The Fourth Ward of Janesville, Wis., isn’t typically known for its lavish homes and beautiful neighborhoods, but walking down the streets of the once poverty-stricken and drug-riddled section of the city today, that’s exactly what you’ll find. The Fourth Ward has become a stereotype of a small-town ghetto and has carried this unfortunate stigma for years. It’s widely regarded as the slum of the quaint city of Janesville, a relatively small town of only 60,000 residents, supposedly reserved for drug dealers, criminals, minorities and the poor.
One man has helped lead the charge to change this misconception for the 28 years he’s lived in the city. Retired Milton school teacher Burdette Erikson has been hard at work to clean up the streets of his neighborhood, set in the heart of the Fourth Ward. With his local committee of dedicated and passionate homeowners, Erikson has transformed much of the Fourth Ward back into the gorgeous neighborhood it once was. The lavish Victorian homes the area was originally known for are flourishing once again, and Erikson and his team of relentless neighborhood activists are to thank.
For the past ten years, however, one property has been a thorn in the committee’s side. Margaret Zweifel is the owner of an extravagant home that, for over a decade, has failed to meet city code, and the result is tragic. Today, the home sits unoccupied in a state of disarray, tarnishing the neighborhood’s presence with broken windows, filthy siding and lawns, multiple holes in the roof and an unfinished porch. The home isn’t just an eyesore, and it isn’t just bringing the property value of the surrounding houses down; it’s also a dangerous blight on the block, and if the problem isn’t fixed soon, the demolition of the historic house is an alarmingly distinct possibility.
Be Careful Who You Mess With
The Fourth Ward Committee was founded 31 years ago. No city officials are allowed in the group. Residents cannot ask to join the committee; rather, each member is hand-picked for his or her trustworthiness and determination to see the neighborhood cleaned up. How has this small group survived for nearly one-third of a century? “One reason we succeed is that we cut the bureaucracy. We do not operate under a constitution,” Erikson said. “When there’s a problem, we deal with it. We go for the jugular vein.”
After 31 years of dealing with problems in its own way, the committee isn’t without its battle scars. As part of their ongoing efforts to clean up the streets, an unnamed member of the group once took a picture of a car delivering a drug drop-off in the area. The suspect followed the man home and beat his head with a two-by-four; the victim’s clothes were so soaked with blood that they had to be cut from his body at the hospital. Each member has been threatened individually by drug dealers and other criminals. Erikson, the spokesperson for the group, was surrounded and threatened by six young men outside his home one night. Yet this resilient committee of relentless activists refuses to budge. “We don’t know enough to be afraid,” committee member Teresa McKeown said. “Nobody’s going to push us out of our neighborhood.”
Erikson is the definition of a neighborhood activist. Some would even call his work heroic. He has earned this reputation through tireless, unrelenting work to mold the Fourth Ward into a safer, more beautiful place. The Janesville police department actually recognized Erikson as Citizen of the Year in March, awarding him plaques from the United States Congress, Senate and State Assembly for the efforts he’s made in his neighborhood. As former city council member and Executive Director of Discover Community Media Yuri Rashkin says in his podcast Discover Janesville, “The Fourth Ward would not be the same without Burdette Erikson.”
Being single and retired, Erikson has a lot of time to dedicate to his passion for politics, local government and old newspapers. In the attic of his home you’ll find a carefully constructed homemade museum full of old political propaganda, antique ballot boxes, satirical politician Halloween masks, autographed voting signs from the Janesville city council currently in office and a plethora of other unique items. Over 600 people a year visit this treasure trove of historical American artifacts, and Erikson doesn’t charge a cent. He shares his interests and passions openly, and it’s this love that fuels his efforts to clean up the neighborhood he calls home.
