital investment to move operations from the city would have been too great, he said.

Johnson, too, opted to keep her printing business in the city, even though many clients were afraid to come to her shop, which she has owned since 2001.

"I didn't want to leave. I love this place. Everybody knows me here," said Johnson, who implemented the Adopt A Wall program, in which neighbors in the community are responsible for keeping a specific wall free of graffiti.

Larger institutions and establishments also have begun making investments in the neighborhood.

D'Youville, for instance, committed to building a dormitory to house 180 upper-class students on Connecticut Street. New parking lots also are included. The dorms are scheduled to open in January, and school officials hope the expansion will be a catalyst for other businesses to come to Connecticut Street.

"Business would have a natural market here," said John Bray, D'Youville spokesman. "We have about 2,700 students coming and going on campus."

New street lights also have been installed. Meanwhile, shops and restaurants along Connecticut Street -- like Golden Key Tavern, Le Nail, Corner Store, Lupita's Mexican Restaurant, and Armory Tavern -- have taken advantage of the city's facade improvement program, which offers partial rebates -- up to 50 percent of the cost of improvements -- of up to $8,000 as well as $2,000 grants.

Also, the Arab-American Federation of Western New York purchased 444 Connecticut and plans to open a multicultural community center, Garrett said. And Left Bank owner Michael Christiano recently purchased 336 Connecticut with his cousin Anthony. The two plan to convert the eight apartments into four upscale studios.

With all the improvements, the neighborhood still has some flops. For example, 360 Connecticut has been empty for five years. The owner currently is trying to sell it, Garrett said.

At 319 Connecticut, the grand, four-story brick building has fallen into disrepair, but the owner flew in from Florida about a month ago to discuss with the business association his plans for the building, Garrett said.

Then there's Horsefeathers at 346 Connecticut. The grand building that housed the former antiques shop has been on the market for about a year, Garrett said.

Still, business leaders remain encouraged that the upward trend will continue and perhaps spill into neighboring communities, said Chiarenza, whose housing services agency also owns 372 and 364 Connecticut.

"The only way to rebuild is if you have a stake in the community," she said.


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