|James "Jimmy' Szwedo.
Whatever else you might say about him, James “Jim” Szwedo doesn’t back down.
On the corner of the block where he lives – on the corner of 24th and Cuddaback – are two vacant lots – side by side - at 213 and 217 24th.
They are small lots that at one time probably long ago may have had houses on them.
Now they are only two 25 X 100 foot lots which, when Szwedo bought them, were weed infested and overgrown, little more than eyesores.
Szwedo bought the lots in 2003 from the owner for $100 and when the weeds were fully five feet tall.
Not that he had anything in particular in mind for the lots.
He just was tired of looking at tall weeds on the corner so he bought the lots and paid the taxes and cut the weeds.
The taxes were about $50 per year.
From the day he bought the lots, Szwedo hired North Winds Landscaping, his neighbors on 25th and Niagara St., to cut the lawns every week or so, all spring and summer and into the fall, and, from that time to the present, the lots were always kept neat, clean and cut.
And every year from 2003 until 2011, Szwedo came to city hall and paid the $50 tax bill on his two vacant lots.
In 2011, Mayor Paul A. Dyster unleashed his ZOOM team into Szwedo’s neighborhood.
The ZOOM team’s job is to descend on neighborhoods and seek out violations of homes and write people up, or do the work and send people a bill.
Kind of a fascist plan – Dyster hoped to bully the people into compliance – bully them into fixing up their homes - much like he hoped to bully the people into recycling by limiting the trash they can throw out every week by giving them big recycling totes and small refuse totes.
Then picking up their bulk items only once a month.
Then hiring his SWEET team to go out and write up violators.
But in 2011 it was ZOOM and they came out like storm troopers to Cuddaback Ave. and descended on one of Szwedo’s neighbors, an elderly lady, and wrote her up for gutters, flaking paint and too tall weeds.
She was 85 years old, and was one of their especially easy targets.
Now here she had write ups and threats of court and the city ZOOM, the Dyster plan – they were going to make her fix her home up – or else.
Flaking paint (which no one could see unless you came on her porch).
Missing gutter – which effected no one but her.
Too tall grass (in her backyard).
They said they were going to come to her house and cut the weeds and send her a bill and take her to court on the rest.
Mayor Dyster knows how to fix up a neighborhood (and see how well he’s done over the last seven and one half years). Just bully the people into compliance.
So this elderly woman came to the neighborhood hero, James, her “Jimmy”, Szwedo for help.
Of course Szwedo helped her.
We still have a few of them left in Niagara Falls. The Jimmy Cancemi’s, the Chickie D’Agostino’s, the George Satarian’s, the Dave Bieksza’s, the Carl DeFranco’s.
Try messing with someone in their neighborhood.
|Street View of James Szwedo''s lots. The city plans to foreclose them after adding fees for a lawn cutting it didn't need.
But they’re vanishing from this city. Like ghosts that haunt the past.
Not for nothing. But it might as well be said right here: He may never be mayor of this city – for he is no politician – he’s not even slick - but Jimmy Szwedo is the mayor of his neighborhood at least.
So he helped this elderly woman who had lived in this city since she was young – who had raised her children here and buried her husband here and knew the city when bullies didn’t run it and when times were good and she had known Jimmy as her neighbor since before he had grey on his temples – when he ran always instead of walked. And she didn’t hobble with a cane.
And in 2011 when he saw what they did to her, this ZOOM of a team, he was angry at the bully.
So Jimmy Szwedo went on the offensive.
He called city hall and said, that, as president of the Niagara St. Business Association, if they didn’t stop picking on the weak and the elderly, he promised to find 500 houses owned by out of town owners that have excessive amounts of code violations that the ZOOM team seems to ignore and then file complaints.
One by one.
On a Friday, he went on Sal Paonessa’s Internet TV show to tell the story of how Dyster’s ZOOM team was badgering an old woman on a limited income.
By Monday morning, Mayor Paul Dyster himself, along with a team of city DPW employees, ZOOM’ed in on those two immaculately kept vacant lots of Szwedo’s on 24th and Cuddaback.
They were there with a pay loader and a dump truck and lawnmowers and they ripped out a small fence which belonged to a neighbor and ZOOMed around the lawn, cutting his lawn, a lawn that did not need to be cut.
Szwedo had North Winds cut the lawn eight days earlier. He had the bill to prove it.
A neighbor called him on the phone and said “Jimmy, the mayor and a bunch of guys are at your lot and they took down the fence and they’re cutting the lawn and making a mess of things.”
Szwedo said, “Tell them I’m on my way.”
Before he got there, the mayor had vanished.
He was amazed when he got there to find the work completed, the fence tore down and the ZOOM team, at the sight of the ferocious and well-built Szwedo walking towards them, high tailing it out of there.
They hopped in their truck and sped away.
Szwedo laughed at their audacity and thought nothing more of it until he went to city hall later that year to make his annual payment on his $50 tax bill, as he did every year.
But that year he was told that the bill was not $50, but $400, since the city had added the cost of cleaning up his lot.
Szwedo refused to pay.
He tried to pay the $50 tax bill and the employee at the tax department had to call upstairs to the law department. When they found out it was Szwedo, they told the tax collector not to take his money unless he paid the whole $450 bill.
And every year the city added interest and penalties to his bill.
Last week Szwedo’s opponents made hay of the fact that the twin lots were listed in the city’s in-rem list, the list of properties the city is going to foreclose on for unpaid taxes.
“See look at that deadbeat, Szwedo, he doesn’t pay his tax bills,” people said.
Some even mistakenly said the vacant lots were his income property.
The bill has ballooned now to well over $1000.
This week, Szwedo, retaining local civil rights attorney Robert O’Toole, filed an objection to the in rem, thus starting a lawsuit against the city in protest of their adding an unnecessary $400 lawn cutting on his vacant lot and adding it to his tax bill.
“I’m going to win it in court,” Szwedo said.
While Mayor Paul Dyster appeared at an anti- bullying rally last week for a photo op, leaving shortly after the media left and donned an anti bullying tee shirt, he has a lot to learn about bullying.
Maybe Jimmy will teach him.
There is no earthly reason why Jimmy Szwedo needs those two vacant lots. He didn’t buy them for financial gain. They are worth next to nothing.
He makes no money off of them. In fact he loses money since he cuts them and pays (or used to pay) the taxes on them.
It wouldn’t matter to him one bit in his life if he lost the two lots to the city- who would foreclose on them and then have to pay to cut them.
It’s just principle.
Now he is paying a lawyer – probably as much or more than the piled on fees that the city added to his lots after he stood up for his elderly neighbor.
In Niagara Falls we don’t really need any more anti bullying rallies.
We need rallies on standing up to bullies.
We need to reach the bullied not the bullies.
What we need are more Jimmy Szwedo’s.
It was asked of Jimmy Szwedo, what do you do when the strong bully the weak?
“Why thrash the strong,” he said.
Now he’ll take the city to court over an unfair fee on two lots he doesn’t need.
When it comes to standing up to bullying, James “Jimmy” Szwedo, whatever else he may be, is simply one of the best.