As the spokesman for the Fourth Ward Committee, Erikson spends a lot of time meeting with city officials. Rashkin served two terms on the Janesville city council from 2008 to 2012. In that time, he got to know Erikson pretty well. “Burdette came to every meeting where there was anything to do with the Fourth Ward, and he would speak very positively,” Rashkin said. “He has a great way of communicating with elected officials. He understands how that process works in the sense that you have to be respectful and you have to be nice, but you have to be persistent.”
Countless engagements between Erikson and city council members, police officers, code inspectors, other activists, and even the city manager himself have been held in his lavish Victorian home on South High Street. A long time ago, Erikson and his group took an oath in his basement, and everyone promised that either the criminals go or the committee goes, knowing that if they leave, all their work will be reversed and their homes will turn into drug houses. The group resolved that they love their homes too much to leave, and so in the past several years, the committee has led the charge to push drugs, prostitution, and other illegal activity out of the area. And they’ve almost won.
Erikson is proud of what his neighborhood has become now: quiet. A drug dealer used to live across the street from him. He’s gone now. A prostitute used to make unsolicited offers to homeowners in the area. She’s gone now. A lady living next door to McKeown used to throw dozens of dirty diapers out her second story window into her yard until they piled several feet high. She’s gone as well. When Erikson first joined the committee several years ago, the group was monitoring 72 drug houses in the neighborhood. This year, they’re down to three. “Every Valentine’s Day, our committee sends a bouquet of roses to the police department, one rose for every drug dealer they arrest,” Erikson said. “Each year, the bouquet gets smaller.” This is mainly due to ordinances born in Erikson’s own home because of the countless meetings he’s held there. Thanks to the committee’s efforts, if a landlord rents property to drug dealers, the dealers must be evicted or the city takes their home and shames the landlord on the front page of the Gazette, a threat they’ve carried through at least a few times. Nine landlords renting property to criminals in the area—one of them housing 14 drug dealers—have since quit and moved from the area due to the relentless efforts of this humble committee. The committee has a support network of close to 300 people that give them some piece of information daily about a drug deal or criminal activity. Erikson used to come home to a maxed answering machine. Now he comes home to zero messages, showing just how much things have changed.
But despite all the work Erikson and his team have done so far, they’re not finished yet.
The Zweifel Home
The last milestone yet to be conquered is none other than Margaret Zweifel’s unoccupied and unsightly home. The problem began on April 10, 2003, when the committee noticed several problems with the house and had the city issue a permit requiring Zweifel to have everything fixed. In several respects, the house was not up to city code. Neighborhood Development Specialist Kelly Mack would later find a total of 282 codes the home was violating. The proper channels were used to alert the appropriate people, as the committee strongly believes in the chain of command. At the time, it was the job of city code inspector Gale Price to make sure homes in the Fourth Ward were up to snuff. Little did this humble committee know that for the next decade they would exhaust nearly every resource at their expense to fix a problem that has yet to be resolved.
In accordance with the law, homeowners have two years after being addressed of their home’s code violations to fix them or they’re fined a certain amount. But for whatever reason, Zweifel was special and was never held accountable to anyone for neglecting to fix her residence, nor was she ever made to pay her fines. “As the two years [would] come to an end, and Gale would see that nothing is being done, he’d drop everything and issue a new permit,” Erikson said. This happened five times in total, making up the decade of negligence Zweifel’s house is now known for. Adding insult to injury is the fact that other homes in the area were told to fix up their homes—which they did—or they’d be fined as well, while Zweifel apparently got away with neglecting her own residence. Zweifel was fined $2,575 for failing to fix her property for 3,659 days, but the city fined another homeowner $13,275 for failing to fix their property for 531 days, displaying the unjust preferential treatment Zweifel received.
Zweifel has been living with her boyfriend Bill Purkapile for awhile now, leaving the house largely unoccupied (except for the homeless people who occasionally squat there illegally). According to McKeown, Purkapile would drive over to the property a few times a week, do an average of eight minutes of work, then leave. In order to keep Price off their backs, it seems Purkapile would do this just to be able to say he is indeed making progress, no matter how little. “There’s people on the other side who are fairly good at slowly exploiting the system by saying, ‘Sure, we’re doing something. Oh look, we cut a couple of two-by-fours.’ just to keep the machine slowly grinding ahead,” Rashkin said. Unfortunately for Zweifel and Purkapile, this progress didn’t satisfy the committee.
