Category Archives: How to: tips in a transitional neighborhood

vision for Brookland Park Boulevard

There have been many plans hatched (and, subsquently, never developed) for Richmond’s Brookland Park Boulevard. Most of these plans have been for a grand redevelopment without the necessary funding or even a startup plan. It’s time for something a bit smaller in which the entire community can participate (read: volunteer for a day) to make the Boulevard a better place.

In November, I read this story, in which the first example showcases local residents who painted murals of viable storefronts and restaurants on their neglected business corridor, and within a year, it came true.

Recently, and more locally, Richmond’s Storefront for Community Design worked with local associations to brighten up sections of business corridors. Style Weekly highlights the work that was done on one block of Broad Street here.

how to: effect change #3

Some efforts in our neighborhood have been officially sponsored by our civic association, while others have been done quietly. What I mean here is that, in order to get things done, you have to learn discretion. Each situation calls for a different tactic, and, if it isn’t working, change your tactic.

3. Create a core group that isn’t afraid.

Most people won’t get involved. Everyone has to decide life priorities as it’s necessary for sanity, but, surprisingly, most won’t even bother about what’s happening in front of their house. Whether they are afraid of the situation itself (e.g. drug dealers), or of the work involved to improve the situation, a core group that can overcome these fears to achieve a greater good will be small. Depressingly small. But, if you have even five committed neighbors that are ready to support each other (and the cause at hand), you can make change.

In 2008, there were a few well-established drug houses which were connected with each other. After some frustrating interactions with police, various members of our core group secured meetings with the Chief of Police and our local Commonwealth’s Attorney. We secured the attention of local law enforcement, and were able to have an investigation opened. Our core group was dedicated to shutting these houses down. We fed information to police for two years. They were able to raid all of the involved houses, and send the ring leaders to jail. Everyone in the neighborhood has benefitted, but very few have the courage and perseverance to achieve the end goal.

how to: effect change #2

Some efforts in our neighborhood have been officially sponsored by our civic association, while others have been done quietly. What I mean here is that, in order to get things done, you have to learn discretion. Each situation calls for a different tactic, and, if it isn’t working, change your tactic.

2. Acquire political capital
There are situations where a sensitive issue requires popular opinion, and you need the right political capital to create change.
Example: Our Civic Association became a political force after we were able to shut down a nightclub. But, this was a very difficult endeavor that took eight months. Those eight months, I might add, brought a number of us to consider abandoning the neighborhood. A night club opened, without warning, and chaos descended upon our neighborhood every weekend (crowds, fights, gunfire, 15+ police vehicles for crowd control alone).

Stage 1: we went through the proper channels.
A number of residents went to the city’s zoning and codes enforcement, Fire department, and the state ABC board. The city forced the business owner to size the events down to the maximum occupancy, but, due to a loophole in the city’s land use ordinance, the nightclub was allowed to exist (the loophole, which was due to a “restaurant” being undefined was fixed a year later when other nightclubs became a problem). We contested the pending ABC license and won. The business owner had a number of violations from his previous ventures. We also sent out a letter to the church that owned the property, informing them of the issues that the club was creating for neighbors.

Stage 2: we tried reaching out to find a middle ground with the owner.
Once the ABC license was denied, the nightclub became a teen nightclub. Mass fights and shootouts spilled onto neighborhood streets. We called upon our City Councilperson and our police. But, the business owner declared that we were trying to shut him down because of race. In a city and area with less than stellar racial history, we found ourselves without any help from the city. We had stumbled onto an untouchable issue. We scheduled a meeting with the business owner to attempt a mediation for how he could run his business without negatively impacting the neighborhood. The meeting ended without any resolution.

