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Celebration emboldens residents to stand together against gangs

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take-back-pine.jpgBy Nick Diamantides
Staff Writer

It was more than just a group of residents cleaning up their neighborhood and having an outdoor party. It was adults and children who are normally afraid to walk on their own sidewalks gathering together to say, “We are taking back our neighborhood!”
That’s what the “Wrigley Taking Back Pine Avenue” cleanup and celebration was all about, and organizers are hoping it was the beginning of a movement that will sweep through every gang-infested neighborhood in the city, reduce crime, remove blight, and replace fear with a sense of safety. The event took place last Saturday in a roughly three-block area of Pine Avenue just north of Pacific Coast Highway.
The event began at 9 a.m. when about 60 residents showed up to join forces with Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) officers to pick up trash and debris, cut back weeds and other overgrown vegetation, just generally tidy up the area and set things up for the block party that was to begin at noon. That celebration included a disk jockey who played very danceable tunes for the revelers, an inflated “bounce house” for the younger children, and basketball hoops for older kids.
Police officers mingled with the crowd, played basketball with local youth, grilled, and distributed hot dogs, chips and soft drinks. Meanwhile, teenagers and adults enjoyed free rides on the battery-powered scooters known as segues, and families received bags filled with fresh groceries donated by Albertson’s market.
One of the event’s organizers, Lillian Parker, was instrumental in the grocery donation and did much of the behind-the-scenes planning for the cleanup and block party. “Our goal today is to reduce crime and to let the people who live here know they’re not alone,” she said. “I am very glad to see so many people coming together with a common goal.” Parker is a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Group (NAG), the Wrigley Association and the Central Neighborhood Advisory Committee. All three organizations and a host of others pooled their resources to make the event happen.
Another organizer, P.G. Herman (member of NAG and the Wrigley Association), said that more than 400 people attended the block party and about 125 of them volunteered to do the work throughout the day. “Some worked different shifts and different duties ranging from clean-up, set-up for block party, supervising and managing the block party and break-down,” she said. “We even had those that went to encourage residents to come out of their homes and participate with us!” Herman noted that she was amazed by the team spirit exhibited by so many.
She added that the day would not have been possible without the participation of various city departments, city council offices, private organizations and nearby businesses that eagerly supported the effort to bring positive changes to the area. Herman stressed, however, that special thanks had to be given to the LBPD. “They’re the ones who insured our safety, cooked the hotdogs, served the food, played basketball with the kids and interacted with the crowd,” she explained.
LBPD Lieutenant Joe Levy was the department’s lead organizer for the event. “This is a wonderful example of city departments, police officers and people in a community getting together to make a difference,” he said. “What is powerful for me is to see all the kids playing outside; I haven’t seen that here in a long time.”
Lieutenant Robert Smith agreed. “The kids are having a good time, and they feel safe,” he said.
Smith heads the LBPD’s West Division-directed enforcement team (DET), which had been making law enforcement sweeps in the vicinity of Pine Avenue and PCH for several weeks prior to the event. The sweeps-often under the direct supervision of Sergeant Richard Conant-resulted in the arrests of several gang members, drug dealers and other violent criminals. The sweeps and the very strong LBPD presence on Saturday dispelled the fears of many residents in the area who normally would be afraid to be seen talking with a cop, for fear of retaliation from gang members.
“It’s not just about law enforcement,” Smith explained. “It’s about working with the community and establishing relationships with the people who live here.” He noted that during the cleanup and block party, many police officers had friendly, one-on-one conversations with people who live in that area. Smith said he believes those conversations will encourage residents to become confidential witnesses who report crime and suspicious activity to the police.
Levy said the LBPD aims to sustain the atmosphere of safety in the area but needs to know about illegal activities in order to do so. “We can only succeed with the help of the community,” he emphasized.
Another event participant agreed that the police and residents need to work together to get violent offenders off the streets, but she said that teaching non-violence to young people is an equally important tactic in the efforts to make communities safer. “We need to teach adults to model this (nonviolent) behavior so children can learn how to behave,” said Claudette Parker Powers, peace ambassador for Peace Partners Inc., a Long Beach-based nonprofit group. Parker Powers explained that the organization teaches a nonviolence curriculum to schools and other organizations that work with children from pre-school to 12th grade. She stressed that preventing violence before it happens is preferable to reacting to it afterwards.
Sixth District City Councilman Dee Andrews, who also helped organize the event, said teaching nonviolence and strong law enforcement efforts had to be united. “That’s what we’re doing today,” he said. “We’re telling the adults this is your street-it doesn’t belong to the gangs. And we’re telling the kids ‘take our love and acceptance, you don’t have to join a gang.'”
Herman noted that at the end of the day, most people felt that the event had put things in motion that would make that section of Pine Avenue and the surrounding areas safer places to live. ” We hope to do similar cleanups and parties at least quarterly to encourage and sustain those significant changes,” she said.

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Celebration emboldens residents to stand together against gangs