On Thursday, two facilities integral to the Year of Boulevard initiative debuted. They represent opposing ends of the proverbial spectrum of challenges faced on the corridor.
At noon, a ribbon was cut on the “neighborhood safety center,” a unit in the Village of Bedford Pines apartment complex that will be used for, among other activities, processing arrests. An hour later, politicos, police, and neighborhood organizers toured the new digs of an after-school and summer program and listened as adorable kids sang an anti-drug anthem.
The neighborhood safety center is a lower-level unit in an apartment building at the corner of Boulevard and Angier—across the street from a park notorious for drug deals. As the ribbon-cutting ceremony was getting underway, police stood on the sidewalk in front of the building and curious residents clustered on the upper balconies. A few men sat on benches in the park and watched the proceedings. Neighbors walking up Boulevard stopped to look around. A few joined the gathering on the lawn in front of the podium; others parked strollers under the big shade trees.
Tiesha Smith, who lives in an upper-level apartment in the building with her seven-month-old daughter, said she wasn’t 100 percent sure what was going to happen in the new unit, but she had heard it would be "some kind of police precinct.” Whatever it is, “it makes me will feel safer,” she said. There was a shooting at the park just a few weeks ago; she said she hoped the new center would stop that kind of thing from happening.
The space was donated by Wingate Management, the company that owns and operates the Village of Bedford Pines—a sprawling complex of dozens of buildings and more than 700 federally subsidized housing units. The safety center will be used by APD, the Old Fourth Ward Restorative Justice Board (a community court that hears quality-of-life and other cases), Next Step Staffing (which helps former offenders find jobs), and other nonprofit groups. Bringing cops and social services groups onto its property is a big step for Wingate. Equally significant was attendance at the ribbon cutting by leaders of neighborhood associations that border the Village of Bedford Pines. While it will take years to measure the Year of Boulevard's long-term effectiveness, the new collaboration between groups that used to spend their time criticizing each other is a major shift. “We’ve been in a no-man’s zone for years. Now we’re not,” said Wingate vice president Gene Lockard.
Back in January, when the Year of Boulevard initative was announced, the plan was to designate this unit as an APD processing center. The scope of what will be done in the two-bedroom apartment has been expanded to include services geared at preventing crime, not just policing it. “This space is not about a place to arrest people. It’s a place to help people get on the right track, to provide services,” said Kwanza Hall when the ceremony got underway. His city council counterpart, Michael Julian Bond, said everyone—APD, the churches, Wingate, and neighbors—would “stand together shoulder to shoulder.” Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner said, “We’re not just talking about strengthening the Boulevard corridor. We’re doing the work.” Everyone applauded, the ribbon was cut, and TV cameras rolled.
Shelbra Trimble, who’s lived in the Village for eight years, said she’s “praying for change—not just more talking.” She has noticed that fewer people hang out in the streets and there's less open dealing than a few years ago, but she still doesn’t feel safe living on Boulevard. "But I want to see something real happen—and last. For myself and my grandchildren."
“They’re all just fronting,” said her neighbor, Tela Gunder, waving an elaborately manicured hand in the direction of the politicians and TV reporters. “They just like doing this, don’t worry about us after they walk away.” She’s lived in the Village for four years and has three children, aged six, three, and one. She doesn’t let her kids go outside alone. I asked her what she’d tell councilmember Hall to make a priority for the Year of Boulevard. “Make sure that the apartments are maintained and the area is safe,” she answered. A few nights ago, she said, she and her kids were outside and heard bullets. “We had to hide under a car.”
If the public safety center at Boulevard and Angier represents a newly concerted effort to correct misdeeds by adults, a few blocks away, efforts to stop the next generation from getting into trouble in the first place were showcased. Guests toured the spiffy new home of Operation P.E.A.C.E. The former Sylvester Baptist sanctuary has been renovated into bright classrooms. There’s a play area in the back, and kids lined the fences and stood on risers to put on a show for the visitors.
Given where we'd all just come from, it was unnerving when the program opened with the COPS “Bad Boys” theme and a little skit in which one kid, neatly dressed in blue, pretended to arrest a saggy-pantsed fellow camper. The real cops in attendance laughed. The kids and their counselors then went into the “D.A.R.E.” anti-drug chant: D, I won’t do drugs/A, won’t have an attitude/R, I will respect myself/ E, I will educate me. The adult guests clapped in time and applauded loudly when the song was done.
I walked back to my car, passing Boulevard-Angier Park. There were still TV crews in front of the safety center. In the park, the group at the benches had grown. A few small kids played as the adults talked.