AIKEN -- Alberta Payne's cookies are just one warm welcome for Officer David Nieves, the new community policeman for Crosland Park, where she and her neighbors are trying to shore up a sagging neighborhood.
Amid once-neat houses now abandoned and once-clean streets strewn with litter -- some of it the debris of drink and drugs -- they are looking to the man most know as "Officer Chico" to help them take back their community. He is a legend in Aiken for the transformation of Hahn Village, a public housing project where residents who once peeked from behind drawn curtains now feel safe outside, talking to neighbors and watching children play.
But Crosland Park has the problems that Hahn Village used to have, averaging a police call a day. Officer Nieves' transfer there has saddened Hahn Village, and many residents fear that neighborhood might regress without their friendly personal policeman visibly around. The cookies baking there these days are meant to say goodbye to a friend.
The energetic young officer embodies community policing -- often called PACT to stress that the police and community work together, said Reggie Barner, executive director of the Aiken Housing Authority. "Nobody wants to see Chico go," he said. "His enthusiasm and positive attitude rub off on people."
One of his biggest contributions to cleaning up Hahn Village was a crackdown on the kinds of outsiders who help give public housing a bad name, often fleeing there in hopes of "blending in." Officer Nieves developed a data base that helped him quickly determine who belonged and who didn't. He also used his computer expertise to develop data bases to keep track of children and senior citizens.
The information also could be sorted a variety of ways to help the Housing Authority determine how best to allocate its services among the residents of 390 housing units in six public housing developments.
In the transition to Crosland Park, Officer Nieves is already helping residents identify problems and tackle them head-on, although his substation in the senior-citizens' building wasn't operational until Friday. He already knows many residents by name, and he's handed out his phone number, beeper and e-mail address with abandon.
"Before I go into any neighborhood, I do my research," he said. "Before I went to Hahn Village, people were saying, `You don't want to go to the 'hood,' but when I got to know the people, and I learned about them and their problems, I had a better idea what to do. It's the same with Crosland Park. Together we can turn it around."
The residents' determination to do just that is a real plus, he said. "You have drawn a line in the sand and said, `No more,"' he said. "I applaud you for that."
So many people are getting involved in salvaging Crosland Park that they had to have their last meeting in the Aiken Public Safety courtroom. Nearly 100 came, among them several police officers out of uniform because they were there as residents of the neighborhood, not as police.
A representative of New Covenant Praise Church, which sits off Wire Road behind Crosland Park, also attended to offer the building as a possible meeting hall for the new neighborhood association and Crime Watch. Church members heard about the neighborhood's efforts to change and wanted to help. Some have been driving through just to pray.
At City B's, a bar that's often blamed for litter and noise, co-owner Monica Patterson has responded to the neighborhood cleanup by hiring security to see that people leave the neighborhood when they leave the club. And nobody's allowed to leave with beer bottles or cups that might end up on the ground.
The city is cracking down on speeders and has its housing inspector tracking down the owners of abandoned properties that invite vandalism and drug deals. A separate effort is under way to find absentee owners whose tenants have no respect for the house they live in or anyone else's. Owners will be required to repair rundown properties and deal with destructive tenants. And City Manager Roger LeDuc is creating a staff team to address the concerns of Crosland Park and other northside communities.
Officer Nieves is trying to line up boxing and other activities for youth to keep them busy and off the streets.
Mae O'Rourke, the new president of the fledgling neighborhood association, said there will be continued trash pickups and a "Yard of the Month" award to encourage sprucing up.
There already is a sense of hope among people who'd all but given up on Crosland Park, a premier subdivision of 523 homes 40 years ago. A handful of people who were trying to sell have decided to stay and see what happens. Others are like Mrs. Payne, who found she couldn't bear to sell her home of 46 years and would just have to do something about the neighborhood instead.
The effort is uniting black and white families, the elderly and the young, in the neighborhood that has become one of Aiken's most diverse.
"We can do this," Officer Nieves said. "Anybody who thinks we can't can sit back and watch, but the rest of us are going to be working on it. Faith and hard work, that's the key."
Margaret N. O'Shea covers the city of Aiken for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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