Sunday, September 09, 2007

Byrd Park turns out for peaceful streets

Rather than posting my usual rambling confessional to serve as a recap of the Byrd Park neighborhood meeting against violence, why don’t I just paraphrase NBC12’s "news" coverage: About 50 people came out on Saturday morning to find out how to curb violence in Byrd Park thanks to the outreach efforts of a Richmond City Police Department flyering campaign.

Okay, that wasn’t accurate at all. Back to plan A. Personally, I’m really glad that the issue got some press, because it may help to create a buzz that something new is happening and send a message that Byrd Park is not going to stand for shootings, drug trafficking, and violence. However, it’s awfully predictable that our local media would get the story wrong, because they cannot fathom grassroots mobilizations where citizens assert their power and organize themselves.

In the days leading up to the neighborhood anti-violence meeting, my wife designed an outreach flyer and I took it door to door in the 2000 and 2100 blocks of Idlewood, Rosewood, and Maplewood Avenues. As the gateway to Byrd Park from Meadow, these residents have the most at stake and the most responsibility in taking a stand against destructive behavior in our midst (I live in the area in question). Although crime is significantly lower in Byrd Park compared to ten years ago, there has been a resurgence in recent months, particularly in this area (clearly not just a summer flare up).

On the morning of the meeting, over 60 people showed up at the Roundhouse in Byrd Park where we sat outside on folding chairs. When asked for a show of hands for people who live between Meadow and Shields, over half of the audience raised their hands. This was really gratifying. I had dropped flyers with the Byrd Park Civic League “block captains” throughout the neighborhood, but chose to make the eastern most region my personal mission. So, chalk one up for one-on-one conversations as a neighborhood organizing tool. In those conversations, I implored people to take an active role and to nurture whatever hope they have for a peaceful Byrd Park.

The meeting featured a pragmatic and manageable agenda that was set by the Byrd Park Civic League officers (text taken from the distributed agenda):

-Introduction and Civic League President’s Comments (5 mins)
-Updates on Recent Events, Arrests and Warrants by Police (5 mins)
-What the Police Want – An Open Forum for any RPD officers or CAPS officer/inspector to speak (10 mins)
-Neighborhood Watch – Why it is SO IMPORTANT (15 mins)
-What the Neighborhood Wants – Each person will be allowed to speak about 2 issues, properties, corners or areas of concern, 2 minutes per person. (30 min)
-Next Step(s) – Join the Neighborhood Watch, the Civic League and its Crime committee, or just have an evening meeting with your neighbors around your home. (15 min)


Now, I want to steer clear of saying anything too controversial about the proceedings, because we’ve all got to work together and live together, and this meeting will hopefully serve as a turning point for a safer neighborhood. However, I do think that there was consensus that the meeting became a free-for-all as soon as the police paused in their brief presentation. My neighbors peppered the police with questions about everything from litter in the alleys, to feral cat-feeding policies, rolling stops at intersections, open alcohol containers, etc. In some cases, they were speaking truth to power and in others just venting frustration. So, we spent too much time following long tangential stories.

There were questions about the two August shootings, but that was quickly swept aside in favor of a laundry list of everyone’s pet peeves including some alarming anecdotes of irresponsible and disrespectful police. Although all of these issues are connected, playing roles in chain reactions that lead to dangerous situations, I was hoping for a more specific focus on shootings, robberies, and other violent crimes. I was also left wondering why we have to pull together a meeting like this and invite police reps in order to find out the status of investigations of murders, drive by shootings, etc. So much misinformation has been circulating and now things are only slightly clearer. The Aug 1st shooting, car chase, car wreck, and more shooting WAS related to Byrd Park residents and was over a bicycle. Also, Joseph Wynn’s murder DOES NOT appear to have been a “domestic affair,” and is currently considered a botched robbery. Numerous people in Byrd Park had been dismissing both incidents on the grounds that the car chase just happened to pass through Byrd Park and that a man killed on his porch was not a neighborhood concern. Personally, I don’t like being placated or lied to when my personal safety is at stake. Strike one for jumping to conclusions. At the meeting, police circulated a picture of two “persons of interest,” but no arrests have been made.

The thrust of the meeting seemed to be that anyone with concerns about bad behavior and violence should refer all comments to the police and/or the Civic League president. My neighbors with past experience with these kinds of meetings in Byrd Park said that this has been the mantra for years and that they tend to feature residents venting about their neighbors whom they’d never imagine talking to directly. I think this is probably pretty common that neighborhood groups turn gossipy and passive aggressive. Nonetheless, some neighbors truly cannot be reasoned with. They use intimidation to strike fear into their block, and do need to be dealt with. It really seems to me that we’ve got to start thinking outside the box if we’re going to make headway in this area. Just as you would hear from any politician who says s/he doesn’t know how to vote unless you light up their switchboards, police representatives said that if we don’t tell them which houses have guns/drugs going in and out all day, then we shouldn’t assume that they know. Most people found this idea ridiculous.

It’s time to figure out how to show community power, without always abdicating responsibility to the criminal justice system (which does not work!). Suggestions on this are appreciated. Last week, I took it upon myself to contact a public safety liaison (resident, not police) from Ginter Park, where they’ve had some success with a similar initiative and hope to turn up some good ideas from that meeting next week.

