Walkabout: Group of neighbors on troubled street actively seek peace

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After six weeks of Friday prayer vigils in their neighborhood, a group of residents on and around the 5400 block of Broad Street in Garfield held a recent block party for neighbors to get to know each other and to recruit them in the struggle for peace.

The vigils began shortly after a fatal shooting there Sept. 12.

"I know the police are working on it, but there is also something we can do," said resident Johanna Collins. "Everyone knows what is right. We need to start from the inside out. This has been a trouble spot for years."

In the same block in 2007, a man shot another man, and his accomplice stole marijuana from the slain man's pockets. In 2005, a 13-year-old boy was stabbed after an argument with another teenager.

"The idea of prayer sprung up from people's hearts," said Ms. Collins, whose husband, Chad Collins, is the pastor at Valley View Presbyterian Church.

Prayer never hurts. Many people think it helps. Over the years, intermittently, people have felt motivated to respond to gun violence with rallies, marches, speeches, pleas, seminars and conferences. I have covered a lot of these events and come away thinking that while they are well-intended, they are also futile.

Police officers, social workers, the criminal justice system, strategic intervention tactics, grandmothers, preachers and job training all have had positive impacts on young people who have not made the evening news. But how to crack this tough little nut that has bred an epidemic of slavish destruction among a small network of young men?

Maybe it is as simple as neighbors actively taking control of the places they love and refuse to be scared out of. Scared neighborhoods are victim neighborhoods.

Reyne Kacsuta, acting zone 5 police commander, said she believes that.

Usually, she said, there might be one vigil after a spurt of violence, "but these people didn't hold just one vigil. They're there every Friday. These people aren't going away. We are getting a lot of reports from the community, 911 calls, silent complaint forms. These enhance our ability to investigate.

"We have increased patrols and we have seen a drop in the drug deals and crime on that block."

With "every arrest and every vigil," Cmdr. Kacsuta said, "maybe these [criminals] are thinking, 'That's not the place to do this.' "

Asked if she believes whether criminal behavior of this type could be virtually eliminated if every neighborhood and every street were to respond the same way, she said, "I do" but added that it's a challenge to encourage people not to live in fear.

"If the neighbors don't stand up, it's a hard task for everybody else," said Kendall Pelling, a Valley View congregant who lives near the troubled block of Broad.

Mr. Pelling works as a real estate project manager for East Liberty Development Inc. He said a lot of substandard rental property in and around the 5400 block of Broad may be providing a comfort zone for criminals. "When you have landlords who don't screen and manage tenants, it allows criminal activity."

On his nearby street, he said, some neighbors tap their windows when they see a drug deal "to indicate that these guys have to go elsewhere," he said. "If a block and a neighborhood create some resistance, then people will know it's not a good place" to carry out criminal activities.

"The church's goal is to stand with these neighbors and help them resist," Mr. Pelling said. "Community development groups can't do everything. The most important thing is the neighbors.

"The block party was to help empower the neighborhood, to let people know they aren't alone and to feel comfortable pushing back against this."

Ms. Collins said the block party got 50 to 60 people out, and that she was encouraged: "I met a lot of people I hadn't met before."

Children circulated sign-up sheets in part so residents could associate names with faces and also to help organizers get back in touch with everyone for upcoming gatherings and events.

"We will meet again this coming Friday for a prayer vigil," Ms. Collins said. "We're not going to hide in our houses. This isn't a way to live. "


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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