The Community Safety Initiative: a 15 Year Retrospective
EAST NEW YORK, BROOKLYN—Fifteen years ago today a major press conference was held on Riverdale Avenue in Brooklyn, NY to launch the Community Security Initiative (CSI), a project that sought to test if local police departments and community developers could work together to solve neighborhood problems, reduce crime, and improve overall quality of life. The program was funded by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) one of the largest community development organizations in the country, with generous support from the MetLife Foundation. Two demonstration sites were selected to kick off the initiative, one in New York City and the other in Seattle, Washington, each pairing police with a local community development corporation. Technical assistance would be provided by the Washington, DC based Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and LISC itself, and the demonstration sites' documentation would come in the form of a three-year case study and evaluation done by the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
In New York City, the East New York community was selected as the NY-based demonstration site, and had as its local partners the NYPD's 75th Precinct and the East New York Urban Youth Corps (ENYUYC), a major nonprofit development corporation working in the neighborhood. A 20 square block section of East New York was selected as the New York City site, and on the other side of the country the Seattle, WA sister-site would work in a section of the Chinatown/International District. At the time of the press conference I worked for ENYUYC as a program director managing youth programs at an off-site location. I remember after the press conference talking with some coworkers about how excited we all were that this innovative crime-fighting project was coming to East New York.
If ever there was a neighborhood in need of something innovative, East New York was it. The city had recently set an all-time record for homicides, and East New York lead the city with the most—a whopping 126 murders in 1993. There were large tracts of vacant land and numerous abandoned properties. Open air drug markets were visible everywhere and people lived in fear for their lives. When someone tried to speak out against a group of drug dealers, a harsh lesson was taught: he was brought to the top of a 5-story apartment building and pushed off the roof. As if the local drug wars and rampant violence weren’t bad enough, there was pervasive poverty, a growing HIV/AIDS local epidemic, an almost complete lack of recreational space, limited social services, chronic unemployment, and a high drop-out rate that had over half of all adults without a HS diploma. This was made only worse by the fact the neighborhood had the city’s highest percentage of persons under the age of 18, a full third of the total population. We were a community in crisis and it was time for a change, but there was such a deep-seated sense of apathy and hopelessness that any organizing effort was usually met with skepticism or outright cynicism.
Several weeks after the press conference I applied for and became the ENY site coordinator, given the title “Project Facilitator” to remind me of my principal role: to help the project’s partners understand our common objectives and assist them in achieving them. The project’s overall goal was to create something that could be replicated throughout the country using what worked—and what didn’t—as a model.
We spent years working as part of this social science experiment, accruing a long list of accomplishments, working through or around some truly monumental obstacles and challenges, and stumbling and falling from time to time—always picking ourselves up afterwards and learning from our missteps. Overall we and our Seattle-based sister site left marks on our respective neighborhoods and the project, now renamed the Community Safety Initiative today operates all over the country and also works closely with the US DOJ-funded Weed & Seed initiative, providing invaluable technical assistance to Weed & Seed sites that have as one of its partners a strong community development corporation.
The basis of the partnership between police and community developers is to broaden the focus of neighborhood issues to include the location itself, where many of these problems had their root. Police departments do not have construction units within them, but what if they began looking at community developers as an extension of their workforce, doing the things it couldn't, like building a house or commercial property on land that has attracted any number of criminal and quality of life conditions? What if community developers began doing the same by inviting police into the planning meetings, getting expert opinion from them on understanding what works in regards to improving safety through building designs? What if, working together, they could effectively build their way out of crime?
While CSI's 15 years of accomplishments are far too numerous to list here, one standout example of building your way out of crime comes from the Seattle project, a patch of land near the I-5 overpass called "the Blackberry Jungle" by the police and locals. It was overgrown and full of vagrants, criminals, and the like. Police and developers, working together, found out who owned the land and convinced him to develop on it. The partners worked closely with government officials to untangle the myriad bureaucracies that prevented the developer from building in the first place, all culminating with the creation of the Pacific Rim shopping plaza, a terrific strip mall that employs dozens of people and provides valuable local shopping to area residents. All this from the basic premise that sometimes eludes even the best of police departments: sometimes you need to focus on the location of the problem, not just the offender and victim.
Today, the East New York area continues to benefit from the concept of building its way out of crime. The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) in recent years opened the Fulton Mews, a block-long stretch of mixed-use properties, including quality affordable housing on the upper floors, along with a number of merchants operating on the ground level. This block was a perennial problem for the community for countless years. It was overgrown with towering weeds and other plant life and the site of illegal dumping, abandoned stolen cars, and numerous violent and nonviolent crimes. Years ago when I walked down that block to catch the J Train I either crossed the street or held my nose as I walked past the piles of garbage and decaying dead animals, while dodging rats or avoiding stray dogs. Today that block is a welcomed destination for area residents with numerous much-needed merchants doing business there.
In the same area there now exists the Cypress Hills Weed & Seed, whose target area encompasses parts of Cypress Hills and East New York. It recognizes that locations are a key part of solving neighborhood problems through its efforts in combating graffiti and conducting neighborhood clean-ups through organized efforts with its numerous community partners, including a strong development corporation, the same CHLDC mentioned above, that has already been at the forefront of that area's housing, economic development, and youth and family services for decades. It is a true joy to represent Assemblyman Darryl C. Towns on the Weed & Seed Steering Committee, contributing back to my beloved neighborhood by drawing on my 15 years of public safety experience, to help where I can with this consortium's planning and implementation of initiatives. This is definitely a Weed & Seed project to watch in the coming years; it will accomplish great things for the general East Brooklyn community.
In recent weeks CHLDC has agreed, at the behest of Assemblyman Towns, to take on one of the community's most perennial and pervasive problems, the Fulton Street/Norwood Avenue corridor. Keep an eye on this location in the years to come. Watch and see: CHLDC, working closely with area elected officials, local police, Weed & Seed, and other partners will transform this corridor into a neighborhood destination, incorporating elements of what worked in places like Times Square, a place that 20 years ago no one believed could be what it is today. This will be a textbook case of what CSI is all about--building your way out of crime--so it is apropos that in the very community that these ideas were tested and proven that they will again be implemented in, showing the city and the rest of the country for that matter just what we're capable of out here in East Brooklyn.
It all started 15 years ago today here in East New York and I'm looking forward to the next 15 years.
Happy Anniversary Community Safety Initiative!
For more information on CSI, contact the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, 501 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018, or visit www.lisc.org.
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