MAXWELL:   Neighbors asked for help, and then got it

1/21/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Concerned African-American residents can improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods without using federal money.

Until recently, I could not visit my mother’s house in Northwest Fort Lauderdale without wanting to take the law into my own hands, to personally drive out the thugs making life miserable for my law-abiding mother and stepfather.

As I have written before, the block where my mother lives was an outdoor drug market that catered mostly to white people who zipped off of Interstate 95, stopped near my mother’s house, bought their drugs and drove away.

The drug trafficking alone was bad, but it attracted most of the other dysfunctionality that comes with it _ prostitution, home invasions, fights, rowdiness and loud music, public drinking, general intimidation.

Fear ruled the neighborhood. My mother, who loves her front porch, stayed inside most of the time. My stepfather stayed inside, too, because he knew that his hot temper would land him in jail _ or in a coffin.

The fear brought a deep sense of hopelessness, with as many as 30 families believing that they were trapped. The hopelessness led to neglect. My stepfather, for example, keeps their yard manicured and takes great pride in tending the easement. In time, though, as the drug dealers littered the easement each night, he stopped picking up behind these thugs. Others did the same, and the neighborhood took on a Third World aspect.

Soon, many owners and renters moved to other parts of town. Apparently, word went out to the drug-traffickers that my mother’s neighborhood was a good place to do business. It became a dangerous outdoor drug market.

Some buildings went into decline, and others were abandoned. Then, last year, as a result of a combination of police actions and individual acts by residents, the neighborhood started to make a dramatic comeback.

For one thing, my sister and I persuaded our mother and stepfather to telephone the police at least twice a week and complain about conditions. We told them to persuade their neighbors to do the same. We told them to persuade those with transportation to go to the police department and demand to speak with someone responsible for patrolling the area. We told them to give the police the names of drug dealers and criminals. Our youngest brother even got into the act, making several trips to the police department to plead for help.

In other words, the residents had to show that they gave a damn about their neighborhood and their individual properties. One skeptic said, “These cops aren’t going to help a bunch of low-income blacks who don’t even vote.”

He was wrong.

The police department did respond, and the drug dealers are gone.

In the past, I rarely saw a patrol car. Now, I see them regularly. I visited my mother several times last year, and I saw real changes. During my Christmas visit, I made a point of walking the entire neighborhood, street by street, during the day and late at night. The changes and improvements are remarkable.

The apartment building next to my mother’s house, for instance, had been abandoned. Its windows were broken, the paint was fading and a few homeless people were living there. Someone bought the property and turned it into a bright, clean complex. Up and down the block, similar improvements are being made. Fresh paint is everywhere, most broken windows have been replaced, abandoned cars have been hauled away, piles of trash and debris have all but disappeared.

A run-down crack house a few doors from my mother’s house had operated 24/7. The police shut it down and boarded it up. Two months ago, a new owner turned the place into a real home, complete with a fence. Best of all, a family with two young children moved in.

Now, I can stay in my mother’s guest room, which faces the street, and get a good night’s sleep. A year ago, sleep would have been impossible. People now sit on their porches at night and grill in their yards on weekends.

I do not have scientific reasons for the turnaround. What I do know is this: Residents had to get involved in their neighborhood, and they had to get the police interested and involved in their efforts. Some skeptics complain that the drug problem has not really gone away, that it simply shifted to another neighborhood. My mother’s response to this skeptic was simple: “I don’t care where them crack heads shifted to. We can sleep at night.”