`Fed Up' With Crime and Grime, Inner-City Dwellers Take Charge
DRUG dealing, prostitution, and vandalism in Lynn's inner-city neighborhoods have been so bad that people have tended to just shrug their shoulders and try not to think about it. But since the start last June of a new city program called Reclaim Our Community (ROC), residents here are working together for solutions. The program, funded by a $40,000 state grant, directs a number of city services to two troubled neighborhoods. By providing special attention from police and fire departments, health agencies, and the courts, Lynn officials hope to root out crime and ``reclaim'' the two areas as safe and livable.
``A lot of us have lived here our whole life, and we're fed up [with] what has happened,'' says Charles Gaeta, director of the Lynn Housing Authority and chairman of the ROC neighborhood task force.
The program, initiated by Mayor Albert DiVirgilio, has a 90-member neighborhood task force made up of business and community leaders, neighborhood residents, and city officials. There are also special committees on drug education, crime watches, economic development, and housing management.
City officials began by tackling neighborhood decay. Decrepit apartment buildings were fixed up and brought into compliance with safety codes. Empty, garbage-strewn parking lots were cleared. Brighter street lights were installed.
The city's coalition effort then turned to the crime problem. Police made it a priority to respond quickly to calls from the two areas. Residents formed active crime-watch groups. Tenants and landlords met to discuss ways to screen out drug-dealer tenants.
Cooperation from the courts has been an important factor. Judges agreed to put cases from the two targeted neighborhoods on the ``fast track'' instead of allowing them to languish on usually crowded dockets.
NORMALLY, it might take five to six months after an arrest for a case to be processed, but cases from the two neighborhoods get processed in as little as 30 days, according to Donald January, Lynn's chief probation officer.
``We get thick-skinned about the problems in the community, Mr. January says. ``When you're the fourth or fifth-busiest court in the state and you're understaffed, and you've got assaults and murders and drugs, the last thing you're worried about is a street prostitute.''
But city officials realized they needed to start with the recurring smaller problems first. That's why judges agreed to issue restraining orders to prostitutes arrested in either of the two neighborhoods, to prevent them from revisiting the same street corners every night.
National drug-program experts say such communitywide approaches, if properly planned and funded, have been successful.
``We have to reconfigure our approach,'' says Gregory Dixon, deputy director of Fighting Back, a national antidrug program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. ``Many communities have community-based organizations that do dribs and drabs, but they are too little too late.''
He cites Miami's ``Coalition for a Drug Free Community'' and Kansas City's ``Ad Hoc Group Against Crime'' as examples of successful communitywide antidrug programs.
Other short-term efforts, however, haven't been as effective. The Washington, D.C., ``Reclaiming our Streets'' program was initially successful, but city budget problems forced cuts in services.
Lynn officials admit their program, which began less than a year ago, is still in the testing stage. And, as in Washington, city budget problems loom. Mayor DiVirgilio hopes to raise property taxes beyond the state's Proposition 2 1/2 tax-rate cap through a special election next month. Fiscal problems at the state level may also mean a decrease in local aid, as well as cuts in ROC funding. Fifteen other Massachusetts communities have received similar ROC grants.
Despite funding problems, optimistic Lynn officials say volunteer work, like that of crime-watch groups, has helped make the program a success.
Dorothy Mylin is the crime-watch coordinator for one of the neighborhoods located around Union Street. She and her husband have been landlords in the area for several years. In her crime-watch group, she works with 20 ``captains'' who help keep an eye out for prostitution and drug dealing.
Ms. Mylin says criminal activity has decreased significantly since the ROC program started, despite a tendency for prostitution and criminal activity simply to move to the next-closest neighborhood.
Nevertheless, Lynn officials consider the program a success. Police say criminal activity in one neighborhood has decreased by 35 percent. And officials say the community attitude has changed from one of resignation to one of hope.