The Heights

Facts and Feelings: The push to improve safety in The Heights

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Americans love dogs. There are an estimated 70 million pet pups in the U.S. and owners will spend an average of $1,285 per dog annually. But sometimes dogs are a problem. Stray dogs can block traffic, destroy property, bite when provoked, and leave waste that is unsightly and unhealthy.

In The Heights, strays are a symptom of a larger concern — 1,100 vacant homes and lots that make for perfect dog houses.

“If a wolf can find a den, a dog can find a den underneath a house, inside of an abandoned house, it’s a safe place for a mom to keep her puppies,” said Christina Crutchfield, community coordinator with Heights Community Development Corporation.

The presence of strays along with abandoned and blighted properties, general cleanliness, and how well a person knows their neighbors affect an individual’s sense of community safety, regardless of actual rates of crime.

In The Heights, community leaders say there are real safety concerns they’re working to address through their collaborative efforts — like flooding Memphis Police Department community meetings with Heights residents, ramping up neighborhood watch responsibilities and sponsoring mounted security cameras — but they're also shifting perceptions of safety by reconnecting and reinvesting neighbors. It’s a two-pronged strategy that promotes a safe and thriving Heights.

Perceptions and Realities

“Safety is a perception,” said Ian Randolph, founder of the Holmes Street Neighborhood Association (HSNA), one of several groups operating within the boundaries of the larger Heights, an area bounded by Jackson and Summer avenues to the north and south and Graham Road and Tillman Street to the east and west.

“When people don’t feel safe, they stay inside the house, they’re less likely to report things, and that gives a criminal element a foothold in your neighborhood,” he said.

Randolph started the HSNA two years ago and has extensive experience with community organizing. He’s on the board of the South Memphis Alliance and a member of national nonprofit Neighbors U.S.A. He personally tends four vacant properties near his home and recruits others to do the same.

“The better your street looks, the more people might say, ‘Hey, this might not be a bad place to live’ [or] ‘This is a decent looking street, maybe I’ll buy one of these vacant lots, and I’ll put a couple houses on it,’” he said.

For as much as safety is a perception, stakeholders are not naive to the very real challenges of their neighborhood.

The Heights has a 32 percent poverty rate, and according to PolicyMap there are nearly as many vacant properties as there are homeowners.

For a snapshot of crime in The Heights, High Ground News utilized the Daily Memphian Crime Map to analyze criminal activity across a 21-day sample (the first week of January, June and October) between 2015 and 2018.

The data shows no significant improvement in incidences or charges within The Heights’ boundaries of Jackson and Summer avenues and Tillman and Graham streets.

By far the most prevalent concern is property crime — shoplifting, burglary, vehicle theft — while the most common violent crime was assault related to domestic violence. In the 2017 and 2018 samples, there were a combined 36 police interactions for domestic violence compared to 18 aggravated assaults, 12 robberies and two homicides.

Crutchfield and Randolph both know there’s room for improvement but said it’s important to remember that all neighborhoods experience crime. They personally feel safe walking through the area and are motivated to work harder when crime does affect the community.

Taking Action

In the last two years the HSNA, Heights CDC, Mitchell Heights Neighborhood Association (MHNA) and others have coordinated cleanup and blight removal efforts and social events like holiday celebrations and block parties. They believe community development happens in the moments and meetings these activities provide.

“There’s a lot of times where as an individual you’ll have a thought, and you think it’s just something floating in your head until you talk to your neighbor,” said Crutchfield.
A 'junior deputy' enjoys a treat at the Holmes Street National Night Out event. Community leaders say improving relationships with law enforcement is a key component to neighborhood safety. (Madeline Faber)
As an organizer of the second annual Holmes Street National Night Out on October 2, Randolph and a team of volunteers, including members of MHNA and Heights CDC, turned a previously blighted lot into a party. Around 60 old and new neighbors shared hotdogs and lawn games as Randolph spoke on the importance of a strong neighborhood watch and the community discussed how to react to recent incidents of gunfire.

Thirty houses between Summer and Lamphier avenues participated in last winter’s Clean Holmes for the Holiday yard cleanup competition hosted by HSNA, and that number is expected to increase this year. Randolph also distributes 125 copies of a monthly neighborhood newsletter that may soon expand with an e-edition.

Crutchfield, who has a background in urban planning, said cleanups and block parties might seem insignificant but they’re critical to deterring crime and creating a sense of ownership for residents.

“Something as simple as putting up boards on a house that’s empty, making sure it’s securely closed ... Something that small with just plywood and a hammer, you can keep animals out, you can keep people who wish to do harm to the neighborhood out," she said.

Crutchfield also said that smaller-scale blight abatement is running alongside larger efforts from both individuals and organizations.

