ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — Staying busy has never been a problem for Dr. Chris Stanley.
As a professor in the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University, Stanley has chaired a variety of committees and engaged in other leadership activities around campus since moving here in 1999.
He’s been just as active off campus, impacting lives in the Greater Olean community for almost two decades.
“Fundamentally, I am a follower of Jesus who takes seriously the biblical call to care for the poor and the needy and to work for a just and equitable society,” Stanley said. “It took me many years to recognize that this concern runs from cover to cover in the Bible.”
Stanley’s activism is not new. In the run-up to the Iraq War, he helped to found a local group called the Olean Area Coalition for Peace & Justice.
“We were particularly focused on the war, but we also worked on some other issues,” he said. “After a few years, however, people grew tired and it kind of fizzled out.”
But, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Stanley and his colleagues began organizing once again, calling an open meeting at the Olean Public Library that drew over 100 people. Out of this came a new group called the Citizens Action Network of Southwestern New York.
“We determined early on that whatever we did was not going to be focused solely on electoral politics, because that only happens every two years or four years and the results can be disheartening. We decided to look instead at how we could make a difference on local and state issues,” Stanley said.
He added: “I started going around with another one of our members and meeting with the heads of various social service organizations around town, asking them what they saw as the greatest unmet need in our area where a group like ours that’s not going to bring in lots of volunteers and money could make a difference by lobbying and grassroots activism.”
The one problem he kept hearing consistently? Landlords who didn’t take care of their rental properties.
“Some live in town, while others live out of town,” Stanley said. “Olean has a lot of rental properties, but there is a genuine shortage of decent, affordable housing for low-income residents.”
As members of the group began thinking and talking about how to deal with this problem, the Olean Common Council began considering a series of revisions to the city’s housing code that would give the Code Enforcement Office more authority to compel landlords and homeowners to maintain their properties in safe, sanitary, and workable condition. The Citizens Action Network threw its weight behind this bill and helped to get it passed.
Around the same time, the city of Olean was applying for a $10 million grant from New York state as part of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) program and began soliciting ideas from local organizations. While working on proposals for this grant, Stanley and his colleagues became affiliated with the Rural Revitalization Corporation, then led by SBU alumna Stephanie Timblin, ’03.
“Stephanie was so helpful as a resource for providing money and information,” Stanley said. “The RRC does a variety of things, including housing renovations for low-income homeowners. Stephanie was putting together proposals for the DRI grant and we put together a joint proposal to expand their housing renovation program. We also worked on a proposal to set up a community garden as part of the grant.”
“I knew nothing about community gardens,” Stanley added. “But there were a couple of people in our group who understood their value for local communities. A community garden is a common space where members of the community can rent plots and learn how to grow their own food. Community gardens have a strong record of helping people to save money and eat more healthily, both of which are important in low-income cities like Olean.”
The proposed community garden was not one of the projects funded by the DRI, but the idea of setting up community gardens remained.
“Because of where I used to live, I used to drive through the South Olean neighborhood all the time and so became acquainted with some of the problems that troubled this poorest part of Olean,” Stanley said. “I started looking at possible sites in that neighborhood for a community garden because we realized in the process of our planning that people in that neighborhood weren’t likely to participate in a community garden located somewhere near the mall, as we had originally envisioned.”
As part of this process, Stanley talked with Chuck Maine, the pastor of Epic Church, which had moved from a small church building on the corner of West Greene and South Third Streets to its present location in the old Ivers J. Norton School building on West Henley Street.
“(Epic Church) still owned the building where they started, and it happened to be right in the middle of the area where we were looking to set up a garden,” Stanley said. “After I went there and marked it off, I realized we could fit in about 35 plots.”
Maine offered to let the group use the property at no cost.
Within a few weeks, thanks to Timblin’s assistance, the organization, now known as the South Olean Renewal Project, invested $5,000 into materials and soil to make its dream a reality. Nearly 60 people turned out on a hot July day to build 19 4-by-12-foot raised beds on the church grounds. Stayer’s Greenhouse in Allegany assisted by contributing more than $600 worth of plants for the garden. The garden opened in July of 2018.
The garden now has 25 plots and all are rented. The $20 annual rental fee includes plants, tools, organic insecticides, water, and everything the gardeners need.
Stanley also organized a neighborhood association consisting of South Olean residents who wanted to make a difference in their neighborhood. This past June, they hosted the first South Olean Garden Festival and Flea Market.
“We had wonderful live music and people selling stuff and kids activities. We’re going to make this an annual event and maybe even do one in the fall,” Stanley said. “We’re still looking at where we go from here, but it’s been neat to see this all grow in the community.”
In addition to the garden, Stanley has worked with a local organization called Rebuilding Together to get several houses in the neighborhood painted and to build a couple of handicap ramps for people who couldn’t afford them. Members of his group have also worked to identify houses in the neighborhood that need work and connected homeowners with the resources of the RRC and other local agencies that can help them to pay for renovations. Their next project is to educate renters in the neighborhood about their rights under the new Olean housing bill and to work with them to hold their landlords accountable for repairing their properties.
“When I was looking for garden spaces, I met with this older couple in the neighborhood who owned a plot of land that I was interested in,” Stanley said. “They had been living in South Olean for 50 years, and they talked about how this area used to be a solid, working-class neighborhood and how it had gone downhill over time
“In my mind, I’m doing this for people like them to bring this neighborhood back to what it used to be by pulling agencies and organizations together to work on a neighborhood that is in need. Hopefully this will become a template for other neighborhoods.”