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The Struggle on the Streets

Communities band together after the miracle rescue of three girls to help prevent future tragedies



Following the May 6 rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, a series of emotions began percolating along stretches of Clark, Fulton, Denison and all points within and without. There was celebration. There was joy. Then: Confusion, guilt, anger, a flurry of intermittent pessimism and optimism, and willful concern.

Community members gathered May 9 at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, an understated, brick-laden house of worship anchoring the intersection of Scranton and Seymour. The church lies naught but several hundred feet from the house owned by Ariel Castro. For more than a week now, the tower of the church has loomed over candlelight vigils, media interviews, neighborly embraces and a simultaneously warm and stern police presence. At no point in the church's more than 125-year history has it cast its shadow over such a procession of events.

Last week's community meeting highlighted the importance of grassroots outreach and localized involvement in matters of safety. Cleveland was collectively able to breathe when Berry, DeJesus and Knight were found alive. Other instances, including the infamous serial murders committed by Anthony Sowell and the recent east-side slayings of Christine Malone and Jazmine Trotter, have not been so bright.

"What should be a happy, smiling event seems to have a shadow over it. And that's a shame," Second District Commander Keith Sulzer said during the meeting. Cycles of intermittent pessimism and optimism flushed through the crowd. Lips pursed with concern mounted opinions before the microphone as the question-and-answer session started up.

Aaron Thomas, who lives just down the road from Seymour, said that he'd like to see even more involvement - compounding the already alert and visible qualities of the neighborhood.

"What I want to do is organize - or come to the conclusion of having everybody on the same level - to where we're playing on the same playing field, where all the information is shared the same way they've been coordinating law enforcement," Thomas said. "A child in trouble anywhere Cleveland is a problem - doesn't matter about neighborhoods."

Regardless of geography, the grassroots efforts of local block clubs are fomenting in the wake of last week's news. City Councilman Brian Cummins, whose ward encompasses Seymour Avenue and the coil of surrounding neighborhoods, said that the dozens of clubs throughout the area are incredibly active. And when it comes to ideals relating to safety, prevention and the cohesion that Thomas referenced, it's happening on the ground. It's happening informally and formally within local organizations.

One resounding takeaway from last week's community meeting came when a local resident offered this notion: "It's OK to be nosy." Another neighbor, paraphrased: All these children just became all your children. Following the May 6 rescue of three women on Seymour Avenue, Cleveland neighborhoods are turning inward.

Angel Lozada, who led an impromptu vigil on the street May 8, posited another powerful question: "What am I going to do to try to improve this community?"

It's a question that landed not only on the doorsteps of Clark-Fulton homes, but also at the offices of the police department's Second District team - and local law enforcement as a whole. Sulzer said that the district typically has one officer working missing persons cases.

"We try to do as much as possible. We reach out to the community for help," Calvin Williams, deputy chief of field operations, said. He added that, since 2006, there are 2,600 to 2,800 reports of missing persons each year in Northeast Ohio. "We find 99 percent of them," he said, crediting the community's insistence on getting the job done. In the cases of at least Berry and DeJesus, Williams noted: "[Their families] were on us at all times. They were giving us tips."

Those tips come via the vigilance of residents living life within the beating heart of a particular neighborhood. Locals have pointed to vacant structures, darkened lots and epicenters of public activity - schools, libraries, etc. - that do not have adequate camera surveillance as places of concern. Establishing neighborhood watches bolstered with real-time data and seeking city budget space and grant opportunities for lights, cameras and safety training fall under the collective goals of active residents.

"Let's move from celebration to inspiration. Inspire us to do something that's worth an ounce of prevention, which is worth more than a pound of cure," Thomas said.

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