By Seth Daniel
There are eight alleys in the Eight Streets, all of which can easily be forgotten.
For years, they were just that, full of trash, forgotten and a haven for criminals like drug dealers and other n’er do wells.
However, over the last eight years – and especially in recent years – those alleys have been cleaned up and given a fresh set of eyes so that police, fire and first responders can more easily utilize them and neighbors can act proactively in preventing crime.
“There are Eight Streets in our neighborhood and that means there are eight alleys behind them,” said Michael Almond, president of the Eight Street Neighborhood Association. “Each one of the alleys has had at least one walk through now. In the beginning of the program, we were getting a dumpster full of trash out every time we did a walk through and clean up. Garbage attracts more garbage, so cleaning them up was the first step. It has resulted now in cleaner alleys, a successful partnership, safer alleys and crime prevention…They are really a real focal point for crime. That’s why the Police Department is very keen to work with us. They have looked at the crime statistics and they say this is really helping them. It has done its job in reducing crime. We have confirmed that.”
Edgar Brenninkmeyer, who lives in a brownstone with an alley off of Ringgold Park, said he moved in this past August, and was quick to join in the effort when neighbors told him about the walk-throughs and the program.
“Other neighbors have told me that it does result in people being more thoughtful,” he said. “Occasionally we find trash and we will pick it up and make sure this is clean. The goal is to have no one coming in this alley anymore who shouldn’t be here. I hope it never happens, but these alleys can also be a critical pathway to survival in a fire.”
The alleys are a vestige of the old Victorian past in the South End.
About two feet wide and surrounded on both sides by tall fences, the alleys were originally made for servants to enter and exit the house – as well as for deliveries to come into the house. That was, of course, in the days when servants and deliveries weren’t to be seen going through the front door. Naturally, those days are long gone, but the alleyways persevere and it had gotten to a point where they weren’t safe for police and they were attracting criminals.
Because they are private property, owned 50-50 by the neighbors on either side, the City had no right to go in and take control of them. Neighbors were oblivious to them and some didn’t even know that the alleys were their property.
Others simply dared not go back there.
Almond said they found washing machines, construction debris, and other unthinkable types of items when they first started the effort, and needed help from the City.
That’s when Community Service Officer Richard Litto stepped in to establish the ‘Operation Safe Alley’ program. Over the past eight years, he has been working with neighbors to hang address signs on the back gates, to install peepholes in the back gates and to put up lights (not with motion sensors) that are on from dusk to dawn.
He said they began to notice a need for more attention to the alleys when officers would cover the back door during an incident. Back in the alleys, it was dangerous and police had no idea which building was which.
“A police officer has to cover the rear of the building when we respond,” he said. “Quite often officers would say they were at a certain address and the officer in the back didn’t know which building they were in. It became a little unnerving being back there and not knowing where the other officer was or where the victim might be. We decided to proactively talk to residents to have them volunteer to put numbers on their back gates. I’ve never had anyone say ‘no.’”
From there, Officer Litto said neighbors were interested in doing more, and so were the police.
Over coffee and hot chocolate, they refined the idea to become Operation Safe Alley.
“I would get together with neighbors and we would all walk through the alley together,” he said. “I would point out things like lighting and the best kinds of lighting. We want to get away from motion sensor lights because a bad person will just unscrew the bulb and wait to see if anyone checks on it. People are buying into it. We have a great neighborhood. People really care so it’s easy to put the time in.”
He noted that on streets like Dwight Street, he has a 95 percent compliance rate.
Additionally, Litto goes door to door asking about the address numbers, offering to help if need be. He also does the same thing with peepholes, offering to install a medium-sized peephole on the back gate if neighbors buy it for him.
“The whole thing is good and we have taken these steps because it helps us police the neighborhood,” Litto said. “Believe it or not, they’re doing police work by preventing crime. Crime prevention does work. These measures in the alleys show people that when they walk down an alley and its clean, and the gate has a number and the lights are on – it sends a clear message to bad guys that people care and are looking out the back window. I always say, ‘Every window has a set of eyes.’ There are more eyes than cameras out there.”
Almond said many other agencies have joined in to give advice and help too. All of it, he said, is a positive example of how to work together for the better.
“It does work and it’s a great example of a combination of bringing neighbors together with the Police Department and the City Public Works and others. It’s a great example of getting three independent bodies working together with neighbors to conquer this one objective.”
Any neighbors with such private or public alleys are encouraged to call the D-4 Community Service office to learn more about Operation Safe Alley.