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A Different Approach to Crime Prevention

March 4, 2011

It was considered a triumph of community organizing when the small park on the 2300 block of N. 5th Street called Rainbow de Colores was built in the 1970s. Local residents banded together to convince the city to build the facility, and they committed to maintaining the facility as well.

Priscilla Preston was one of those neighbors. Like other local parents, she hoped the park would be a clean, safe place for her children to play.

And for a while, it was.

But then metal scrappers began pillaging the park, busting up play equipment and selling it off piece by piece. And it didn’t take long for drug dealers and users to figure out that the poorly-lit park was an ideal after-hours place to do business.

Eventually, Rainbow de Colores was transformed from a small neighborhood treasure into a drain on local quality of life.

“Neighborhoods do change. You put a lot of effort into trying to keep your community intact, but the drug traffic really brought this area down,” Preston said. “It was a beautiful idea turned bad.”

But not for much longer. The reclamation of Rainbow de Colores begins in April.

In cooperation with a host of community groups, the City of Philadelphia is planning an extensive overhaul of the troubled park that includes the installation of new fencing, solar-powered lighting, new play equipment including a sprayground for young children and handicap accessible ramps, among other improvements.

“It will be a place that’s clear and bright and secure so that people know this is no longer a place that will be overrun at night by bad elements,” said Justin DiBerardinis, aide to Councilwoman María D. Quiñones-Sánchez.

News of the park’s renovation was shared with community residents at a meeting on the evening of Feb. 17. When DiBerardinis told the crowd that the park would be open to the public by June, attendees seemed stunned.

“When they said that, I was truly ecstatic. I really was. I’m going to bring by great-granddaughter to that park,” Preston said.

Although the city is funding most of the renovations, DiBerardinis made it clear that the onus is on the community to keep the park clean and well-maintained, and more important, to claim the park as its own. That includes everything from locking the park’s gates each night to holding frequent family-friendly events there to make it plain that “this park belongs to the community now, not the drug dealers,” DiBerardinis said.

To that end, community members at the meeting broke into groups to discuss possible activities for the park, hash out who would be responsible for maintaining it and what sort of plants and shrubs should be put in the reclaimed park. There was talk of movie nights, a big celebration to mark the park’s rebirth, and other possibilities.

“If the vital part of this community is there doing something on a weekly basis, then the drug dealers won’t get a chance to take it over,” Preston said. “And to me that is very hopeful.”

Reclaiming Rainbow de Colores is an important test case for the community as it continues the job of developing a comprehensive quality of life plan. An integral piece of that plan will be the community’s approach to crime and public safety, and the park renovation project exemplifies some crime-fighting strategies that go well beyond calling 911.

On Feb. 17, APM and LISC (SCI Eastern North) convened a roundtable to talk about some of those strategies, with the goal of getting community leaders to focus on what they can do to make their neighborhoods less inviting to criminals. The meeting included guests from the 26th Police District, Congreso, the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office and other organizations.

During the roundtable, representatives from LISC’s national office introduced the concepts of SARA and CPTED to the group. SARA (for Scanning, Analsysis, Response, Assessment), is a method for identifying and eliminating or limiting the sources of crime in a community, instead of reacting only to individual crimes. CPTED (for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) is the concept that crime can be allayed by changes and improvements to physical landscapes, such as by adding lights and fences to Rainbow de Colores Park.

The talk of systems for analyzing crime and identifying means to fight it frustrated at least one of the community leaders at the meeting.

“We know where the crime is,” said block captain Andre Mears. “I’m in the dark when you’re going through all this stuff. What am I analyzing? You got the drug problem right there in the open. There’s nothing more to analyze. It’s there!”

But others suggested it was not that simple.

“Crime is not always about the criminal. There’s a whole system and the residents have influence over what happens,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, APM deputy vice president of programs.

That view was seconded by Captain Cram of the 26th Police District and the officers he brought with him to the roundtable.

“At 5th and York, the drug problem has been out there for decades. If the community can rise up and take it back, force the guys into the shadows, that’s what we need there,” Officer Ed Correa said. “We’ve kept kind of a lid on shootings, thank god for that, but we really need the community to rise up and take that corner back.”

The upcoming renovation of Rainbow de Colores, which is just a few hundred feet south of 5th and York, seems to offer local residents an opportunity to do just that.

-by Patrick Kerkstra

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