Juan and Carmen Urbieta share a successful remodeling company and a persistent, ambitious, and, so far, elusive dream: that the best is yet to come for the Huffman Historic Area of Dayton, Ohio.
More than a century ago, the Huffman community (listed in the National Register of Historic Places) was one of Dayton's most vibrant residential neighborhoods. Located less than a mile east of the city's downtown, the 10-square-block area was developed in the years after the Civil War, largely by William P. Huffman. A wealthy businessman, Huffman provided much of the land and money for a streetcar line, a school and a church, a factory, and homes — notably the ornate Victorians and Queen Annes that anchor the wide streets — for himself, his children, and the many families that followed.
By the early 1900s, the neighborhood was flourishing — home to some of Dayton's most prominent families as well as to its budding aviation and bicycle industries. The Wright Brothers' hangar was nearby, and Huffman's own company became Huffman Manufacturing Co., today known as Huffy Bikes.
More striking than the area's success, however, was its mix of residents and architectural styles. Industrialists and social luminaries mingled with craftsmen and store clerks. Their homes were similarly divergent. “The unique thing about Huffman,” says Mike Osgood, a longtime resident who owns several houses in the neighborhood, “is that you can go block to block and see 5,000-square-foot mansions that would cost millions of dollars to develop today, and less than a block and a half away there are 700-or 800-square-foot cottages. So if each home were developed to its fullest potential, you'd have full economic diversity.”
Economic diversity was William Huffman's intent. And that's where the Urbietas come in.
Baptism by Fire By the mid-1990s, both the Huffman area and Urbieta Construction needed a lifeline. Huffman had deteriorated dramatically since its glittery heyday. Businesses had closed, families had moved to the suburbs, and property values had plummeted, trapping longtime residents in an economic vise of being unable to either maintain or sell their homes. Many buildings were abandoned.
The Urbietas, for their part, had been in business since 1988, but “we weren't going anywhere,” Carmen says. Juan spoke limited English at the time, having left Mexico just a few years before. Carmen was bilingual and helped him communicate with clients, but language and cultural barriers seemed to be holding them back. “We were looking for ways to grow,” Carmen says.
Their springboard took the form of a man named Warren Wise and a program called Rehabarama. Wise was a successful minority commercial contractor whose name appeared frequently in the local papers, and the Urbietas thought he might be a good mentor for their minority-owned business. Carmen wrote him a letter, “and within four days he called and offered Juan the chance to do an addition,” as a tryout for future work, she says.
The addition went well, so Wise invited them to join him in the 1995 Rehabarama, a recurring city-sponsored effort to spark the revitalization of urban neighborhoods. That year's neighborhood was Huffman, and the Urbietas were assigned to 129 Ringgold St., an 1870 brick duplex that had been gutted by fire and boarded up for years. In a neighborhood of eyesores, it was “one of the worst,” Osgood recalls. “It had three walls and a roof.” Juan remembers it as “a mess,” so decrepit that the police even rejected it as a site for their break-in exercises.