In the year 2002 P.S.L. (Post-Stan Lee), I have heard friends and neighbors murmuring, "Where are our superheroes?"
And not without good reason. Now, I'm not even referencing the D.C. sniper here I'm thinking about the everyday, petty crime
that residents of the city are all too familiar with: prowlers lurking in petunia beds, basement windows jimmied open, VCRs absconded with, car windshields smashed, purses snatched. It's enough to make you wish that some brawny guy in a cape, some self-styled Civic Avenger, would swoop down and clean up the streets. But as someone once pointed out to me, real thieves bear no resemblance to their comic book counterparts. They don't wear diamond masks or carry big bags of stolen loot in bags marked "$" and if there are real superheroes in this world, they probably don't have giant letters on their chests, clefts in their chins, or the ability to fly.
Though Floyd Wright would probably modestly brush off any comparison to a superhero, there's no denying that his crime-fighting skills are well-practiced and finely honed. Wright is a former schoolteacher who owns and rehabs apartments in the Southwest Garden District, and has been a property owner here since '79, a resident since '85. In the years that he's lived in the neighborhood, he's seen it go through various cycles, some of them good and some of them not so good. In fact, he witnessed those fluctuations firsthand as captain of the Shaw-DeTonty Block Association, and in the late '80s, he and his neighbors managed to reduce crime in their neighborhood almost to nil. They didn't do it by flying around, throwing punches, or hanging crooks off a streetlight until the police arrived; they merely organized a foot patrol, and spent their nights walking around the block in pairs with a high-powered flashlight and walkie-talkies, keeping an eye on the streets.
Twenty years ago, Wright says that "things were a little rougher, even just to the north," of the Garden District. From his description, you couldn't so much as leave a rake on your porch overnight without it disappearing but that wasn't the half of it.
"Where the McRee Town neighborhood office is now," he explains, "at the time, it was a restaurant that was known to be a place to fence stolen merchandise and sell drugs. It was a very dangerous place, and we were just under the viaduct from that, in what at that time was the Shaw Neighborhood. So we were constantly trying to fend off people who were wanting to invade our homes."
It was one invader of homes in particular that galvanized Wright and his neighbors. During the summer of '85, a prowler was taking advantage of the fact that people opened their windows at night to let in the cooler air. He'd climb through the window (which was sometimes opened only six or eight inches), and then rob the residents at gunpoint. Though Wright is relieved, in retrospect, that the man wasn't a rapist ("that would have just finished us [the neighborhood] off, I'm afraid," he sighs), it eventually got to the point where residents felt they had to do something. Though people were initially split on the issue some of them wanted to wait it out until the police caught the man Wright says that after "seeing the people who were traumatized in this way, and talking to them and seeing their faces, it just made us determined, and we rallied."
They asked the police and Operation Safe Street for help, and "learned the rules and followed the rules," on how to be a citizen crime-fighter. Mostly, Wright says, that involved just walking the streets at night watching for suspicious activity, being careful not to challenge someone in a threatening way, both for their own safety and the civil rights of the person. Neighbors would go out in pairs beginning at 9 o'clock, and would continue in shifts until 3 a.m. Wright says that because he was a teacher and had his summers off, he was the perfect person to go out on the late, late shift, since he didn't have to get up for work in the morning. But, he says, there were other people who he feels made even bigger contributions to the cause.
"We had a very strong person who I'm going to give credit to," Wright adds. "Carla Robertson. She was then in her fifties, she was still working at Allied Health Care as an accountant, so she was not a military type of person. She owned a building on the corner of Shaw and Newstead, a four-family, just like many of us, had made her dream as part of multiple-family housing. She didn't want to lose her tenants or her neighbors, and she didn't want to be run off, and I didn't want to be run off, and our neighbors didn't." Robertson volunteered to operate the home patrol base, which meant that she stayed up until the last, late shift had been covered so that if someone radioed her for help she could call the police. Without home base, Wright says, there would have been no foot patrol.
"Mind you, this woman worked during the day," Wright says. "And then napped a little bit, and then catnapped during the night. She and her friends took turns being there by the base, while the volunteers went out and walked the block."
Luckily, Robertson never had to make a 911 call, though later that summer Wright and another neighbor met the prowler who had been terrorizing Shaw all summer. They spotted a man wearing a windbreaker, even though it was a warm night. "He just appeared on the block," Wright remembers, "and he just kept walking around the block." That night, the mobile patrol was in a car, and they continued to circle and keep an eye on him as he continued to lurk. Finally, Wright, in the most non-confrontational way possible, asked the man if he needed help finding an address.
"He made up some address he was looking for, and he eventually gave up on our ever leaving," Wright says, adding that soon after, the man went over to Alfred and Shaw and zoomed off in his car, leaving by way of the highway ramp. He did not, however, zoom away quickly enough: the foot patrol managed to take down his license plate number, and he was apprehended soon afterwards.
"I would say that our block unit was the key to our survival," Wright says emphatically. "We had a great pioneer attitude."
Wright adds that one of the most inspiring things about the experience was that everyone in the neighborhood banded together: building owners, elderly residents, and tenants. "Some of the people who knew they wouldn't be here for a long, long time because they weren't vested as owners," he says, "but they said they didn't want to be run off, they wanted to live here in this part of the city."
And due to their combined efforts and untiring walks around the block, the word got out: you don't mess with this neighborhood.
"We literally dried out our pedestrian invasion," he says proudly. "They didn't come our way again for at least another year or so because of this non-aggressive but very visible effort that we made. We were just observing without harassment, but by doing that, slowly people who were just prowling quit doing it. It was so effective, eventually things got so much better that we didn't do it."
Though they've had to do some follow-up patrol efforts since then, Wright says that the neighborhood is exponentially more stable than it was when he first moved here. An unabashed supporter of city living, Wright convinced his elderly parents, his sister and her family and several teacher friends to move to the neighborhood as well, and he's excited that they "share the vision."
"We had some good crime fighters in Shaw neighborhood who are just great," Wright adds brightly. "We're still here because of our successful efforts in the past."
Wright, who currently serves as Second Vice President for the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association, has two pieces of advice for the next generation of neighborhood crime fighters. To get assistance with your own block foot patrol, call City Hall (314-622-4000) and ask them to connect you with Operation SafeStreets, who can help you get started. In addition, Wright advises people to call police whenever there's a crime on their block, because "[the police] have a huge territory, and they tend to not see a particular neighborhood; they keep wanting to go back to a non-descript map and the dots on the map." If you don't call, it's not logged into their computer, and you won't have many police hours assigned to your area. Also of note: the City of St. Louis is in the process of setting up a "Safe City" website, which will feature online crime mapping and other electronic crime-fighting tools.
Stefene Russell is a St. Louis freelance writer.