Stage 3. we found an unlikely ally and garnered the much needed political capital.
There was so much outcry that the city could no longer ignore the issue (7 months in). The business owner scheduled a community meeting in association with police. During the meeting, the official RPD story was that the nightclub did not cause any issues in their policing activity. Now, on most nights, RPD has 2 – 4 patrol units per sector. Every Friday or Saturday, there was a minimum of 15 patrol units at this club. Every street officer I spoke with informed me that this was a huge issue, that officers were working overtime to monitor the weekly crowds and that patrols were pulled out of the other sectors. The community meeting also ended without any progress. But, someone sent a tip to the local newspaper, and a reporter covered a night at the club. Then, we hit the jackpot – the newspaper ran an editorial from a respected black editor, who lambasted the club for its exploitation of black teens. He noted that the club only added to the troubles faced by underprivileged black youth, instead of providing a positive entertainment venue. Within a month, the city shut down the club due to unpaid taxes.

Now, four years after this happened, I recognize that a lot of people worked behind the scenes at the city, so that when the neighborhood had the popular opinion, the club could be closed immediately. If a similar situation were to arise, I would find that political capital earlier in the process. However, this incident gave our civic association power: we have had better cooperation from the city in other efforts. We also have never had to worry about that property: we were told that the city planning department wouldn’t allow a similar use on that site again. And, four years later, the building was demo’d and a store built, with official approval and conditions from the civic association.

how to: effect change #1

Some efforts in our neighborhood have been officially sponsored by our civic association, while others have been done quietly. What I mean here is that, in order to get things done, you have to learn discretion. Each situation calls for a different tactic, and, if it isn’t working, change your tactic.

1. Publicize an issue

Sometimes, you need to make a big public stink about something that is or isn’t being done.
Example: our neighborhood park had major storm damage that the city ignored for two years. Despite the city receiving FEMA funds to correct the damage, the park was cordoned off and ignored. After multiple attempts to get action by going through the proper local government channels, our Civic Association president called the local press to bring attention to the issue. It worked. By the end of that year, the repairs were complete.

how to: not burn out

Almost two years after cleaning out the last drug houses and shutting down a club that was surrounded with violence, we have been riding easy! In fact, many of us who worked so hard to improve the neighborhood have enjoyed a respite from any large neighborhood projects: a much needed break. The creativity is starting to spring back to life with new park and public relations efforts (is the same neighborhood? ;)), but for a year and a half, a lot of us have been doing the bare minimum to ensure the neighborhood stays safe. But, what did we do with that time?

We found our sanity. For me, the break couldn’t have come at a better time – new jobs meant more time at work (and more money) for my husband and me. We exchanged fun parties with many neighbors, completed major house renovations, and did some traveling. Our focus went inward, and I started passing up neighborhood projects to focus on my own home. The best thing we did to overcome the burnout was to look to move away from the neighborhood! We had our realtor and a neighborhood small business owner (painting company) do a walk through of our house to determine what was needed to make it sell-ready. We got the house all fixed up, and fell back in love with it! So, for now, we are staying, and I’m ready to let RVA know what our neighborhood has become!

ownership: stake it!

I have many friends, including myself, who had an inwardly defining moment after moving into our chosen transitional neighborhood.  There comes a point where we all decided that “we’re not gonna take it,” and this neighborhood is now ours.  Over five years ago, a neighbor of ours bought a house here.  For the first few months of enduring gun shots, a drug-dealing neighbor, and a horrid next door neighbor, he was making his plans to find a way out of his house.  But, there came a moment when he decided that it wasn’t himself that needed to leave, but the evil neighbors. 

Dependent on the level of “crap,” that exists when a person moves into a transitional neighborhood, it becomes necessary to take on a warrior mentality.  My husband had his defining moment in a shouting match with a Narcotics’ Anonymous supervisor who wanted me to stop reporting their drug dealing and fights in front of our property.  I couldn’t believe my ears when my husband shouted (paraphrased and voided of vulgarities), “This is our neighborhood now!  We own this house while you use this street temporarily, so don’t you dare tell me to not take care of my own neighborhood!”  Needless to say this gentleman is rarely seen conducting the NA meetings across our street, and he never comes near us.  The group also was forced to clean up its act, and it took a long fight. 

