Columbus, Ohio USA
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Short North Block Watch
Grassroots program is effective but could use more eyes and ears
By Psyche North Torok
January/February 2015 Issue

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Amelia Costanzo, block watch coordinator
Photo|Psyche North Torok

Block watch members aren’t likely to tackle burglars or commit citizens’ arrests. Their good deeds probably won’t make the evening news. But there are other reasons for joining a block watch: It can bring a community together to ensure that a pleasant neighborhood stays that way.

Amelia Costanzo, the coordinator of the Short North Block Watch, has a number of reasons why she chose to get involved.

“I wanted to do something that was for the greater good of the community,” she said. “It’s an interest of safety; it’s an interest of property values; it’s in the interest of people’s enjoyment of the neighborhood.

I want to feel safe and be safe. I don’t want to always feel like I’m bound to my car to get some place two blocks away.”

The Short North Block Watch was started in 2011 as an initiative of the Short North Civic Association. At the time, Italian Village was operating its own watch with Costanzo as its “captain.” The Short North Civic Association suggested that all of the Short North form a crime prevention group with Italian Village as the inspiration and model. Because of Costanzo’s experience she was asked to coordinate the expanded Short North Block Watch, which now covers High Street, Italian Village, The Circles, Dennison Place, Harrison West, and Victorian Village. Each of those neighborhoods has a “captain” who assists Costanzo. The Short North Civic Association maintains their website and provides administrative support.

The watch disseminates information mainly through its Facebook page and email list. Any Short North resident is welcome to sign up. Membership is free and members receive a decal acknowledging their involvement. A lot of what Constanzo posts are simple common sense reminders: Keep a porch light on, avoid having packages left unattended, and so on.

The group participates in “National Night Out,” an event put on each August by neighborhood watches across the country, raising awareness and support for their efforts. The group also conducts an annual street lighting survey. “I organize volunteers to go around and make note of street lighting issues,” said Costanzo. “Is there a light out? Is it flickering? Is there a business that needs lighting because their parking lot is dark? This year we had about 40 street lighting issues. The year before there were about 90, so that would mean that things have been corrected.”

When Costanzo needs to follow up with police about neighborhood developments, she contacts Officer Steve Smith, her liaison at the Columbus Police Department. Smith noted how the Short North benefited from its crime watch. “Members of the block watch are the eyes and ears of their respective neighborhoods,” he said. “In this age of advanced technology, it has become even easier to communicate ideas through social media and spread awareness of safety-related information and concerns to others. Working together, we can address issues more quickly and efficiently to the benefit of all parties. Safety is important to all of us and a collaborative effort between community and police is the most productive way to achieve that.”

Smith added that growth and popularity of the area make it more difficult to predict problems. “Prevention and education are a constant process requiring us all to be aware of our surroundings,” he said.

Both Costanzo and Smith asserted that car break-ins were the most common crime complaint in the area. Costanzo explained that prevention was largely a matter of practicality. “The single most effective way to prevent someone from breaking into your car is to make sure no belongings are visible,” she said. “This includes everything from spare change to dirty laundry.”

Sometimes the presence of a block watch gives the impression that the area is especially dangerous. Costanzo had a ready response to that. “We don't have a problem any more than any other neighborhood does,” she said. “There is a strong community here that looks out for each other. And it’s trying to be in tune to these issues, to be proactive.”

The block watch is, indeed, effective. Recently some Short North residents noticed items missing from their front porch. They reported the incident on the group’s Facebook page, including some imagery taken via surveillance cameras. Another member identified the suspects. The police were notified and took the appropriate action. The items were located and returned to the residents.

Costanzo would like to see her neighbors become even more active in the block watch. “People seem to be quicker to voice their displeasure than they are to volunteer to make a change,” she said. “I can try to spark conversation, get people together, but really this is about people collaborating; it’s grassroots. But grassroots doesn’t work with one person doing it. I’m hoping that maybe this article will generate some interest and give the block watch a rebirth.”

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