The group met with Price face-to-face, contacted the city manager and wrote letters, but the home was never fixed, and Zweifel was never held accountable for her negligence. To this day a few wooden boards sit on concrete blocks, making up the porch that has yet to be reconstructed. Price would tell the committee he would address the problem, but then never do it. “After meeting 12 times with Gale Price, we realized we’re wasting our time,” Erikson said. “He always told us that he would enforce the codes and fine [Zweifel], but he never did.”
But it wasn’t just Price Erikson and his neighborhood had issues with. The city manager at the time was Erik Levitt, who never followed up on Price to make sure he was doing his job correctly. In fact, Levitt awarded Price merit pay on top of his $84,000 salary, a bonus awarded for doing his job well. When the committee questioned this action, Levitt explained that he didn’t want to single any city employees out, thus everyone got merit pay. As one can imagine, this infuriated the committee.
Things changed just a few days before the tenth anniversary of Zweifel’s first permit issuing. On April 5, 2013, after meeting with six city council members asking them to talk to Levitt about the problematic home, sending letters to the city manager, meeting with Price a dozen times, and other exhausting efforts, the Fourth Ward Committee was shocked to find that Price had once again dropped all fines and reissued a permit to Zweifel yet again, meaning the home would be a problem for at least an additional two years, up until April of 2015. The committee had had enough and took their story to the press.
Since that time, Price has been taken off the Zweifel case, Levitt has moved on from his Janesville city manager position and Zweifel has put her house up for sale. Assistant city manager Jay Winzez stepped in, acting as a temporary city manager until the new one—Mark Freitag, a military man from Alaska—took over at the beginning of December. Winzez worked with Neighborhood Development Specialist Kelly Mack to make progress on this case. Price had been issuing citations, which are a lot like speeding tickets, tickets that Zweifel ignored. When Mack stepped in, she took the case to the attorney’s office and filed a long-form court action against Zweifel, resulting in a hefty $47,000 fine. “Within the city of Janesville and in our administration, our goal is always to work with property owners to help them through a code issue and violation issues,” Mack said. “Unfortunately, it got to a point with [Zweifel] that [Price] couldn’t make any headway.” Realizing she couldn’t fix these problems, Zweifel worked with Mack to put the house up for a sale, a huge victory for the neighborhood.
“The people who own that property are very, very kind people,” Mack said. “It’s not like their intention is to harm the neighborhood. They just didn’t know where to go with the property, and it was kind of easier just to ignore it than it was to do anything else. It got to the point where we just couldn’t work with them anymore in the fashion that we had been working with them. Do I think [the fine] is ever going to be paid off? Likely not, but sometimes the only way that we can get someone’s attention is to go down this road with these big numbers.” It worked. The large fine was enough to spur Zweifel to put her home on the market, and while this doesn’t fix the problem, it’s a great step forward.
But who would buy a residence in such a state of disrepair? Not only is it unsightly and dangerous, but until just recently, the home was infested with fleas. For a time, Zweifel’s daughter, eight-year-old grandson and 19-year-old grandson Benjamin Zweifel, along with his wife, lived in the home. Benjamin, a convicted drug dealer, would operate his illegal sales out of his home while running his unlicensed barber shop during the daytime. At night, he’d try to shoot the raccoons that lived in the home with them. The child would have trouble sleeping due to the constant sounds of the vermin running under his bed. At one point, Benjamin and his crew tried to attack another competing drug home around the corner from Zweifel’s property. The rival gang had a gun, however, and shot it, just missing one of the Fourth Ward Committee members. For whatever reason, the blighted houses attract the wrong people, so the committee won’t rest until the house is restored or demolished.
