Safeguarding Streets, a Block at a Time

How one woman's leadership helped rid some tough Boston neighborhoods of crime and blight

Maria Alamo chased her dream of a better life from Puerto Rico to Boston 14 years ago. But the life she found in Boston's inner-city neighborhoods was nothing like she envisioned.

She found crack houses, prostitutes roaming the streets, and vacant lots filled with trash and abandoned cars.

Often the streets were "so noisy you couldn't sleep at night," says the tiny, dynamic woman. But Ms. Alamo, a single mother of two grown children, was prepared to fight for her dream. She went door to door asking neighbors to help. "Some of them were scared at first. But 10 or 12 people came to our first meeting in my dining room," she recalls.

Out of that gathering, a sense of community developed. Over the years, Alamo has formed seven different "block watches" on streets where she's lived. Each time, transforming the neighborhood.

Earlier this month, in recognition of her efforts, Mayor Thomas Menino named Alamo Boston's "Crime Fighter of the Year."

"Maria Alamo has improved the quality of life for many residents of the neighborhoods her work has touched," says Judith Wright of the Boston Police Department's Neighborhood Crime Watch Unit. "The ripple effect is that we all feel a little safer as a result of her remarkable work."

A national model

Alamo's efforts, and those of others like her, are credited with helping reduce crime rates here to the lowest levels in 30 years. In fact, US Attorney General Janet Reno has heralded Boston's community-policing approach as a model for the rest of the nation. And the efforts by individual residents are a crucial component of this success, experts say.

"Block watches are terribly important," says George Kelling, professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University. "It was the block watches that focused on problems of disorder, drunken youths in parks, public urination and defecation - all those low-level problems we now know are associated with and precursors of serious crimes."

The idea for the police department's block watches sprang from a model created by Christopher Hayes, who is now director of the department's Neighborhood Crime Watch Unit.

A native Bostonian, Mr. Hayes lived in an inner-city neighborhood where people moved frequently. It evolved into a block of strangers, and street crimes proliferated. He lobbied his neighbors to form a sort of extended family on their city block.

"We thought very small," Hayes says. "If you take your block and make that block safe, that's the most important thing in your life."

Now, Hayes and his program coordinators help anyone in the city who wants to form a block watch. "In my 12 years with the police department, we've carried that message 3,000 times to meetings in living rooms, and out of that we've helped to ... empower people on 930 blocks," Hayes says.

Alamo is a big help in taking the message to the area around Forbes Street in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, where she lives in a white triple-decker with cherry-red trim. During a walk down her long block, Alamo - who stands under five feet even in three-inch heels - points out some of the changes that came about because of the block watch.

Drug dealers who did business a couple of doors away are gone now. The block watch kept a log of what happened at the dealers' house and gave it to the police.

Further down, the backyard of a private school faces Forbes Street. Alamo says the bushes were once higher than the chain-link fence that surrounds the barren property. It was very dark at night. Young people congregated there, drinking beer and smoking "reefer."

The block watch contacted the school, asked them to remove the shrubs, install lights, and clean up the lot.

Watching their garden grow

Across from the schoolyard, a community garden with small rectangular plots of peppers, tomatoes, and sunflowers fills a vacated lot that four years ago was filled with trash and old cars. A small group is holding a community "mulching" meeting in front of three small plots that have been set aside for children to garden.

"White people, Hispanics, and others have come together here and blossomed," Alamo says. "You can see people share. They water for one another here, share gardening tips."

At the grand opening of the garden earlier this summer, Alamo, who is soft-spoken but tough, asked Boston's mayor if the block watch could have another vacant lot at the opposite end of the block. They intend to turn that lot into a playground for the 75 children who live on the street.

"With Maria's help, we'll get it accomplished," says Eduardo Aponte, while working on his car in the street.

The father of two small children who has lived on Forbes Street for 15 years, Mr. Aponte says they've accomplished a lot since organizing. "The biggest difference is that we're more together." He notes that besides cleaning up the drug dealers and creating a garden, the street has brighter lights and the police added speed limit signs.

As if on cue, Sgt. Larry Van Zandt, the community-policing officer assigned to the neighborhood, drives by and waves as the children on the street shout hellos.

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