Changing Georgetown Street: Community leaders, police and residents push for new image

jmadden@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2014 

Lexington police Sgt. Rahsaan Berry was raised in the west end and still lives there today.

That's why Berry has a vested interest in the quest to end violence and revitalize Lexington's Georgetown Street corridor.

Berry leads "WE CARE: Our community, Our Future," an umbrella initiative that began in the summer to fight gun violence and empower the community.

"We just believe that when people are proud about their neighborhood and it looks better, they do better," Berry said. "We're definitely moving in the right direction where it can make a difference."

Efforts to improve neighborhoods within the corridor began to surge last summer, after spates of violence that created fear, anger, frustration and concern. That has inspired grassroots movements and partnerships that have led to conversations with city government officials and residents.

Officials are several months into a second phase of a "community transformation" that includes recreation, education and employment.

The goal for many community organizers and residents is to begin working together on solutions that will curb violent outbursts that have surfaced during the summer months, when tempers often flare as temperatures rise.

Last year, the Rev. Willis Polk of Imani Baptist Church led seven community prayer walks in August and September to protest violence in Lexington. The walks, typically 3.4-mile treks down Georgetown Street from Imani to the intersection with Newtown Pike, had hundreds of participants. Polk has become one of the corridor's most vocal leaders.

Polk, who said the city is investing millions of dollars in other areas of the city, said Lexington "cannot allow the urban corridor to remain idle."

"We can't tackle all of the issues in the urban corridor, but we're going to take a slice of it and begin to take definitive steps to address it," he said. "We have to figure out how we can bring hope where there is hopelessness. Hope is whenever you can see beyond your personal circumstances. If we can get them to see beyond their personal circumstances and that's there's life beyond where they are, then we've done our jobs."

Last summer, Lexington police joined Polk in his fight for peace. Officers went door-to-door last year asking residents about concerns regarding the neighborhood and getting "invested in the fabric of the community to make change from the inside out," police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

"By literally going into their homes and speaking with them we were able to get information and gather intelligence that we otherwise wouldn't have got," Roberts said.

There were a series of high visibility patrols, undercover efforts and targeted investigations. The police action led to arrests, narcotics seizures, and an overall reduction of crime. But that was only one piece of the puzzle.

The second phase focuses on beautification, change, hope and opportunities for youth.

Berry said Douglass Park, which has been a haven for criminal activity, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Leaders say they think that is monumental during a time of change.

Diane Marshall, president of the Georgetown Street Neighborhood Association, said fifth-graders from Booker T. Washington Intermediate have come up with some ideas to beautify the park. Those plans could be unveiled at a neighborhood association meeting this month.

Marshall said presidents of several neighborhood associations along Georgetown Street are meeting, and one of their goals is to improve all of the area parks. Residents are being drawn in to work on community gardens, she said.

One garden will be on Roosevelt Boulevard, not far from the home of Rosalyn Goddard-Stoutamire.

In November, Habitat for Humanity, a Christian ministry working with volunteers and donors to eliminate substandard housing, launched the "We Care-Love Your Neighborhood" initiative with Lexington police. The group cleaned up Roosevelt and built a new fence for Goddard-Stoutamire. The vinyl siding of the home had been scorched by bullets from drive-bys, and the chain-link fence that separated her home and Florence Avenue was destroyed. Holes were cut into it by people using it as a pathway.

Months after the remodel of her home, Goddard-Stoutamire remains optimistic about the future of the community, but she said it all starts from within.

"It's time for everybody to change their heart," she said. "It's time for people to change."

Police leaders understand that transformation is not a one-time effort, Roberts said. That's why they will continue to be involved throughout the second phase.

Last weekend, officers began training residents for a neighborhood crime watch, she said.

Additionally, a couple of neighborhood cleanups are planned for spring and summer, and there are police-driven educational and outreach projects in the works, Roberts said.

"No one entity can solve every problem on its own," she said.

Second District Councilwoman Shevawn Akers said the initiatives in the neighborhood are meaningful.

"It shows that the residents care about preserving their neighborhood and the future of it," she said. "They want to preserve it for future generations."

Reaching the youth

Partners for Youth has been collaborating with leaders in the faith community, nonprofits, schools, neighborhood leadership, and council members to launch programs, executive director Laura Hatfield said.

"The real meaningful and sustainable work comes from the people who live, love and serve these communities," she said.

Since the walks last summer, Polk has had about 50 meetings about bettering the neighborhood and getting young people enrolled in programs by summer.

Police Activities League (PAL), which offers about 20 programs for kids, offers a program that teaches teenagers to become referees for youth sports. The teens will be paid for their work.

Another program, the Youth Entrepreneur Development Program, shows youngsters how to harvest crops for a profit.

Polk said these types of initiatives will help facilitate change, but it requires participation, dedication and communication.

"Community transformation is a tough task," Polk said. "It's not that the communities don't have these programs, these services. It is that there's a disconnect between the programs and the residents."

He wants to bridge that gap.

In order to move forward, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said relationships and partnerships will have to continue to cultivate change. Gray said focusing on the potential success of the Georgetown Street corridor could allow the city to use similar strategies in other neighborhoods.

"We don't live in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Gray said. "This is a real city with real problems and real challenges, but I've learned that when people with good hearts and good heads come together, with good problem-solving skills, you can really attack these problems."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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