More than 600 Oakland areas hosted community events inspiring residents to come out of their homes, discuss safety issues, and meet their neighbors during Oakland’s annual National Night Out event on Tuesday.
The annual event, which has been sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch since 1984, asks neighbors to get together to throw block parties in an effort to improve neighborhood safety and bolster community. This year, there were a total of 605 parties registered in Oakland. Once a party’s organizer registers online, the group or individual is allowed to close off the street for the party. “It’s the one night during the year when no one has to get a permit,” said Felicia Verdin, community program supervisor in the city’s neighborhood services division and National Night Out organizer.
“When people get to know each other on their block, the neighborhood is a much safer place,” said Verdin. People who know each other are more willing to support each other, she said. ”One of the most rewarding things is hearing people say after living next to each other for 20 years, they had a block party and now they know their neighbor,” Verdin said.
To officially kick off this year’s celebration, Mayor Jean Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan and Fire Chief Teresa Reed met on the steps of Frank Ogawa Plaza before setting off with other law enforcement officers on a caravan around town. Police officers planned to visit block parties throughout the city, where they would present guests with a token of their appreciation for participating–stickers for the children and pens for adults.
Jordan said he was looking forward to visiting the different local communities in hopes of passing along important information about safety and neighborhood watch programs. “I hope the [community] gets a better understanding of the work that needs to be done,” Jordan said, “and that we have an opportunity to encourage them to continue to help us fight crime. We have a lot of handouts for them—tips for neighbors and how to help shore up the neighborhood, and the numbers of city officials to call.”
For communities without a neighborhood watch association, Jordan said officers from would provide information showing residents show to set up the program for their own neighborhood.
After speeches about the importance of safety and the need to bring the community together the officers, the mayor and chiefs Reed and Jordan separated into different groups to begin their visits to Oakland neighborhoods. For Quan, it was a continuation of the round of trips made earlier to senior citizens’ centers that had started their celebrations earlier in the day.
“The parties give the neighbors the opportunity to talk to each other and it creates the kind of ties where people look out for each other,” said Quan. “Some are very formal meetings about rescue teams, should there be an earthquake. Some neighborhoods, like the apartment I went to of mostly seniors, were complaining about someone breaking into their cars. People started to talk about that and about organizing a walking group.”
For many neighborhood organizations, hosting a block party is part of their annual events. For others, like the Temescal Library on 52nd Street and Telegraph Avenue, this was its first time hosting a party for National Night Out. The grassroots band Union Point Rounders performed for a group of neighbors who sat outside on the grass in the patio area in the back of the library, not saying much, just enjoying the music.
“It kind of came together spontaneously,” said library branch manager Steve Lavoie. “One of the part-time workers at another library, does sound recording production and his wife sings with the band. I said, ‘If you can get them to come, we will have a National Night Out.’”
Bruce Douglas lives near 48th and Telegraph, and said he was happy that people wanted to come out and do something in his neighborhood. “I know half the people here,” he said. “This is a real neighborhood-y thing.”
“I was in the library and saw the notice and I thought it would be a good idea to come on over,” said longtime Oakland resident Paul Marcus. “It’s always good to hear some nice music, especially if it’s free.”
A few blocks away, the neighbors between Shattuck Avenue and Racine Street were standing in line outside the Bushrod Recreation Center waiting for a turn at the microphone. Each person took a turn speaking about who they are and what their role is in the community. The event was collaboration between the coordinated between the Bushrod Recreation Center, the Memorial Tabernacle Church and the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. The groups provided food, and children played video games while the adults spent time getting to know each other better. The organizations also used the opportunity to provide pamphlets and other material about their services.
“Having three organizations come together has been wonderful,” said Bushrod Recreation Center director Myka Hammock. “People who live on this block don’t know all their neighbors, so meeting new people and learning new faces has been wonderful.”
Elsie Cooper has been a resident in this Bushrod neighborhood 45 years. She came down to the event because her grandson told her to, she said. “Everyone should know each other and get involved,” she said. “I’m working with the kids and making sure they are behaving.”
Daphne McCullough came to the event because she wanted to see her neighbors. “I think we should do this more often, especially at Bushrod,” she said. “We need that positivity in this park area.”
Further along Telegraph Ave and 19th Street, residents and business owners were upbeat as the day wound to a close and people headed home to block parties in their neighborhoods. “This is one of the nights on which I feel safe to just go and relax with friends,” Mariam Nuno, who runs a sandwich shop on Telegraph and 17th Street in downtown Oakland said, before heading to a block party in Fruitvale.
Nuno said that in addition to allowing her to interact with her neighbors in an open and safe atmosphere, National Night Out helps residents feel like they can take back a city that has become synonymous with violent crime. “It’s sad that we feel at home on the streets on just one night,” Nuno said. “I wish people in Oakland felt as free to be out and about on every night as they are today. I am happy that we still have a day on which we can do this but we should demand more, every night should be a night out.”
In Fruitvale, one block party on International Boulevard and 37th Avenue also offered an opportunity for residents to marvel at works of art that their neighbors had produced. The art, mostly paintings, was neatly clipped to the fence.
“We just thought we’d make it into an impromptu art show,” said Bryan Chestnut, one of the organizers. “We have had a National Night Out party before and realized that people are more likely to come if we do something different.”
Back over on Shattuck at the Bushrod event, the evening came to a close and the volunteers took away the pans that previously contained the fried chicken and vegetables. The leftover pies were put away. But the telephones were out and new friends exchanged numbers and promised to meet again at the park or at church.