“Big blight abatement are things like pushing a blighted property into environmental court. It’s talking to and supporting our code enforcement, it’s updating 3-1-1 so that those places that are chronic, we can have some muscle behind us so they don’t stay the way they are,” she said.

Heights CDC and the various neighborhood associations help with reporting to code enforcement and pressuring absentee landlords. Members of the organizations have personally purchased and improved properties, and Heights CDC has bought and rehabbed 10 homes for affordable neighborhood rentals.

Stakeholders say these one-off efforts sometimes don’t feel like much compared to 1,100 total vacancies, but it’s a strong first swing and every improvement counts towards perceptions and realities of safety. Tackling blighted properties in the neighborhood leads to a pleasing environment and fewer inactive spaces for stray dogs and criminals to occupy.

“The correlation is direct between safety and blight abatement whether it’s small scale or big scale,” said Crutchfield.

Community-Based Law Enforcement

Heights leaders and residents regularly invite law enforcement to events and attend law enforcement meetings including environmental court hearings, code enforcement meetings, police joint agency meetings, the Citizens Police Academy, police-community liaison trainings, and events at the Memphis Police Department Tillman Station.

The interactions help the community stay informed and get issues addressed and helps personalize policing for law enforcement.

“Instead of ‘That’s 92 Powell Street,’ it’s, ‘Oh, that’s Ms. Jones’ house. Ms. Jones is pretty nice, we’re going to go around and see what Ms. Jones wants,’ and it becomes personal to [officers],” said Randolph.

Ian Randolph prepares to speak on community safety at Holmes Street National Night Out on Oct 2. (Madeline Faber)
Stakeholders are also working with law enforcement on targeted policing.

Most recently, MHNA secured funding from Summer Avenue business owners and the Memphis Police Department to place three MPD-monitored cameras at a hotspot near Baltic Street and Faxon Avenue. MPD installed the cameras in mid-to-late September, and the neighborhood association has already seen a reduction in gang and drug activity. Crutchfield also noted that one of that corner's biggest problem properties is no longer showing signs of criminal activity and is also in code compliance for the first time in years after a concerted effort by community leaders to pressure the city and owner for improvements.

There have been several other monitored cameras placed throughout the community in the last year along Summer and Guernsey avenues and Holmes and Pope streets. Leaders say that year-to-year data may not yet show much improvement, but they’re seeing changes and recent data backs up that perception.

In the first two weeks of October 2018, MPD facilitated three busts in the area totaling 62 drugs and weapons charges. Two of those busts occurred in range of MPD cameras on Summer Avenue.

Incidences of criminal activity in The Heights decreased 19 percent during the first two weeks of October 2018 compared to the first two weeks of October 2017. Rates of assault, homicide, sex crimes, and weapons violations stayed the same but property crimes decreased and robberies dropped from nine to two incidences.

Vagrancy, trash and blight aren’t necessarily monitored by police, but MHNA, Heights CDC, and HSNA have all reported a marked reduction in each.

“I’m not saying every house on Holmes is perfect ... but you can see a pronounced difference over, I’d say, the past year and a half,” said Randolph.

MHNA’s next step is to add gunshot trackers to alert police to gun activity.

Related: “Small but mighty: Resident-led development improves Mitchell Heights

Randolph knows it’s difficult for some residents to trust law enforcement — especially Black and Latino families given rising fears of ICE and numerous high-profile deaths of unarmed people of color by police — but he also knows that improving personal relationships with officers is ultimately win-win.

“A relationship with the people in law enforcement can either save you some problems if you’re the one of the wrong side of the law, or if you’re on the right side of the law, your relationship with law enforcement can help get things done for you,” he said.

A Return to Great Heights

Heights leaders said that regardless of what the data might show, they can see and feel their neighborhood getting safer, especially over the last 12 to 18 months. They also see young people and families moving back to the neighborhood, a key sign of positive momentum.

Heather and Matt Scholls moved to the neighborhood from the Pink Palace area in 2017 with their two small children.

Heather Scholls got to know The Heights volunteering at Su Casa, a nonprofit that works with the area’s Latino community. As a stay-at-home mom, she was looking for a close-knit community with longterm, stable residents — and felt she’d found it. A few months ago, she accidentally locked herself out of the house with no keys, no phone and her infant inside.

“It was probably the most horrifying moment of my life when I couldn’t get back into the house and my, at the time, probably four or five-month-old son was in there without me,” she said.

Fortunately, a neighbor helped her contact her husband and she was back inside in 10 minutes. 

“That wouldn’t have happened in a neighborhood where no one knows each other, no one’s really home during the day,” she said.

These are the moments Heights leaders and organizers have been working towards.

“It’s like that proverb you hear over-quoted, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’" said Randolph. “Well, it takes a village to keep your village together."
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.