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Inspirational Neighbor of the Year
Matthew Williams gives his best to Harrison West
By Margaret Marten
January/February 2016 Issue

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Bob Mangia, left, with Matthew Williams who received the 2015 Neighbor of the Year Award

A group of grateful neighbors presented Matthew Williams with the Neighbor of the Year Award in December at the Harrison West Society’s holiday party held at Zeno’s bar. The annual award – launched in 2012 to recognize the contributions of community leaders – honors those who demonstrate “extraordinary involvement in the community and inspire others to make Harrison West a better place.” The description fits Williams perfectly.

A resident of Harrison West for nine years now, Williams, 47, moved into the newly built Harrison Park Condo development in 2007 with his partner Mark Hollern. After living in Clintonville for ten years, they opted for more room and better access to downtown and Grandview where Hollern works.

The Harrison Park Condos development transformed the former AC Humko industrial site into houses, flats, and lofts, greatly impacting the neighborhood’s ongoing revitalization. A large new community of residents opened up, and Williams was among them. “It was kind of an odd situation, because it was a new development,” he said. “All of us had moved in at the same time and there was kind of a spirit of contributing to try and make this a place that everybody felt welcome.”

Although the couple had owned a home in Clintonville, Williams never became involved in neighborhood activities while living there, but after the move to Harrison West he did. Being part of a larger group, or part of the “recently homeless” as he puts it, was in a sense being thrust into a vulnerable community with mutual concerns, living with those like himself who wanted to feel at home with neighbors and the neighborhood.

And then there was George W. Bush. “He’s not one of my favorite people in the whole world, but I have to give him credit,” Williams said. In a State of the Union address, Bush issued a challenge to all Americans to dedicate 4,000 hours over the course of their lives to help their neighbors, communities and nation through service, and the idea now made sense to Williams.

“Some of the problems that we see in this country are because of this kind of breakdown of knowing the people that live around you, caring about the people who live around you, caring about the community you live in. And so those kinds of things all came together at the same time for me and that’s when I decided that I would try to get involved in the neighborhood.”

Wagenbrenner Development, the company that built the condo project, turned part of their property into a park along the river. In 2007, Harrison Park was still in the planning phase, and meetings were being held between the developer, the city and the community. Considering the vibrancy of the neighborhood and its proximity to the arts district, bringing art into the park made sense. Williams introduced the idea at a meeting.

After getting the green light, he organized a competition with CCAD instructor Steve Bush to commission four students’ works – Sycamore, Riparian, Brassia Orchid, and Community – and successfully wrapped up the final installation four years later. With the help of Lori Baudor of the Columbus Art Commission, Williams recently obtained a fifth commissioned art piece for the park after putting out a call for proposals and organizing a public vote. Through, by Todd Kime, a professional artist, will be installed in 2016.

To prepare the nascent park, volunteers were assembled to clean up the adjacent riverbank where dense invasive honeysuckle stood 12 to 15 feet high. “When I moved here, I thought, this is a real neighborhood asset, this river,” said Williams, “and you can’t see it at all!” He arranged a multi-day event that started the push to reclaim all of the riverbank in the neighborhood. The effort to eradicate the honeysuckle continues to this day.

Before moving to Harrison West, Williams did not spend much time outdoors and had no knowledge of plants but grew into it after volunteering and began to enjoy it. He developed an adopt-a-bed program to maintain the public landscape, and continues to help manage regular park cleanups and Earth Day plantings. In the spring, construction of a kayak and canoe portage, a project he’s been pushing for years, will begin. Also, with the help of Battelle employees, he compiled an inventory of problematic street trees in Harrison West, reporting those with low canopies impeding the sidewalks.

He and Bob Mangia, who chairs the HWS Parks and Green Space Committee, have participated in street tree selections for developers. In fact, trees have given Williams a lot to think about. He plans to grow some 70 black walnut trees from seeds he gathered and plant them along the riverbank next fall.

With two English degrees and a professional publishing service, Williams’ involvement in the community extends beyond greenspace into his study where the “dirty work” of editing, correspondence, and Web work are carried out. In 2009, he guided a committee of residents in developing a website after the neighborhood newsletter bit the dust. Recently he led a letter-writing campaign arguing for the preservation of green space owned by Battelle that could be threatened by future developers, asking City Council to support Harrison West’s bid to buy the land with neighborhood funds.

Williams is humbled by the award, but notes the contributions of others he claims are more deserving and who have labored longer in the service of Harrison West.

“I feel like it’s a responsibility, a duty,” he said. “I don’t necessarily like to cut down honeysuckle and pull down weeds, although there’s something zen about that, but I like being able to see the river, and I’m willing to put in the work to get the results I want.” The turtle sculptures he and his husband created and donated to the park – to the delight of neighboring children – serves as a reminder of Williams’ most important contribution, his generosity and talent, inspiring others to make Harrison West a better place.

© 2016 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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