A version of this post originally appeared on Impacting Our Future.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) is recognized as a national leader in progressive public safety. Through community development initiatives, authentic relationship building, sports, arts, and recreation, it is helping to transform disinvested neighborhoods in urban unincorporated areas of the county it serves.
In 2016, ArtPlace America invested in Eden Lives!. The project was started by the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL), a nonprofit that organizes programming for adults and youth to complement the community-oriented and problem-solving policing style pursued by the ACSO. The DSAL collaborated with the Sheriff's Office as well as the local Chamber of Commerce, community groups, and artists to build Eden Night Live, an ongoing seasonal pop-up community that sprang from a single night of dancing, food, and basketball intended to build bridges between deputies and the residents they are sworn to protect.
Eden Night Live’s origin story traces back to a simple fenced-off lot filled with weeds and rubble: one of many along a once-vibrant Alameda County commercial corridor. Rising poverty and unemployment had led to an influx of gangs, drugs, and crime, and the area was marked by cycles of joblessness, poverty, incarceration, re-entry, and re-arrest.
ACSO Captain Marty Neideffer grew up in the area, and was familiar with this cycle. Driven by a desire to make a difference, and by a love for his community, he decided to settle in Alameda County and become a cop. Six years in as an officer, Neideffer founded the DSAL to help county law enforcement provide positive programs and activities for kids. Their endeavors were pointed squarely at keeping young people out of jail and interrupting the destructive, sometimes multi-generational cycles that foment poverty and crime.
After a decade of grassroots community policing work on the streets, the ACSO turned its attention to that fenced-off vacant lot. Suddenly, instead of weeds (and weed), “Eden Night Live” posters and banners started appearing on fences, announcing a festival coming soon. Residents were intrigued; with very little public space and few community venues in this area, nothing like this had happened there before.
"True community policing is big, and requires you to think in terms of decades, not months or even years."
To organize the event, the ACSO and DSAL sought and secured a number of local and national funding partners, and deputies began to roll up their sleeves and work alongside residents: shoveling dirt, setting up picnic tables and lights, painting murals, and building a soccer field. On opening night, carnival lights and murals decorated the site, and deputies and local kids played beach volleyball and basketball together. Live music filled the air; teens filled the dance floor. Families and deputies ate dinner together, feasting on local food truck delicacies and chatting about their lives. A bouncy castle entertained the youngest as local residents sold crafts, art, and cakes. Civic groups manned tables heaving with leaflets about classes, community gardens, and volunteer opportunities at local schools.
In its first two years, Eden Night Live drew over 20,000 visitors and attracted 27 local vendors, some of which led to a Chamber of Commerce commitment to incubating new businesses. Not bad for a forgotten fenced-off lot.
Alameda County deputies continue to invest their time in Eden Night Live because they care about their community—and because they see what can happen when they devote their energy to creating enjoyable bonding experiences with their neighbors. In a world where it is perceived that law enforcement is becoming increasingly militarized and impersonal, the deep community engagement being forged in Alameda County offers a promising alternative.
This work is shifting the way officers see their role in the community, and it all adds up to the idea that true public safety goes beyond mere law enforcement. Police must take into account the broad range of what people in a community need in order not just to survive, but to thrive: opportunities for civic engagement, education, physical and mental health, neighborhood vitality, and homegrown advocacy.
“True community policing is big, and requires you to think in terms of decades, not months or even years,” said Neideffer. “People have to see you’re down in it with them, and on their side, for the long haul.”
ArtPlace America and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) have published “Creative Placemaking & Community Safety,” a new report by Urban Institute that tells the stories of four creative placemaking initiatives that seek to improve community safety in their respective neighborhoods. Eden Night Live is one of them. You can read introductions to all four case studies in this blog post by Urban Institute Research Associate Mark Treskon.