Gates in Dayton Fortress a Diverse Neighborhood

Strategically placed street barricades discourage crime, encourage peace and quiet

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Patrick Donnelly no longer wakes up in the middle of the night to the rattle of gunfire. Karen Ipsaro, who lives a few houses down on Wroe Street in the tree-shaded Five Oaks neighborhood, sleeps through the night too. ''I don't know where the druggies went,'' she says, ''but they aren't here anymore.''

Mr. Donnelly says the main reason for the nightly silence and the disappearance of drug deals can be seen at the end of his street. It's not a new police station or community center or Little Gadget Inc. with 200 new jobs.

Blocking the street where Wroe intersects with Five Oaks Avenue is a 6-foot-high, wrought-iron fence. Several red-brick columns, decorated with bas-relief oak leaves, hold it in place.

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The fence is a line drawn in the urban sand. It is a last ditch effort by many neighbors and the Dayton, Ohio, city council to hold back the crime, prostitution, and drug dealing that were creeping deeper into the residential Five Oaks area.

To many residents it works like a wrought-iron charm. Defined as ''barricades,'' ''gates,'' or ''street closings,'' 35 of these cul-de-sacs are strategically placed throughout the 10-block-square neighborhood.

Another 28 smaller wrought-iron versions have turned a dozen back alleys into a tricky maze. Foot traffic still flows unimpeded.

'Defensible space' works

A new University of Dayton study concludes that since the street closings were put in place near the end of 1992, all crime in the racially integrated neighborhood has dropped 26 percent (and dropped in surrounding neighborhoods by 2 percent). Traffic has been cut by 67 percent. Most people here say they feel safer.

''Everything is calmer,'' says Donald Eyler, who lives on Salem Street. ''It's better for kids, and I don't see as many drug deals on the streets now.'' Gunshots are seldom heard anymore, perhaps the result of the louder community message that came with the street closings, residents say. The fences make access and escape difficult for cars in search of drug deals or revenge with a bullet.

''Cars used to travel Wroe at 50 miles an hour,'' says Donnelly, a University of Dayton sociologist and co-author of a 1993 city report on the effects of the closings.

Donnelly and his wife have five children. Their two-story house, like most houses in the area, was built in the 1920s with a porch, ample rooms, and a lawn under full green trees. ''We thought of moving,'' he says. ''Then the city realized that if a racially integrated neighborhood was overwhelmed by crime, there would probably be a domino effect.''

Several highly publicized police drug strikes temporarily slowed crime. ''But prostitutes were coming into the area, and there was plenty of outside traffic stopping at the drug houses,'' Donnelly says, seated in the quiet of his front porch. ''In 1980, the census report said that 15 percent of the people living here were below the poverty line,'' he says, ''and by 1990 the figure was 25 percent.''

New York urban planner Oscar Newman defines Five Oaks as a successful example of his ''defensible space'' proposal, a concept based on comparing the lack of community in high-rise areas to the safer, friendlier atmosphere of smaller low-rise, neighborhoods.

Mr. Newman, given a $700,000 contract by the Dayton City Council to build the fences, claims that dividing a big neighborhood into mini-neighborhoods increases neighborliness.

''There is a trend in the US to have gated communities,'' Newman says, ''but the suburban kind, with a guard controlling access, is a withdrawal action. In Dayton, the residents took back the local streets for themselves and the community.''

Not everyone here is in favor of the divide, however. On Harvard Street, the road that carries the brunt of traffic in and out of the area now, angry residents scoff at the increased traffic. ''It's so noisy here, I have to sleep in the back of the house,'' says Sheila Jackson. ''And to park my car in the garage behind the house, I have to drive six blocks because of the gates.''

Across the way, Tawana Mathews says the street is dangerous for the children at play. ''Look at the cars,'' she says pointing to the passing cars on the narrow street, made narrower by cars parked on both sides. ''We've had a lot of cars bashed here in hit and runs,'' she says. ''Listen, the drug dealers are on bicycles now. The fences haven't stopped them.''

''That's the first I've heard that,'' says Dayton Police officer Chelley Seibert. ''Certainly drug dealing has not been eliminated there, but a ... city report indicates that violent crime in Five Oaks dropped by 50 percent. The project is a success for Dayton.''

Although 93 percent of the Five Oak residents, and all the landlords, favored the street closings when the proposal was Page 1 news here, some residents see the street closings as barricades built for racial reasons. In the early months, locks were cut, graffiti was sprayed on the gates, and even a truck or two was rammed into them. Now such acts are rare.

Neighborhood diversity

According to Donnelly, Five Oaks is 52 percent white and 46 percent black. Drive around the streets, and one finds that rundown houses and apartments tend to be on the same streets, and well-cared for houses on others. ''I know [street closings] do not deal with the real causes of crime,'' Donnelly says, ''but they do stabilize the neighborhood, and allow time to deal with the real problems.''

As part of the street closings, the city offered residents matching funds of up to $2,000 to repair houses. If someone wanted to buy a home in the Five Oaks area, the city offered to pay closing costs.

''The money dried up after the first year,'' Donnelly says, ''but I think banks are much friendlier now if you want to buy a house here.'' He says Five Oaks housing values have edged up about 15 percent since 1992.

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