Baltimore’s Safe Street Neighborhoods Remained Safe Despite City Violence
When I asked State Senator Ferguson of the 46th district to paint a picture of the history of Cherry Hill he sighed and contemplated where to begin. Cherry Hill, geographically small and isolated, sits on Baltimore City’s far southwest side. The community provided returning WWII African American veterans with a large housing stock, creating a mixed-income population with high rates of home ownership. From the 1950s to the late 1990s, Cherry Hill grew to have the highest concentration of public housing units, effectively concentrating poverty in an area with limited support services and poor transportation to other areas of the city. Decade-old conflicts have since separated the community into three areas, Up the Hill, Down the Hill and Hillside. Persistent turmoil that often comes with close proximity made Cherry Hill one of the most violent communities in Baltimore.
The negative impacts of structural racism and oppression remain evident. Currently, Cherry Hill’s residents have a lower life expectancy (69.3 yrs. vs 73.5 yrs.), higher unemployment rate (21.9% vs 14.2%), more children living below the poverty line (54.5% vs 34.1%), and more female-headed households (80.7% vs 54.9%) compared to Baltimore City’s average. Too often Cherry Hill is easily written off by media and policy leaders as hopeless – too segregated, dilapidated, poor and dangerous.
However, the Cherry Hill Police District Post #924 recently went 343 days without any shooting incident, non-fatal or fatal, between June 2, 2014 and May 11, 2015. In fact, the last homicide in Cherry Hill occurred April 22, 2014. Safe Streets-Cherry Hill hosted a community event to celebrate over 400 days without a homicide. Even on a cold, overcast day, community residents, local business owners, service providers, city officials and police district leadership joined together to celebrate and reflect on this unbelievable accomplishment.
Safe Streets, a replication of the Cure Violence health model, treats violence as a contagious disease. Credible messengers, trained as health workers from the community are schooled to anticipate where violence may occur and intervene before it erupts. Within the community, Safe Streets works to change behavior and recognize that violence is unacceptable as a method of conflict resolution.
When I asked Safe Streets Violence Interrupter Kin Brown Lane what over 400 days without a homicide meant, she reflected, “Violence just became part of us. That was Cherry Hill. We just learned to duck and dodge and hope we didn’t get hit. We have come a long way.”
Cherry Hill has indeed come a very long way. But how is it that violence is steadily decreasing, while systematic barriers such as poverty and unemployment still exist?
Safe Streets is an important answer to this larger problem. Safe Streets team members are hired based on their ability to identify, access and work with those who are at highest risk for perpetrating or becoming a victim of violence. Safe Streets Violence Interrupters mediate conflicts that are likely to end in violence, whenever or wherever they might occur. Minister Cleo Walker of Cherry Hill Community Presbyterian and volunteer clergy for Safe Streets explained, “Safe Streets staff put their lives on the line, show up at anytime, do everything in their power to resolve conflicts and most importantly make their presence known.” While the Safe Streets work hours are based on the times and days violence is most likely to occur, staff are on-call and the entire community knows how to reach them.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Safe Streets team mediated over 700 conflicts. In 2014 alone, the Violence Interrupters mediated 211 conflicts, nearly all of which were deemed very likely or likely to have resulted in a shooting had the mediation not occurred.
Since 2009, Safe Streets employees have built relationships with those at highest risk for violence and also with the greater Cherry Hill and Baltimore City community. Minister Cleo explained the program “planted the seeds to bring about change. Seeing that the workers changed themselves allows others to see possibility.” The Safe Streets team members are nothing short of inspiring role models. They come from a life on the street, radically changed their own behavior and yet maintain their credibility and have become leaders in the community. Marcus Harris, Violence Interrupter, explained, “I was once part of the problem, now I am coming back and giving back. I help break the cycle I helped create.” As Senator Ferguson put it, Safe Streets staff members have the incredible capacity to “galvanize” the entire community.
While the efforts of Safe Streets Cherry Hill have been fundamental to the reduction of violence, the program does not stand alone in these efforts. Raheem Brown, founder and leader of the Cherry Hill Eagles, a mentorship and sports program for over 200 Cherry Hill youth, told me there is a group of residents who are now part of the solution, rather than the problem. “There is a lot of change,” he said. “It is not considered soft anymore to call out kids who are acting out.”
Mr. Brown painted a picture of what it meant to be an unsung hero in Baltimore City. The Cherry Hill Eagles have been operating for 15 years without funding. He could recall numerous times when he would run practice or have a football game on the local high school field with no lights and uncut grass. When I asked why he has continued to work without funding, he smiled as he told me about Mr. Nathaniel Brown, a Cherry Hill figurehead at the Patapsco Recreation Center. Mr. Brown was like a father figure to so many in Cherry Hill. Now, this “obligation” falls on the current adults to provide a safe and loving environment for the youth, even if there is no funding.
Many more examples of members of the community working to change behavior and social norms are found in Cherry Hill including Michael Battle’s community events he personally funds and Jeszara Revell’s annual bike ride to raise money for school supplies for children. While these amazing leaders are dedicating their time, money, and talent to the community, everyone has a productive role to play in Cherry Hill. “There are a lot of people quietly saving lives in Cherry Hill,” Aaron Hannah Sr., Senior Pastor at South Church at Sinai told me.
Curious, I asked why the most violent month in Baltimore in over 40 years had not reached Cherry Hill. Everyone I spoke with made reference to the night of the uprising in May, 2015. Sergeant Rosemary Ford of Neighborhood Services Unit for Baltimore City Police Southern District, called Safe Streets to let them know youth were starting to gather in the Cherry Hill Shopping Center in preparation for looting the Family Dollar store. Kin Brown Lane, Violence Interrupter explained, “It was the ‘worst of the worst’ who came out and stood up for the community. They made the kids put items back, cleaned up and boarded it up.” They kept the peace until Safe Streets staff arrived. They held a peaceful rally that night and discussions ensued on productive ways to move forward.
In Cherry Hill, people are working together to reduce violence in the community. These efforts are not splintered and uncoordinated. Minister Cleo remarked “we believe in the philosophy of working together.” In fact, almost 20 years ago Cherry Hill formed a Public Safety Committee that meets once a month. Once a month residents, community based organizations, religious institutions, Safe Streets, Baltimore Police, public housing officials, elected officials among others join together to talk about any problems, how to reduce violence and to plan community engagement activities.
Cherry Hill may be naively written off by some as hopeless; yet for those who live, work and raise their children, Cherry Hill is a beautiful place to live, family oriented, and right now one of the safer places in the city. When I asked Kin Brown Lane why Cherry Hill was seeing such low rates of violence, she summed it up in one word “relationships”. Cherry Hill is full of passionate people who share an individual and a collective role in the safety and prosperity of the community. They share a mission and a goal that is larger than any individual person, group or agency working towards it.