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Neighborhoods Wed Jan 29 2014
Public Citizen is a series about how the people of Chicago connect with their government and their city. Get involved: leave your two cents on our next story about the return of EveryBlock, leave a comment or tweet thoughts to @miketewing.
His neighbors were just robbed. Again. Steve Niketopoulos asked how they were keeping up. They felt less safe in their home, they said. Talking with the police afterwards made them feel even more confused and guilty. Like it was their fault.
Another neighbor told him she came home one day to find a man hanging halfway out of a window. When the police came, they asked why the windows didn't have bars them. She felt guilty for being unprepared.
Steve had heard enough.
"I felt like if there were going to be police officers who didn't make people feel safe, we should do it ourselves," he said.
So he turned to a new tool to address an age-old problem: Facebook. Founding the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Watch group, he invited his neighbors to share their experiences and learn how to better protect themselves from crime.
"You think that technology separates people, but we're finding you can use social media to create a local scene," he said.
The community response was immediate- hundreds of people from throughout Ukrainian Village over the summer of 2011. Today the group has over 2,000 members.
It's interesting what happens when neighbors can connect with one another instantly.
"Did I just hear gun shots?"
With such an atmosphere of fear around Chicago's gang problem, every loud bang in the night sounds ominous. Calling 911 gets police on the scene- usually- but there's no way of knowing what happened afterwards. Worst case scenario, there's a story about a shooting in the news the next day. But so often people never find out if they should have been concerned in the first place.
These neighborhood watch groups close the loop between the police and the community, helping neighbors track crimes in real time. In the case of suspected gunshots, a quick post can often elicit feedback from someone living right next to the source of the sound. As people weigh in, it often becomes apparent if it was something to worry about, or more likely, someone shooting off fireworks to celebrate a Blackhawks victory.
It's no substitute for 911, but people still get a clearer idea of what's happening in their neighborhood.
I found another common use of the groups myself one day, after discovering a pit bull puppy wandering near my house. Bringing it inside, I had no idea what to do next. She had no collar and no microchip, so there was no way for me to find if she had a home. The only other option was taking her to a shelter. But hours after posting a description of the dog to my neighborhood's group, I heard from a friend of the owner. Turns out, she lived less than a block away. Niketopoulos estimates between 40 and 50 pets found their way home through the groups.
It's still the Internet, though, so there's the occasional flare ups over racial or social issues. But by limiting the group to posts of firsthand experiences (and booting people who get out of control), Niketopoulos keeps the groups focused on the issues at hand.
"If you light a spark and give everyone an opportunity to meet or do something collectively, the people that show up get a lot out of it," Niketopoulos explained.
For Niketopoulos, the biggest victory came this past summer, when members of the group contacted him about a woman they noticed spending all day at a bus stop. For three days she was just sitting there, waiting. Steve finally approached her and she said she was fine, just waiting for someone to bring her a bus ticket.
She was just in Philadelphia, she said, trying to see the Liberty Bell before she died. But on her way back to Seattle someone stole her purse, leaving her stranded in Chicago. A stranger had promised to get her a ticket back home. She had no options other than waiting there on the bench for him to come back.
Sitting in the hot sun began to take its toll on her, and the police and fire department were called. But she refused any help, so there was nothing they could do. Steve finally got a hold of the person who was supposed to bring her the ticket, who said he actually couldn't afford to help her.
So Steve put it to the group: would they be willing to pitch in to help send this woman home? Within an hour and a half he had enough money to buy her a bus ticket to Seattle.
"People really want to feel like they're part of a community."
These informal networks used to exist in neighborhoods through more traditional institutions. Churches and generations of people living in the same neighborhood brought families together. But today, these networks are smaller, their ties are weaker. More formal groups, like neighborhood associations and chambers of commerce, often have agendas tied into pet projects and city politics.
But these groups tap into an old instinct- the desire to live in a community- in a new way. If we date online, why not meet our neighbors online as well? Why not use social media for purposes closer to home?
Here are some links to Neighborhood Watch Groups on Facebook. Is your neighborhood organizing online? Leave a comment and share a link.
Bucktown Neighborhood Watch [linked removed at the request of the group]
East Humboldt Park Neighborhood Watch
Logan Square Neighborhood Watch
Noble Square Neighborhood Watch
Ukranian Village Neighborhood Watch
Wicker Park Neighborhood Watch