Bronx Community Solutions

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Building Collective Efficacy

"How do we make sure that the neighborhood stays clean?" asked Joe Muroff from the Bronx District Attorney's Office at last Monday's meeting of the community advisory board.

We had been talking about some of Bronx Community Solutions latest initiatives, including graffiti removal, the mural project at the Bronx Zoo, a step streets project and our ongoing community service work around the Bronx courthouse.

These projects are part of our agenda to make community service more meaningful and visible to the Bronx, and it's already paid dividends: enthusiastic feedback from community-based organizations that have hosted our community service crews, as well as great publicity for the project.

Joe's point was a good one, however: while Bronx Community Solutions could paint over graffiti, clean up a step street or pick up trash in a gritty neighborhood, the project wouldn't have much lasting impact if the graffiti, and the trash, returned.

For a neighborhood to turn a corner, and transform itself from an attractive nuisance to a safe, clean space that feels safe to walk around at night, takes more than a single clean-up project. The hard work is leaving behind the capacity to keep the space clean.

It's what social scientists call "collective efficacy" - a measure of neighbors' ability to keep their own community safe, clean and attractive. (Thanks to anonymous for posting a link to an article on collective efficacy in a previous post). The basic idea is the more collective efficacy a neighborhood has, the safer it will be.

There's a long, and sometimes contentious, debate about whether criminal justice agencies help build collective efficacy or depress it by aggressively policing quality-of-life crime. Wherever you stand on the issue, it seems clear that an enforcement-only strategy probably won't work, nor will isolated community self-help efforts that don't tap into governmental resources.

That's the challenge we face - encouraging residents and community-based organizations to take up where our community service crews leave off, through initiatives like "Adopt a Step Street" or by recruiting community-based organizations to sponsor community service projects like cleaning an empty lot that's about to transformed into a community center.

I'm also optimistic about the power of publicity. I've been struck by how cynical most average citizens are about mandated community service. Too many people see it as the urban equivalent of breaking rocks by the side of the highway - make-work that has little community impact and is purposely humiliating.

If we can show, by contrast, that community service can be meaningful and dignified, and tied to ongoing community efforts to reclaim a park or street corner, I think we'll have gone a long way to changing perceptions, both of the court system and neighborhoods where the work itself takes place.

That's where the community advisory board plays an important role - in focusing our community service efforts on neighborhoods that need it the most, identifying community-based organizations who can serve as our partners and helping to publicize our efforts.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

From Eyesore to Attraction: Improving Step Streets in the Bronx

“My family has been in this area for over 75 years. I remember when these step streets were safe and looked good. Now, nobody would actually choose to take the steps, even if it would save them time. If you take those steps, you’re putting yourself in the presence of danger.”

This is what Richard, a longtime resident of the Bronx and a self-described community historian of the Concourse Village area, had to say when asked about the step streets in his neighborhood. “The structure is falling apart, literally. The stairs are broken and hollow, so if you aren’t watching where you’re walking, you’re a goner. And don’t even get me started on the rats that come out when it rains!”

Anybody who has visited the Bronx knows that it is a hilly borough. It was for this reason, in the early 1900s, that city planners decided to pepper these hills with sets of stairs that would help residents get from bottom to top without having to wind all the way around the hill on roads that were just being laid down.

Called “step streets,” these sets of stairs made a lot of sense, since the automobile was still a rare commodity and most people traveled on foot throughout their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what was originally intended to improve a Bronx resident’s daily commute has now become a daily risk. Many step streets have fallen into structural disrepair and community members consider them to be dirty and dangerous places that they choose to avoid rather than travel through.

At our summer Community Advisory Board meeting, step streets came up as an issue of concern and an area around which Bronx Community Solutions could do some creative problem solving. Since that meeting, we have taken a much closer look at step streets with the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

We chose Community District 4 as our starting point for this project, since it is a district that has reported particular difficulties with step streets and because of the number of them (about 15 in all) in the area. After taking photos of the sites and gathering some cursory information from residents, we decided to dig deeper into some of the issues we had heard about: safety, cleanliness, lighting, greenery, and crime.

