Eyes on the streets: One secret to safer neighborhoods


Not so long ago or far away, in a presumably “safe” neighborhood where children frolic in the middle of the streets and neighbors don’t always lock their homes or cars, a McMansion started, then went into foreclosure, its bare Tyvek exterior surrounded by high weeds. Down the street, a drug dealer has moved in, and on another street, a pedophile.

Due to road construction elsewhere, one street has become a cut-through, bringing hundreds of commuters through at rush hour. In several homes bought in better times for investment, renters come and go, sometimes skipping out on the rent, sometimes damaging the property on their way out.

With apologies to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for good neighborhoods to go bad is for good neighbors to do nothing. That might sound like an empty statement this summer, with the wave of shootings across some Chicago neighborhoods. In such places, a different strategy may be needed, even in those we think of as traditionally “good” neighborhoods. Just ask Chatham, still reeling from a series of shootings and cold-blooded murders. Long considered a “good” neighborhood with active neighbors, things have changed and Chatham is now dealing with different issues than just a few years ago.

Still, in many places, a vigilant neighborhood attitude can work, especially in places where residents think they don’t need to worry about excessive crime. Those neighborhoods become — or stay — safe because the residents work at it.

Activist neighbors and the “eyes on the street” philosophy are branches of the now-classic “Broken Window” (http://bit.ly/cj45zI) theory of neighborhood decline. Comparing a neighborhood to an abandoned building, the researchers noted that if a building has no broken windows, it is far less likely that one will be broken by vandals. But if it has one broken window that does not get fixed, in short order vandals shatter more windows because it seems as though the owners don’t care.

Similarly, if nearly every home in a neighborhood is cared for and its residents are engaged, it is more likely that the neighborhood will stay that way. But if one home or building becomes unkempt, abandoned, or inhabited by miscreants, it is far more likely that others will follow. After all, no one cares.

For burglars and other criminals, ”the best deterrent to crime is a nosy neighbor,” says Beverly neighborhood court watcher Roberta Kleinman, “They look for neighborhoods where people don’t know each other. If they don’t make eye contact, that’s a good sign they don’t talk to each other.”

But neighborhood problems can start with something less serious than a burglary. Neglected property, blight, loud music and lots of late night parties, are examples of early “broken windows.”

Our first response when hearing about a neighborhood problem is usually – “I can’t do anything about it.”  If the activity or issue is not actually illegal, we have no options, right? So we get mad, we despise the neighbors and we gossip about them. If we have never met them, we have no interest in meeting them now.

Or, maybe we screw up our nerve and confront them. If we have never had a relationship with them before, this is not exactly the best way to introduce ourselves. If we do know them, maybe the discussion will bear fruit – or maybe you’ll never speak again

Maybe you call the cops or the local officials. In the case of drugs or other illegal activity, this might help if the perps are caught in the act.

While these may be the appropriate responses, something about them doesn’t feel right. Muttering, calling the authorities or getting pushback from the neighbor make us still feel helpless, like the old codger yelling “get off of my lawn,” at kids who mock him. That’s why neighborhood watch groups and their cousins, such as “positive loitering,” are getting such a good reception in some parts of the city, such as parts of the 48th Ward. As an example, in Andersonville and Edgewater you can find residents actively working to keep their streets safer.

Positive loitering, neighborhood nights, neighborhood watches and vigilance regarding abandoned properties are just a few of the constructive efforts throughout the ward, says Dana Fritz, aide to Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th).

“Positive loitering is just going out on the street and maintaining a positive presence to counteract the negative loitering,” Fritz said.  As an offshoot of that effort, “Neighborhood Nights,” were started last year by resident Dan Kleinman and the Edgewater Community Council. Those events occur regularly on weeknights and include games and activities for children while giving adults something to do while they loiter.

Other positive loiterers bring their dogs, shoot the breeze with neighbors, or go on small missions, such as to find and record locations of graffiti or poor night lighting, he said. The addition a few years ago of the Uptown Puptown dog park in a corner of Lincoln Park has had the unexpected benefit of curtailing problems with homeless people in that area, Fritz said. “Mary Ann (Smith) is a big proponent of dog parks as an anti-crime initiative,” he said. “They bring people out into the streets.”

Loitering with your neighbors is just one way to connect and make sure a strong sense of community binds the stakeholders in a neighborhood. When we are busy and disconnected we tend to isolate, and then we are less likely to care about those around us.

“Unfortunately, our society is becoming less dependent on one another,” says Sgt. Gregg Bell, a suburban policeman. “Now you can do everything with a cell phone. Some people even mount cameras outside their house instead of meeting the neighbors. But if you do have a block party, and get all your neighbors out, that’s a good venue to bring things up.”

Neighborhood watch programs are another way to keep vigilant. The original program was started in the 1970s by the National Sheriff’s Association, which still administers USAOnWatch.org.

Typically, neighborhood groups get started when there is a sudden problem, said Chris Tutko, director of the national program. Once the problem dissipates, the groups tend to disband if members aren’t feeling useful.

“People don’t want to come to a meeting to have a cookie and go home,” he said. But USAOnWatch offers a toolkit of information and topics that can help neighbors address bullying, domestic violence, internet problems, burglaries and more.

While early organizations focused on gang issues or drugs, today the program includes those basics and more – including terrorist awareness and pandemic issues, he said.

Ed Kuske, the CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) facilitator of beat 2024 has developed a robust summer neighborhood watch program. Pulling at least 30 members from three area block clubs, the neighborhood watch patrols during the summer along Sheridan Road.

Though less of an issue in dense neighborhoods of high rises, foreclosures and distressed properties have added to the list of concerns in recent years, Tutko noted. “In places like Vegas, we have whole subdivisions with nobody in ‘em. They can have meth labs, all kinds of criminal activities because no one is there to look at them.”

Even neighborhoods with just one or a handful of vacant properties can suffer the consequences, particularly if the home’s windows are boarded up or if the lawn is not tended.

While some Neighborhood Watch members patrol their neighborhoods in fluorescent vests and carrying flashlights, not all watches include patrolling, he said. In fact, just posting some signs can help.

“If you put up Neighborhood Watch signs, the guy selling drugs thinks, ‘now there is some stupid citizen staring at me, maybe taking my picture, but in essence, he’s going to go somewhere else,” Tutko said.

And if you have a block party or a Neighborhood Night, you will pull everyone together for fun that has a secret purpose:  Good friends will help friends. Good neighbors will help neighbors stay good. And nosy neighbors – they have their purpose, too.



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