48th Street Neighbors Build Trust and Community (Not to Mention, Safety) with Town Watch

Neighbors around 48th St and Springfield Ave have organized a town watch to help reduce crime in the area. The group is using a community-based strategy to combat crime, focusing on strengthening trust, building relationships, arming residents with knowledge, and breaking down “us versus them” mentalities about crime.

Area residents came together around a number of tragic crimes, including a robbery-rape this past September 2011 near the corner of 48th St and Springfield Ave. Over time, the 48th Street Neighbors have created a strong community by doing collective work that is proactive, positive, and collaborative.

The specific activities of the group have evolved over time, from distributing leaflets to holding gatherings to training residents on community patrolling to forming community-building committees. Last year, Patty Bulack, an active participant, was using paper leaflets to inform neighbors about crime in the neighborhood. “There were so many new people in the neighborhood who didn’t know anybody,” she explains, “and my letter under the door was just what they needed to get them to meet people and start getting involved.”

Bulack eventually created an email list to share information about crime activity. Though the list was created strictly for updates about crime, neighbors involved sought out other ways to connect to each other.

Residents started getting together in living rooms to share their stories and develop strategies. Bulack says, “What’s really basic to all of this is trust and relationship. We have to know each other. We have to trust each others’ motives. We have to be forthcoming.” As an example, Bulack shares her motivations openly: “There is a real strong spiritual base for me about this – after the rape happened, my son and I and other family members were in prayer, for the rapist, for the rape victim, for the outcome.”

While it’s impossible to determine the exact motives of everyone involved, including the more than 140 people subscribed to the listserv, the group has come together around a shared interest in moving beyond fear and vendetta. That’s not true for all town watch and community policing groups, for which the recent tragic shooting and killing of the black young man Trayvon Martin by a “town watch volunteer” in Florida is the latest in a long and controversial history.

In the face of both kinds of violence – criminal and vigilante – the 48th Street Neighbors are trying to put positive action at the forefront of their work. “We have to have hope, determination, and love at the top, so we can move forward,” Bulack explains. “And people respond to that. They don’t want fear mongering. They don’t want vendetta. They don’t want ‘hate the police.’”

Using the gatherings as a foundation, the group reached out to the police as well, inviting them to contribute their expertise and provide information as needed. Bulack added that the elements of trust and being forthcoming have been essential in building good relationships with individual police officers, who have been crucial to the group’s abilities to have and share information and develop strategies for how to work together.

48th Street Neighbors began hosting regular community patrol trainings provided by Town Watch for interested residents. In groups, these volunteers walk or bike around the neighborhood for a few hours in shifts, putting eyes on the street and promptly reporting any suspicious or criminal behavior to police. Already, crime has gone down, but Bulack admits, “It’s hard to say exactly how or why.”

It is easy to surmise that the combination of proactive and coordinated efforts of the 48th Street Neighbors, the 18th Police District, individual police officers, Penn Police, and the UCD Ambassadors has had a combined effect. The UCD Crime Update of April 11, 2012 said, “What stands out are the drops (or leveling) in crime in recent months. As we’ve stated in the past, we are extremely encouraged by these drops which we believe are a result, in part, of the stepped up public safety efforts.”

Just this past week the 48th Street Neighbors group managed to help the police apprehend a man who robbed a pedestrian at knife point. After circulating his description on the listserv, folks provided numerous calls and tips to the police, and saw him during a town watch walk, which led to a successful arrest.

In addition to responding to crime in the area, neighbors in the group continue to take their proactive approach further. Recently, they came up with a list of committees for community building, “of other ways people can be involved besides patrolling and besides hearing about crime.” Bulack explains the idea for a party committee: “We should be sponsoring town watch parties where it’s not about [crime] but it’s about getting to know each other. That we know each other, that we care about each other, that we know where each other live, and watch each other’s stuff is foundational. And we need to keep working at that. So we gotta have parties!” The group’s “Porch-hopping Party” next month celebrating the beautiful spring weather won’t be the last.

In addition to the party committee, new and expecting mothers are forming a kid play group. A prayer group has formed to pray for the victims of crime and the arrested. A gardening and beautification committee will look at planting flowers at the location where the September rape began as part of a healing process, and will also take note of overgrown shrubs and other areas of cover for people fleeing a crime scene. One group is also looking further into the use of technology in the town watch activities, including cameras, radios, and police scanners.

Finally, one committee is seeking out opportunities to address some of the root causes. Bulack explains, “Why are these young men coming to our neighborhood to do this? We don’t want to just move it along. We want to be more proactive.” With this in mind, the group is exploring volunteer opportunities with organizations working with youth, nearby and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The various strategies and activities developed by the group have grown out of the needs of the neighborhood and the neighbors involved. While the listserv provided information to people efficiently, only community gatherings could build the relationships and trust that neighbors needed to feel connected. And the group also needed to take action in the face of neglect, to do something positive in the face of violence: the community patrols and other action committees are providing those opportunities.

Whether or not the group can prove how effective their efforts are, together, these strategies are allowing this community to be connected and proactive. “I love this neighborhood. I love the people in it. There are the coolest people in the world here, and I want them all to know each other,” Bulack says. “We have to do this together.”


48th Street Neighbors – Upcoming Events:

  • Potlucks are held every first Thursday at 7 pm at Bruce Dorpalen’s house – 4716 Springfield Ave.
  • Prayer Group meets every last Wednesday at 7:30 pm at Johannah Fine’s house – is 4823 Windsor ave
  • Porch-Hopping Party is happening May 19, rain date June 2
  • Inquiries at pbulack@gmail.com
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