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You Don't Have to Be a Karate Champ to Prevent Street Crime

The old wisdom that lively neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods is still true

| by Jay Walljasper

While crime rates have dropped dramatically in most US cities over the past two decades, there has been a recent uptick in robberies of cell phones and laptops, which can be easily sold over the Internet. What we can to do to deter criminals, who rob of us of our peace of mind as well as possessions? Get people out on the streets, which was what helped turn the tide on crime rate beginning in the 1990s.  

This story is adapted from the Great Neighborhood Book: A D-I-Y Guide to Placemaking  written by Commons magazine editor Jay Walljasper in collaboration with Project for Public Spaces

This Austin neighborhood is safer because people are out on the streets.  (Photo by Lotus Carroll under a CC license)

Grandmothers in the Yesler Terrace public housing community in Seattle helped rid their streets of crack dealers by setting up lawn chairs every evenings at corners frequented by dealers.


You don’t have to be an ex-linebacker or hold black belt in karate to help keep the peace in your neighborhood. Anyone out on the sidewalks deters crime and brings a measure of harmony and energy to the streets. Make a special effort to greet everyone you meet with a smile and keep watch out for any signs of problems—a fresh scrawl of graffiti or unusual comings-and-goings at a residence.

Grandmothers in the Yesler Terrace public housing community in Seattle helped rid their streets of crack dealers by setting up lawn chairs every evenings at corners frequented by dealers. All they would do is knit and chat, but it was enough to move the troublemakers away. Soon, the nearby Garfield neighborhood community council declared the area a drug-free zone and led marches through the community on Friday nights to show they were serious.

An effective anti-crime initiative underway in many parts of the country is organizing neighbors to walk the beat—just like the police used to do in the days before squad cars. Indeed, some cities are putting cops back on the beat,  on foot or bicycles, to prevent crime by patrolling the streets rather than just answering calls once crimes have been committed. But police can’t be everywhere you need them. So citizens are coming forward to help keep the streets safe by patrolling their neighborhoods in the evenings.

A few years back, neighbors got together to walk the streets in Minneapolis’s Lyndale neighborhood, which helped bring crime down 40 percent in four years. Calling themselves the Lyndale Walkers, they worked in pairs or larger groups strolling up and down the sidewalks of this diverse community that includes elegant turn-of-the-19th century homes and a high-rise public housing project. They rarely stopped a crime in action, and never pursued confrontations with young gang members or criminals, but did notify the local police precinct by cell phone whenever they saw something suspicious underway. They also filed reports detailing what they found on their walks, which helped police get a better overall picture of problems in the neighborhood.

Just as importantly, their simple presence on the sidewalks dampened lawless behavior and raised hope in the neighborhood. Indeed, the Lyndale neighborhood transformed quickly from a place from a place prospective home-buyers avoided to one with the fastest-rising property values in the entire state.

The success of the Lyndale Walkers soon inspired similar efforts in other communities across Minneapolis affected by crime. Reverend Carly Swirtz, leader of the 11th Avenue Block Club in the low-income Phillips neighborhood, describes her experience. “We have lots of successes. One of the best advantages of a patrol is getting to know your neighbors. You can learn a lot on those strolls! We had two really big problem crack houses a couple of years ago. Many gun shots and police calls. It was due to our block club patrol and watch [group] that we finally got them out ”

Neighborhood safety is about more than crime. Luther Krueger, one of the leaders of the Lyndale Walkers, noted that even neighborhoods with quite low crime rates are forming what they call stroll patrols, “ to take the edge off the usual impression of citizen patrols being people strictly looking for crooks or crimes.”

Nolan Venkatrathnam, a patrol leader in Minneapolis’ Stevens Square/Loring Heights neighborhood, which does contend with crime problems, noted that one of their notable successes came when, “a patrol team retrieved a woman from her apartment that was filling up with smoke from a frying pan left on the stove. The women had apparently taken medication and fallen asleep and left the pan on the stove. Well the patrol got the women out and [she] was treated by medical personnel.”


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