VALLEJO, Calif. – The break-ins and the squatters in her middle-class neighborhood were bad enough. But when prostitutes began offering – and performing – services in front of Ann Smith’s home, she’d had enough.
“We were all picking up condoms in our front yards,” recalls Smith, “and we decided to fight back.”
Vallejo is broke, but Vallejo residents aren’t broken. A decade ago, there were nine neighborhood watches in Vallejo. Today, there are more than 400. Attendance at public meetings has increased. An online newsletter coordinates neighborhood associations and offers crime updates.
“Our attitude is, if the city isn’t going to take care of the citizens, then we have to take care of each other,” Smith says. “We had to realize we were all in this together.”
If Detroit residents are looking at what life after bankruptcy might look like, Vallejo illustrates the good, the bad and the very bad.
The California city emerged from bankruptcy more than a year ago, yet the community of 117,000 continues to struggle financially, with few city services and slightly more than half as many police officers as before. The graveyard shift usually has only five or six cops protecting 117,000 people over 49 square miles.
“With the bankruptcy, we lost community services police officers, beat officers, and we closed three substations,” says John Allen, project director for the Fighting Back Partnership, a nonprofit that helps coordinate neighborhood services and watches. “We lost 47 percent of the police force in eight months. People began to panic. It became open season.”
One Vallejo neighborhood averaged 14 to 18 break-ins and attempted break-ins a week. The neighborhood watch president kept a map of the neighborhood on her kitchen wall, with push-pins indicating break-ins. It looked like a World War II battle map, Allen recalls.
“People couldn’t move because they were under water (on their mortgages),” says Smith, who bought her home for $315,000 in 2006 – a home recently valued at $89,000. “They couldn’t sell their property. So we had to take back our city.”
Smith founded the Vallejo Lamplighter, a newsletter aimed at helping coordinate neighborhood watches. “We had squatters who would move into homes,” Smith says. “If they got kicked out, they’d go to the next neighborhood. So we tried to communicate.”
Trying to build on that citizen engagement, Vallejo organized a “participatory budgeting vote,” in which residents cast ballots on how to spend $3 million to improve the city. Ideas ranged from Latino radio programming to historical museum outreach programs.
Smith suggests hiring back some police officers.
“First, you take care of the citizens,” she says. “Then you fix the potholes, then the lights.”
Increased community involvement is thin silver lining around the dark cloud hovering over Vallejo. “We’re all more politically active,” Smith says. “None of us have jobs, so we have plenty of time to go to meetings.
“Things had to get bad before people realized they had to take things into their own hands and do something.”