The Indianapolis Star * June 26, 2005


For city to be truly first class, it canít ignore these problems

Crime prevention: Carlos Trincado, a liaison to the Hispanic community, watches fellow IPD officer Jeff Sequin arrest a 19-year-old. The man wasn't a confirmed gang member, but a gang problem is emerging, especially among Westside Latinos. (Robert Scheer / Indianapolis Star)

Our position is: Grassroots efforts and more attention to communities from city and county governments are key to improving Marion County's quality of life.

The alleged crime spree of Terrance "Mob" Anderson was a wake-up call for Indianapolis and Marion County to the consequences of government shortchanging public safety.

For Christamore House Executive Director Olgen Williams, it's also a reminder of the price the city pays for ignoring quality-of-life issues that are as crucial -- if not more so -- than building the new Colts stadium and convention center expansion.

The glut of abandoned homes in many neighborhoods is not only an invitation to drug dealers and street prostitution, it also, in Williams' words, "makes you feel your neighborhood is trashy."

The lack of summer jobs and activities for teens -- along with lax supervision by parents -- guarantees another summer filled with "50 of them walking the streets at night waiting for the fight of the week." And worse.

Community policing can solve some of these ills. But not without cooperation from neighbors and landlords. The issue is especially critical as the city-county budget crunch may lead to police layoffs -- an even greater possibility if Mayor Bart Peterson's plan to consolidate the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department doesn't come to fruition.

Combined with the dropout crisis in Marion County public schools that fills the streets with virtually unemployable men and women, Williams says, "We can't ignore these issues and expect to remain a first-class city."

He's right. Letting this city -- our city -- crumble before our eyes is not an option.

Plague of abandoned houses

City Metropolitan Development Director Maury Plambeck rattles off how the city is trying to stamp out the plague of abandoned buildings: A Web site community groups can use to spot redevelopment opportunities. An "expedited tax sale" program where the city can sell foreclosed properties to interested buyers for the cost of back taxes. The county health department mowing weeds around eyesores.

The city is pulling together suits against owners with numerous abandoned property portfolios. A yearlong suit against the Aspen Group led to a settlement in April.

Then there are redevelopment plans such as Martindale on the Monon in which the Martindale-Brightwood Community Development Corp. is teaming with a developer to tear down or renovate 65 vacant homes. Some 1,500 houses in the city have been renovated between 2002 and 2004.

Yet Plambeck admits "there's lots of challenges."

Ruth Shaw, who has four abandoned homes in her immediate neighborhood on the Eastside, knows all too well. She has seen people break into the homes and "rip staircases down." One house on Rural Street, says Shaw, was the site of a double murder last year.

Since absentee owners will list a post office box or even the home's address as the place of business, it's difficult for her and her neighbors to locate them.

Traditional methods for prodding owners into action can be counterproductive. Fines or penalties for unpaid taxes may keep potential buyers away. Demolishing a home leaves an empty lot that still needs to be mowed and cleaned.

Some residents are able to pitch in and buy a property and then resell it to someone willing to rehab it, as one neighborhood did with a "treasured homes" project. The city should consider allowing properties to be sold sans liens or fines. Those debts would remain for the former owner to repay.

Certainly Indianapolis isn't Detroit, which is marred by 30,000 abandoned buildings. But the more than two-decade-long focus on Downtown -- which helped the city avoid the cratering experienced by its Midwestern rival -- will be for naught if the abandoned houses plaguing other areas aren't eradicated.

Time on their hands

Keeping teens busy has become as much a part of Christamore House's mission as tending to Haughville's poorest families.

Twenty of its charges, involved in the community leadership program, will spend part of the summer at a camp in Olive Branch, Miss., to learn about conflict management and other aspects of grassroots leadership. More athletically inclined young people will shoot hoops or practice boxing.

As a summer employer of last resort, Christamore keeps 20 teens on the payroll for tasks such as handing out balls and cold water to kids in nearby Haughville Park and running errands for the weed-and-seed community policing program.

Yet Christamore's tight budget means that Williams has a list of 20 kids whom he can't hire and "another one just called me." Save for the leadership and boxing programs, Christamore has little choice but to shut down at night.

Where do the teens go? Check out the streets of Haughville as Williams does -- or other Indianapolis neighborhoods -- and you can see them "out at night (getting) into fights. And for their good time, they have sex." So they get pregnant, go delinquent or die in the violent scenarios that have plagued the Eastside this year.

The decline in summer jobs in Indiana and the nation -- partly because poorly educated adults are taking those low-wage gigs -- has left many teens with little to do but to get into trouble. Parental neglect exacerbates the problem.

Year-round school schedules, which most school districts haven't embraced, would keep more kids off the street and stem dropouts. Perhaps hiring teens to mow around the 8,000 or so abandoned buildings littering the city or painting street curbs, as IPD Deputy Police Chief Darryl Pierce suggests, also would help.

Grassroots programs such as Christamore and Young Men Inc., a ministry for black males out of the Eastside, are helping. But how long can they struggle for money, sweat equity and for local government to take quality-of-life issues seriously?

Says Rev. Malachi Walker, who runs Young Men: "There's not enough attention and not enough support. I know it's going to get worse."

Crime fighting help

"There is no better crime fighter than a nosy neighbor," declares Pierce. He wishes he had more.

Considering the 13 murders that have bloodied the streets of the Eastside this year, more neighborhood involvement is crucial. With more nosy neighbors, the Eastside may not have led the city in alleged rapes (25), reported burglaries (153) and home burglaries (577) during the first four months of 2005.

But, police say, it's been tough to get renters -- and homeowners -- to participate in the neighborhood organnizations at the heart of community policing. Even if police succeed in coaxing landlords to stop renting to criminals, the owners may still rent to people who won't take care of the property.

As former Near Eastside Community Organization president Josh Bowling points out, it's one reason why areas such as the Rivoli, where 16-year-old Tyric Rudolph was allegedly murdered by Terrance Anderson earlier this month, are in "a hard fight."

City-county government's struggles with the abandoned building problem also extend to crime-fighting. The lag time between sniffing out an abandoned site and having it sold or demolished means police officers may visit the same property over and over again to clear out vagrants or drug dealers.

Then there's the city's emerging gang problem, especially the Latino gangs on the Westside. Olgen Williams finds kids have to be told "to smile and don't flash their gang signs" before taking a group photo. To stem the tide, he's expanding his "community works" anti-violence program into George Washington Community School this fall.

But Williams, Bowling, Malachi Walker and other grassroots leaders can no longer do it alone. And Marion County government can no longer continue to shortchange public safety or maintaining quality of life. After all, a new stadium alone does not a first-class city make.