I am not advocating replacement of a neighborhood, but replacement of values and attitudes.  When there are a few bad apples, it spoils a neighborhood for the rest of the inhabitants, even for those who are apathetic.  It’s amazing that, if a few people start to act, others will join, especially when they see results.  Unfortunately, law-breaking citizens are emotionally like children, and they will get away with whatever they are able.  So, make the choice to not be afraid to stake your claim and clean up your street.  Set an expectation for what isn’t allowed on your street, and those on the street will eventually start to inch toward that expectation. 

how to: when to call the poh-leese

Things have been pretty quiet on my block, I am happy to say.  But, a question that I have discussed with my neighbors is when should one call the police (a.k.a. the po po, 5-0, and Uncle LEO).  When one lives in a transitional neighborhood, calling the police can be a very sensitive issue.  The “rule” my husband and I have set for ourselves is that we will not call the po po on our neighbors (our street only) unless the situation REALLY warrants doing so.  Dependent on the safety level, etc., of your street, you may be able to do more/less, but here are a few factors to keep in mind when determining whether to call the po po.

1. If you are brand new and you stand out, you may want to wait six months or so before calling the po po for anything other than an absolute emergency.  Otherwise, you could get targeted as “that guy.”  For example, my husband and I were the only white people on our block when we moved there.  The first couple police showings on the street got pinned on us.  Getting pinned as the police callers has its ups and downs: people tend to behave more around you, but then some neighbors are hesitant to associate with you. 

2. If you are the only one calling, don’t expect a lot of results.  It is a stark reality that police will be more attentive to certain neighborhoods than others.  You may end up becoming frustrated quickly.  Set only one or a few goals at a time (e.g. I want to decrease the litter on my street).  And, remember, it takes time.

3. Think of alternatives to calling the police.  I’ll give some examples we have faced: our neighbor was having a party that was on past midnight, and it was not quiet.  My husband and I discussed our options, and decided to let it go without any other course of action.  The reasons were a. in almost every other way the neighbors are great (truly), b. their parties are only a few times a year, not a regular occurence, and c. the party would not produce any fights, etc. 

Another example: the church across the street from us hosts a Narcotics’ Anonymous meeting.  In our early days at the house, these NA meetings produced a physical fight in our front yard, drug dealing in front of our house, loud gatherings for hours on our lawn, etc.  My husband and I decided to contact the church instead of calling the police.  We decided to be neighborly.   At first, it turned out badly: one of the NA representatives screamed at us in our front yard, calling us liars in front of the whole NA group (oh, yeah, we felt really safe after that fiasco).  Then, to top it off, a representative from the diocese told us to just call the police when we saw illegal activity.  I was not about to call the police once everyone in the group knew that we had complained about them.  Most of them were court-ordered to the meetings.  However, I built a coalition with my neighbors (including the party neighbor) who also disliked the activity, and our voices together were heard.  The church put the squeeze on the NA group, and they now behave.

4. Build a coalition.  If there is an on-going problem where one call to the police won’t suffice (e.g. a drug house or a new nightclub), try to build a coalition.  Then, call everyone: police, district attorney’s office (Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office), mayor’s office, ABC board, city councilman’s office, etc.  Don’t stop complaining, log calls made to police, write letters, and, if it goes so far, get the media involved.  He who is the loudest voice can sometimes win.  Again, this is something that takes time.  My neighborhood was able to shut down a nightclub which was causing major problems, including a shootout in my alley.  But, it took our coalition nine months to get it closed, and we lucked out in that he was delinquent on his taxes and rent.  It could have taken longer.  However, a year and a half in and the same few drug houses are an issue in my hood.  So, I still have to be patient on those…

Do you have any observations on calling the po po in your neighborhood?