As far as getting the property sold goes, the outlook is still hazy. “I bet there have been ten different couples or people who have looked at that house, and they go in for five minutes and run out,” McKeown said. Even the real estate agents showing the home don’t dare step inside. Erikson says there’s a chance Nathan Bussan—a man who makes his living buying, restoring and selling old homes—will purchase the house and fix it up. “I think that there are the right buyers out there,” Mack said. “We’ve seen it done before.” Only time will tell if that right buyer will come along before it’s too late.
Despite the home sitting in its unsightly state to this day, things are looking up for the neighborhood has a whole. Considering everything the Fourth Ward Committee has done in its 31 years, there shouldn’t be too much worry that Zweifel’s home will be a problem much longer. While it is possible that the home could be demolished if it becomes too dangerous—which no one wants—there’s still a chance it can be purchased and restored to its former glory, and the fact that the problem will be fixed sooner rather than later gives the committee some much-needed hope for the future.
With a change in management, Erikson believes problems such as this one are less likely to occur in the future. Erikson has faith that new city manager Mark Freitag will change how city officials operate so problems won’t go ignored like this again. “The problem with Gale Price was that our city manager wasn’t disciplining him and making him do the job,” Erikson said. “We believe that our new city manager that they have hired will disciple city employees and hold them accountable.”
Questions still linger, however. Why didn’t Zweifel sell the home as soon as she decided to move in with Purkapile? Erikson suspects that the house is Zweifel’s childhood home and holds sentimental value for her, thus her initial decision to not sell it. This of course only makes the current situation all the more tragic considering the house is in danger of becoming irreparable and being torn down. Due to her old age, Zweifel couldn’t maintain it or fix the problems when they got big enough. After she discovered that the city would never follow through on its fines against her, Zweifel continued to call Price’s bluff, and Price caved every time. The problem snowballed out of control until it got to the unfortunate point it’s at today.
Why didn’t Price follow through on his fines? Rashkin says that Price is simply too kind and therefore hesitant to follow through on harsh punishments for those who don’t follow the law. Price tried to please everyone simultaneously which contributed to the situation the neighborhood finds itself in now. Rashkin acknowledges that being a code inspector is not an easy job. “It’s almost like being a politician, where whatever you do, somebody’s going to like you, somebody’s going to hate you.” Price and Mack have two different ways of operating, and it was Mack’s method that made significant progress in this case.
Why would Erikson choose to live in a neighborhood known for its bad reputation in the first place? “I got to know the people that lived here, and I told them, ‘Before I go to my rocking chair, I want to live in an old Victorian home,’ and this is where you find them,” Erikson said. “I knew what I was coming in to, but nearly everyone who moves here knows, they’ll tell you the same story: ‘I want the house, and I’ll deal with the problems.’ They will go, and I will stay.” The committee’s resilience is inspiring and encouraging. Some might call it foolish. But there’s no denying that the state of the Fourth Ward would plummet to the horrible condition it was in before if the committee followed through on its oath to leave if the criminal activity got to be overwhelming. The group acts as a breach of deterrence against all illegal action in the neighborhood, and Zweifel’s home is its final big stretch. “The city has put millions of dollars into this neighborhood to remove blighted houses, drug houses, and criminal activity,” Erikson said. “We do not want to live with this, and if we have to live in fear, we’re going and all of our homes will become blighted drug houses.” This wouldn’t only be tragic for the committee members, but for the taxpayers as well, as all the money already poured into the Fourth Ward would go to waste as it reverts to its original state.
At the rate the Fourth Ward Committee is going, however, the taxpayers don’t have to worry. They may not have completely won yet, but victory is close. Erikson and his group of vigilant and unrelenting individuals is a shining example of what all homeowners should be: proud, just, fair and unwilling to give ne’er-do-wells an inch. Janesville could use more people like those found in the Fourth Ward Committee, and it’s hard to imagine what state their neighborhood would be in now without them.