Bethlehem leaders, business owners believe block watch can help South Side revitalization

Posted by admin - October 12, 2013 - 4 Blocks International - No Comments

Sarah M. Wojcik | The Express-Times   By Sarah M. Wojcik | The Express-Times The Express-Times Follow on Twitter on October 12, 2013 at  5:10 PM

For the decade Daniel Berrios has operated Borinquen Restaurant, serving authentic Puerto Rican dishes to the city’s residents, he’s seen the South Side Bethlehem neighborhood undergo dramatic changes.

Berrios says the vast majority of those changes have been marching in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done.

“You can see the change in the area,” said Berrios, whose restaurant is at 738 E. Fourth St. “It’s improving. The hard part has been done, but we need to do more.”

A new block watch chapter, forming in the South Side’s Four Blocks International neighborhood, will help address those lingering and stubborn concerns, according to Berrios.

The potential of bringing together community leaders, business owners, residents and police to take up a sense of ownership isn’t lost on the city’s top cop. In fact, the movement of promoting and reviving neighborhood block watch chapters throughout Bethlehem has become something of a mission for new police Chief Craig Finnerty.

The Four Blocks International Block Watch chapter, which had its first meeting Thursday night at the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, will roughly encompass an area that spans Hayes to Polk streets and the South Side Bethlehem Greenway south to Fifth Street, according to Finnerty.

Though the police will attend meetings and work with the community to address concerns, the chief said the group belongs to the public.

“It’s going to be theirs,” Finnerty said. “We’ll be here to help. But it’s those people spending an hour of their time on this … that will be paying big dividends.”

Focus on empowerment

Ellen Larmer, director of the Community Action Development Corp. of Bethlehem, said many South Side businesses expressed an interest in starting the group to help collaborate, share information and increase safety in the neighborhood. It’s part of a continuing effort to restore the South Side.

“I think it’s tremendously positive that businesses want to collaborate together like this,” Larmer said. “It’s about taking ownership of the neighborhood, which is important in revitalization.”

Lorna Velazquez, executive director of the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley on South Side, said the block watch chapter blends perfectly with the organization’s strategic plan for the community: a focus on empowerment.

“We know our neighbors, but we can be closer,” Velazquez said. “We want to work on empowerment and increasing that sense of contribution and education to help keep the community safe and welcoming.”

For  many, the simple act of going to police with safety concerns, tips or complaints seems like common sense. But Velazquez said that’s not always the first inclination for those who see the police through a purely negative lens.

“Depending on what environment you’re in, you might have a very different perspective on what a police presence means,” she said. “Police aren’t around just to arrest you. They’re there to protect you.”

Velazquez believes fostering the relationship between law enforcement and residents can create lasting partnership that won’t only help solve crimes but could help prevent them.

Community partners

Finnerty said that’s the key. Referring to the motto printed on Bethlehem police cruisers that touts a partnership with the community, the police chief said that means little unless there’s a real sense of trust.

“We want to ensure that the public knows we take that partnership seriously,” Finnerty said. “We have so many methods people can use to reach us, but face to face is still so important.”

Finnerty said the department will be working in the community to promote block watch groups in specific neighborhoods, including the area of Sioux and Itaska streets and, in Northeast Bethlehem, north of Easton Avenue.

Jose Andrade, owner of Lehigh Shoe & Leather Repair, 501 E. Fourth St., said a block watch group would make business owners feel a little more secure.

“No question about it,” Andrade said. “This is a good place to open a business. But it can also attract other types of attention as well.”

Berrios said he hopes a better relationship between police and residents would convince residents to contact police when they might normally choose not to.

“People here don’t always call police when something happens,” he said. “There can be a kind of misunderstanding — sometimes with language — that can be an obstacle. This could help people make more calls — if we can treat each other as partners.”

Knowing the police and community are watching can have a positive effect on a neighborhood, Berrios said. He hopes troublemakers and those wrapped up in drugs — which he cited as among his greatest concerns — will get the message.

“This area is not suitable for them,” Berrios said. “They’ve got to go somewhere else, not here on Fourth Street.”

Original article can be found HERE.