Here’s an email quote from a Byrd Park neighbor who I agreed with, “I think there are different ways to approach community issues like crime & public safety, most of which have their place. I am drawn to the approach of first building relationships & then collaborative action (the conventional approach seems to be the opposite and I would argue that's a big reason why initiative "fizzle" (as noted yesterday). I am also drawn to the preventative side of the issue. As a means of better understanding the culture and issues of many who have been isolated / disenfranchised in the city...” and then they let me know about this interesting event.

So, now I’ve got to plan my next steps. My wife was buoyed by the news that the “no dogs allowed” law will soon be lifted for the actual parks in Byrd Park. But, we’ve still got work to do to make the neighborhood safer and more family friendly. Many people that I talked to after the meeting felt that there were few if any next steps offered at the meeting. It was clear to me that the only option that was promoted was to join the Civic League and restart their defunct anti-crime committee. Their next meeting is Saturday October 13th at 10am at the Roundhouse. Many people took note of this fact.

For me, joining the Civic League may be the best option. However, I really want to focus on my end of the neighborhood, sponsor community dialogues, bring in non-profit groups to facilitate issue focused events, develop block phone trees (a la Neighborhood Watch), and hold block-specific social gatherings to develop relationships and understanding. I’m not sure if these things are on the agenda of the Civic League or even if they should be (especially since my focus is only on six-square blocks). Neighbors should be able to organize themselves and in the past two weeks, we did just that.

(I hope that readers – especially Byrd Parkers – will chime in with constructive comments. Obviously, this is a personal perspective and I know there are more out there.)

8 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:46 PM

    I have lived here for over a decade and have seen a dramatic improvement in the area; while there is no need to panic, we can make extra effort to make this area more welcoming to all. Simple things might include, sitting on your porch and walking around the block once or twice a day. Perhaps a stroll with your neighbor. If we all did it, especially around the 2100 and 2000 blocks, I believe it would make it feel safer. This is still an area where folks on porches say hello to folks walking, we can take advantage of that. There are still only a few "problem" homes and a lot of the undesirable traffic is coming to them from outside of the neighborhood.

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  2. We live on the 2400 block of Rosewood which we know sees much less undesirable behaviour but we care about the whole neighborhood. So we did just that, sat on our front porch instead of the back and chatted to our neighbor for a while.
    We also watched the police pull over a guy who was speeding with loud music. So hopefully the police and the neighbors listened.

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  3. For me, getting to know my neighbors and learning names and personal histories is the biggest benefit I've experienced since my involvement with the issue of safety. Behind some of the doors in Byrd Park, I found people who expressed trepidation about getting involved and invitinng trouble. I think the attitude of laying low and minding your own business has helped people get through scary times in the neighborhood over the years. Although, I relish my privacy as much as the next person, I don't think MYOB is appropriate all of the time. I'm glad to hear that others are walking their optimism around the block. It does help.

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  4. Eric G.1:54 PM

    Perhaps we are more fortunate than most on the 2200 block of Maplewood. On a summer evening with nice weather, we will have at least 3 or 4 front porches with lots of socializing going on. I haven't really noticed this on any other blocks. It would be nice for this to happen on other streets as before we moved here in 2002, our block was not so welcoming.

    Making an effort to sit on your front porch and inviting a couple of neighbors over for a drink has a really nice effect on creating a real sense of community. Now if only the mosquitos weren't so bad in our neighborhood...

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  5. Mark Knight10:41 AM

    My block (in another city) built an annual cookout/potluck block party around the National Night Out. We kept it focussed on our block of rowhouses (to keep it neighborly). The "civic" focus of this social gathering helped ensure that all felt entitled to come and extra effort (shopping assistance for older people, for instance) was done to facilitate broad participation. I always learned a lot of history from older residents. And the neighbor connections became a platform for collective action year round.

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  6. Vic S.7:16 AM

    I don't live in your neighborhood but frequently come to the dog park to let my pooch run. I love Byrd Park and the pretty neighborhoods surrounding it. Along with the river, this is the heart of our city. Safety comes with knowledge of each others' habits and an active, ongoing watch. On my little street we all know each other. If anything seems amiss, a snoopy neighbor will call to check if everything's all right. We also keep our porch lights on or have installed motion lights, especially in the back, as in my case. My parents' neighborhood became a target for robbers a while back. The neighbors formed a neighborhood watch and robberies have fallen off dramatically. It's as Jason and all the commentors have said, you can't depend on the police. They're stretched too thin. We all need to pull together to help each other. Great post, Jason.

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  7. Vic S.7:17 AM

    Strike 'snoopy' and change to friendly, interested, or concerned. I believe these quality make a huge difference.

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  8. Anonymous2:35 PM

    All of this is sad to read. Especially since just last night I was recalling living on Colonial ave. from 1941 to 1944. It was the kind of neighborhood a lot of you seem to be working for. I was telling him how we never locked our doors, and one evening my sister and I went to the Tennis courts to get our brother home for dinner and when we returned my sisters' handbag was missing from the coffee table in the living room. An elderly couple that lived across the street spent most of their time sitting on their front porch, so we went over and told them what had happened and they knew exactly who had entered and left our flat. My brother ran down towards Cary and caught him and got my sisters' bag back intact. I also remember neighbors correcting my behavior, saying, " Now Vera, do you think your Father would want you talking like that"? I recall it as a caring loving neighborhood. Good luck in your work. P. S. We still never locked our doors, even after that.

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