Fourth Ward, Look West residents clean house and help curb crime
"Either the drug dealers go, or we go."
At that time, Burdette Erickson could look out his front door and point to seven houses he knew were drug houses. Cars idled four deep in the street, and people lined the sidewalks in front of drug houses "as if it was a wake," Erickson said.
Today, Erickson can sit on his big front porch and see nothing more exciting along the 100 block of South High Street than the stately pair of lions guarding his steps.
"I can sit on my porch and not see anyone for 30 minutes," Erickson said. "It used to be like downtown Chicago."
Erickson and his neighbors in Janesville's Fourth Ward neighborhood as well as some in the nearby Look West neighborhood are pleased with the noticeable reduction in drug traffic in their neighborhoods. They attribute much of the change to hard work by the Janesville Police Department and dedication among neighbors.
The changes don't appear to be anecdotal. Police in 2010 were dispatched to fewer calls in both neighborhoods, according to department data.
In 2010, police were called 4,629 times for service in the Fourth Ward, according to the data. That's an 18.7 percent reduction in calls from 5,692 calls in 2008.
Precise data for Look West was not available because police patrol areas do not neatly fit into the boundaries of the neighborhood. In the neighborhood's southern half—bounded by Court Street on the south, Oakhill Avenue on the west, Mineral Point Avenue on the north and the railroad tracks on the east—police were called 2,861 times in 2010. That's down 6.5 percent from than 3,060 calls in 2008.
In both neighborhoods, 2008 was the year with the most calls for service between 2006 and 2010, according to the data.
'It would be blatant'
Heidi Holden remembers when you could walk by and see drug deals at Washington Park in the Look West neighborhood.
"They were right out on the street," said Holden, a member of the Neighborhood Action Team that works in both neighborhoods. "It would be blatant. You could walk around the block and see the deals happening."
"You just don't see that anymore."
Neighbors see less foot traffic in and out of drug houses, a reduction in vandalism and fewer unsupervised kids out and about after dark, Holden said. Like Erickson, she attributes much of the change to the police department and the hard work of neighbors.
"When we call with our suspicions, when we say, 'This is what's going on, this is what we've seen,' they're being very proactive," Holden said. "And it's going away."
Look West neighbors this month started a neighborhood watch with the help of police, said Dale Hicks, a Look West resident who owns rental properties in both neighborhoods.
Hicks said even the acts of passing out fliers and holding the meeting have had a positive impact on the neighborhood. So has sharing information about suspected crimes with police.
Drug dealers don't want to be involved in a neighborhood that's proactive, he said.
Dedication and determination
It's been decades since a small group of dedicated neighbors took an oath in Erickson's basement to force crime out of the Fourth Ward.
They are not an organized neighborhood watch group but a handful of people who work together to lead the neighborhood efforts. They manage information from a net of more than 250 people who keep an eye on drug trafficking and other criminal activity in the Fourth Ward.
"Nothing happens down here but what many, many people know about it," Erickson said.
Such dedication has come at a price, he said.
"We have 10 people that are the most dedicated people in the world," Erickson said. "Nearly all of us have been threatened in some way. It has made us more determined that we will win and the drug dealers will lose."
Erickson remembers the first time he heard that someone from another city had moved into an old Fourth Ward home with plans to restore the building. It was so monumental he and the other committee members visited the new neighbor to ask, "Why?"
It was the same reason Erickson ignored his real estate agent's advice and moved into the Fourth Ward more than 20 years ago.
"I wanted the house," Erickson said.
Now, it's happening so often Erickson can't keep track. Families and individuals are moving in and restoring the neighborhood house by house. Families already living in the neighborhood are doing renovations on the outsides of their houses, he said.
One of the buyers is the city of Janesville, which has spent nearly $2 million buying and renovating or demolishing some of the worst houses in the city.
Kelly Lee is a neighborhood development specialist for the city. Among other things, she works with contractors to restore the city-owned homes. Attractive, well maintained neighborhoods deter crime, Lee said.
"You talk about broken window syndrome," Lee said. "If one window gets broken, it's contagious. We hope the rehabilitation is contagious."
Affordable housing certainly hasn't hurt the effort," Erickson said.
"The downturn in the economy has really helped us," he said.
'The way it's supposed to be'
The police department's job is to keep that momentum going, Police Chief Dave Moore said.
It's no secret Janesville has been struggling economically for the last few years, Moore said. Eventually, things will improve, and more businesses will look for places to expand, Moore said.
They might consider Janesville as long as the community maintains its reputation as being safe for families, he said. That's why the department has focused on the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods for several years, Moore said.
The city will be judged on its ability to keep those two neighborhoods safe, he said. People will perceive the crime rate for the entire city based on the crime rates in Look West and Fourth Ward, Moore said.
"We've got great schools, a beautiful community and beautiful parks," Moore said. "We see the police department's role is to keep the community safe. If Janesville remains safe, the jobs and citizens will come. If we don't keep Janesville safe, jobs and people will go somewhere else."
The department patrols all the neighborhoods in the city but pays special attention to the two inner-city neighborhoods that historically have a high number of poorly maintained rental properties and a history of street crime, Moore said.
In addition to extra patrols, police work closely with landlords, the city's code enforcement office, its public works department and with neighbors to keep a handle on things, he said. One officer oversees enforcement of the city's chronic nuisance ordinance, which focuses on houses with repeat offenses.
The extra focus is paying off, Erickson said.
Earlier this month, Erickson took two walks around the Fourth Ward. Each time he walked with a different neighbor.
"The most surprising thing we saw was that we didn't see one thing that disturbed us," Erickson said. "This is the way it's supposed to be."
To learn more
If you would like to participate in the Neighborhood Action Team, which promotes safety and positive events in the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods, call Kelly Lee at (608) 755-3052.
If you are interested in starting a Neighborhood Watch group with your neighbors, the Janesville Police Department can help. Call (608) 755-3100.