Last Friday, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps (which was also hard at work at the Bronx Zoo) collected about 120 surveys from residents and people who work in the areas we had identified. As we suspected, there was an overwhelming desire among respondents for more police patrols along the step streets, improved lighting, regular maintenance, security cameras, and structural repairs.

Perhaps most interesting is that residents responded strongly to the fact that the step streets’ unclean physical appearance gives the impression of danger. Although respondents spoke at length about what they thought occurred in these areas (specifically at night), not many had personal anecdotes to offer.

This suggests that the physical disorder of the step streets may lead to the perception of disorder and danger, even if this is not entirely the case. In other words, a typical pedestrian may say to himself, “This route looks pretty bad, so it must be dangerous. I think I’ll take the long way home.”

As they say, perception is reality.

Another factor fueling negative perceptions of step streets is their isolation: a person walking up the middle of the stairs might be a good 40 or 50 feet from the street. Some of the steps also open into larger areas on the sides around the midpoint of the stairs, and since there are no mirrors, a passerby cannot see if someone is waiting in those areas.

What are our next steps?

Our Americorps fellows passed along a number of good suggestions from community members for improving the steps and we at Bronx Community Solutions also have a couple of ideas of our own.

First, we could participate in basic maintenance and repair by sending our community service crews to clean the step streets on a regular basis. In collaboration with the Bronx Borough President’s Office, we could also contact city agencies to make sure that busted light bulbs are replaced regularly, that necessary structural repairs are made, and that there is clear signage about who to call when repairs are needed. Where possible, it would be great to install security cameras and other technology and to discuss the possibility of more police patrols around the step streets.

How can we keep it attractive once these improvements have been made?

An “Adopt-A-Step-Street” program is one idea. Similar to the “adopt-a-highway” programs in many suburban areas, this program would bring community stakeholders together to take control of their step street. This group of lookouts would maintain the steps and collaborate with city agencies to make sure that necessary repairs are made.

Going beyond simply cleaning the step streets, the adopting groups would also help take ownership of addressing residents’ perceptions of danger by making the step streets destinations for community residents and local businesses. Perhaps these groups could host public events that allow residents to celebrate their communities or that provide the opportunity for interaction between local elected officials and their constituents. Concerts on the steps, health fairs, greening projects … anything is possible when willing people have the resources and support they need.

Monday, October 16, 2006

At the Bronx Zoo

"How does my giraffe look?"

It was a cool, crisp Friday morning, and the Red Hook Public Safety Corps - full time, stipended AmeriCorps volunteers who work at Bronx Community Solutions and other projects run by the Center for Court Innovation - were intently working to restore a 13-year old mural at the Bronx Zoo.

The mural, painted by John “Crash” Matos, a Bronx native and internationally known artist, had fallen into disrepair. The mural was heavily damaged by water, which was followed by graffiti “tags” that defaced the mural.

The request to paint the mural had come out of a meeting organized by the New York City Police Department, where we had been invited to describe our graffiti removal initiative. Charles Vassar, Director of Community Affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society (which runs the Bronx Zoo) had asked if we could help him out.

Two weeks later, we were hard at work, re-painting animals, painting over graffiti and scraping off water damaged paint - all at Crash’s Direction, who returned the following Monday for detail work.

We'll post pictures when the project is finished. In the meantime, it was a good day's work.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Graffiti Removal Continues!

This week, the Bronx Community Solutions community service crew continued its graffiti removal efforts in the 48th Precinct, working with Community Affairs Officers DiGiovanna to repaint two business in the East Tremont neighborhood that had been tagged by graffiti.

This is how Brothers Roofing and Siding Supplies looked before the crew started its work:

And here's how Washington Plumbing Specialties Co. looked, before:

and after: