Anyone who’s spent much time around the intersection of Nolan Street and North New Braunfels Avenue on the city’s Eastside knows that the Handy Stop gas station and convenience store and the surrounding alleyways are pretty safe bets for scoring some crack or a prostitute. A man was shot and killed there two weeks ago, and now, police are bracing for gang retaliation.
That all changed Thursday as if the corner were part of some fantasy film, only what was happening was real. The corner became a community gathering spot, one that featured fresh barbecue, popsicles and activities for children, and quality time among neighbors.
A line quickly formed when the meat smoker rolled up. Once the free food was served, many residents enjoyed the early evening hours engaged in conversation with local police officers, volunteers, and event organizers San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) Resurgence Collaborative, EastPoint, and Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) and his staff. Other residents took their plates to eat at home, disappearing on to porches beyond overgrown yards or sitting on stoops to watch the festivities.
While the community dined and mingled, volunteers picked up trash and started trimming bushes and trees that had created a safe-haven for prostitutes to turn tricks, drug dealers to sell their wares, and other criminal activity.
“(This) is where they (criminals) have become comfortable, where they know they come get some,” said SAPD Officer Tina Castillo. “You’d be surprised at how they (criminals) just disappear with the presence of law abiding citizens, with the presence of police, and with the clean-up and the clutter gone.”
It’s the “broken window effect,” Castillo said. Rich or poor neighborhoods, if a window remains broken for long enough, eventually all the rest of the windows will be broken. It’s a signal that no one cares. Thursday’s event was to demonstrate that someone does care – the very residents, police officers, and businesses that are nearby.
Residents like Betty Hodge, who, a little more than two years ago, would have been buying crack from dealers near the Handy Shop.
“I got in trouble over here,” Hodge said while enjoying a popsicle. “That’s why I’m in (rehab). It feels so good to be clean and sober. … That dead guy that they found, that could have been me. That’s why I’m glad to be out of it.”
She’s now keeping up with her court dates and training to be a coach where she received court-ordered treatment for addiction at Lifetime Recovery‘s out-patient facility. She’s looking forward to a cleaner street corner.
“It’s great for people to get together and know each other,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
SAHA recently received a $600,000 Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Grant to reduce crime in the Eastside Choice/Wheatley Courts Neighborhood. This pilot event was planned by local officials who want to see if such improvements can reduce the root causes of crime, improve awareness of local resources for the surrounding low-income community, and simply bring people together for some good barbecue and community.
“We’re going to knock out all of our strategies here at this spot by the end of July,” said SAHA Byrne Grant Assistant Coordinator William Miles before taking his position at the smoker to serve the hungry line of neighbors. When complete, the empty lots will be cleared and a fence will be installed. “We’re getting (the gas station) more cameras and more lighting so (the owner) can monitor behind his property and call SAPD when he sees people back here.”
The centerpiece of the grant is the Resurgence Collaborative, the first comprehensive re-entry program in Texas, operating out of the Barbara Jordan Community Center. With its 17 different partners, the program’s mission is to “deal with crime on the back end and help people who are coming back from jail … so they don’t recidivate,” Miles said. A Bexar County probation field office is also located at the center.
There are other intersections that Miles and his colleagues have their eyes on for rounds two and three of their project. The intersection of North Walters and Burnet Streets as well as Hays Street and North New Braunfels Avenue could be next.
These events and the Resurgence Collaborative represent concrete examples of what the recent federal grants and designations have done for the historically low-income Eastside, home to the largest concentration of African-American families and small businesses.
EastPoint is a four square-mile area on the Eastside where the Promise Zone and Choice federal grant areas overlap. These designations make a variety of resources available to help create jobs, increase economic activity and public safety, improve educational opportunities, attract private investment, and reduce poverty, provide affordable housing.
“It’s a success if we have a continued effort. This is just the beginning of a grassroots effort to grow community consensus that things need to change here,” Warrick said. “We can get to the point where this could be just as safe as any other community in the city. The issue is when people have been disenfranchised for so long, they don’t speak out. If this kind of violence or drug use was happening on Huebner and Blanco … it wouldn’t be tolerated.”
During the event, Warrick was approached by Rev. Ruth A. Martin, who owns My Place barber and beauty salon right next door to the Handy Shop on North New Braunfels Avenue.
“Cleaning up someone else’s property does not impress me,” Rev. Martin said, who seems to take relative care of her property but still has problems with criminal activity. She wonders why the Handy Shop was rewarded for not keeping up with the weeds and allowing he property to get so bad. “It’s almost as though there is a prayer meeting in front of my property.”
Warrick listened to her concerns and said that there are always more needs than City resources can cover and this effort was intended, essentially, to fix the broken window. He encouraged her to keep reporting the “prayer meetings” of drug addicts and dealers to the police.
“It’s all about critical mass. Once we have more attractive buildings than unattractive buildings, then the unattractive building (owners) will be like, ‘I have to be like everybody else now.’ But when you still have a vast majority of dilapidated buildings … then it’s just common place,” Warrick said.