When a group of North Central neighbors first decided to throw a party for National Night Out Against Crime, Emerson Park was known more for its illegal activity than as a friendly place to gather.
“We decided to do it right here, right where the crime was,” Dave Gunstrom said Tuesday night.
Three years later, the Community Oriented Policing Services shop president held up his cell phone filled with neighbors’ numbers and explained how they keep an eye out for each other. Around him people lined up for barbecue, greeted police by their first names and chatted up local politicians in the clean little park where no one is afraid to call the cops now if something is amiss.
“We all watch out for each other in this neighborhood. We all know each other,” Gunstrom said.
At more than 200 parties across Spokane County, volunteer anti-crime groups gathered Tuesday hoping that similar community camaraderie can help prevent and solve crimes in their neighborhoods.
In the city of Spokane, 102 parties were registered as of Monday afternoon, with 35 at new locations, according to the city’s Neighborhood Services office.
There were also about 100 parties registered in the county outside Spokane, officials said, where the number of Block Watch groups has grown from 500 to about 1,300 in the last four years.
“Awareness of who your neighbors are – that’s something people have lost,” said Kathleen Paris, a COPS volunteer who held one of more than a dozen parties in Hillyard.
By word of mouth and with the help of two large speakers pouring rap music into the street, teenagers, young parents and elderly residents alike gathered where neighbors tended the grill and talked in lawn chairs.
“You need to know your neighbors,” Paris said. People can prevent property and other crimes when they know who’s supposed to be at what house, she said. On her fence hung a clipboard with contact information for neighbors who could potentially form a Block Watch and keep tabs on one another’s homes.
While she helps people with a number of law enforcement questions at the COPS shop, Paris said she decided to throw the party just to help folks get to know one another better.
A Patsy Cline impersonator, Paris even invited local rap group Airway Crew after performing at the Hillyard Festival just a couple days earlier.
On the South Hill, neighbors on West Ninth Avenue and surrounding blocks gathered in the street with firefighters, police and elected officials after they dropped off dishes to share on makeshift tables as long as a couple of front yards.
In the gentrifying area, what started as occasional potlucks among new neighbors a couple years ago evolved recently into a Block Watch, said Patricia Hansen. Early-morning joggers have reported people painting graffiti in the alleys, people know to watch empty houses when their owners go on vacation, and neighbors know who to call when someone abandons a car on their street.
Last year 35 million people in more than 11,000 communities nationwide and in Canada are said to have participated in National Night Out, which was started 24 years ago by the National Association of Town Watch.
At University Elementary in Spokane Valley, the PTA threw a party this year for the first time.
“We want this to be a safe place where neighbors are looking out for not only school kids, but community kids,” said organizer Allison Larson.
While children wheeled by on their way to learn about bike safety or played on an inflatable slide and bounce house, groups like SCOPE, Valley Partners and Spokane County emergency management offered neighbors advice on how to better their community.