[This is a very long blog post. Please bear with us -- this post provides a ton of history and context behind our ArtPlace project and how cops came to be involved in creative placemaking]
In April 2016, the northeast corner of Mission Boulevard and Hampton Road was desolate. On the border between unincorporated Ashland and Cherryland, the fenced-off lot filled with weeds and rubble was just one of many vacant properties along a once-vibrant commercial corridor. This unincorporated “Eden Area” of urban Alameda County has suffered through decades of disinvestment, poverty and unemployment. Unsurprisingly, gangs, drugs, and crime drifted in to fill the economic and social vacuum left by the departure of light industry and small businesses.
Fast-forward three months to a Friday evening in July, 2016: Posters and banners proclaim “Eden Night Live”; carnival lights and murals decorate a busy site. Kids and Sheriff’s deputies play beach volleyball and basketball. Live music fills the air; teens are dancing; families and Sheriff’s deputies eat dinner at picnic tables, feasting on local food truck delicacies, engaging in casual conversation. A climbing wall and bouncy castle provide additional outlets for the energies of the kids on the scene; youth and adult staff and deputies make sure they’re safe. A produce stand sells fresh fruits and vegetables from Dig Deep Farms, an Eden-area social enterprise run by the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL). Local residents sell crafts, art, and baked goods, and nonprofit and civic groups have tables with information about opportunities for community gardening, providing input on public works plans, volunteering at schools, and signing up for recreation offered by the REACH Ashland Youth Center and DSAL.
Eden Night Live is a home-grown community festival that launched in July 2016 and ran every Friday and Saturday Night through early October, and then came back for a Halloween fest and a “Winter Night Live” run from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Winter Night Live added a giant tent, propane heaters, a skating rink, and a winter wonderland to the festive mix. In its first year, Eden Night Live drew over 10,000 visitors and attracted 27 local vendors, including a number of new businesses incubated by the Chamber of Commerce and launched at Eden Night Live.
The twist on this creative placemaking pop-up? It’s run by the cops. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and DSAL are the two driving partners behind the conception, funding, and implementation of Eden Night Live, which has the
explicit goal of making the community safer by creating a venue for fun and interaction, building positive relationships between residents and sworn personnel, and fostering local businesses.
This innovative approach to public safety through creative placemaking is funded primarily by grants from the US Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation initiative, the California Board of State and Community Corrections for “Strengthening Law Enforcement and Community Relations,” the Kresge Foundation, and ArtPlace America. The Sheriff’s Office provides support by winning federal funds for Community-oriented Policing Deputies in Ashland and Cherryland and reorganizing to support an inclusive definition of crime prevention.
“By being creative and persistent around fund development, we’ve built within the agency a crime prevention force that includes 22 sworn, 15 behavioral health professionals, and a neighborhood building capacity and pointed it at our most crime-impacted neighborhoods,” Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern said. “This concentrated effort is helping to establish a cross-sector crime prevention agenda and identify a broad range of new strategies.”
An Engine Team for Eden Night Live and the overall neighborhood-based initiative includes representatives from Housing and Community Development, the Castro Valley-Eden Area Chamber of Commerce, Resources for Community Development, local residents, Public Works, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Alameda County Supervisors’ staff, DSAL and the Sheriff’s Office. Eden Night Live is the first major initiative to get off the ground through these two grants, and it has brought over 10,000 people together in what Captain Marty Neideffer calls, “an atmosphere of safety and joy.”
This pop-up festival, and these partnerships, didn’t just “pop up.” They are the logical development of over a decade of committed work towards bringing vitality and social connections back to Ashland and Cherryland. In 2005, then-Sergeant Neideffer, an Ashland native, founded DSAL to help address the fragmentation of the social networks he had seen growing up. In providing sports and recreation for local kids and building relationships with children and families, Neideffer and DSAL Director Hilary Bass realized that the neighborhoods’ persistent crime was related to deeper structural issues, and that the cycle of unemployment, poverty, crime, incarceration, reentry, and re-arrest needed to be interrupted. In 2013, Alameda County Probation estimated that 30% of the adults in Ashland and Cherryland had had involvement with the criminal justice system.
Neideffer, Bass, and other collaborators began to throw their energies into changing how public systems work as well as providing programming. They founded Dig Deep Farms with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds in 2010, working with Alameda County Fire, Social Services, Probation, and the General Services Agency to find land for urban farming and funds to hire reentry clients and youth at risk. They worked within Santa Rita County Jail to help create a better environment for reentry, and in 2011 launched Operation My Home Town, an evidence-based clinical case management reentry program, th
rough the Sheriff’s Youth & Family Services Bureau.
Dig Deep Farms now tends eight acres and has provided paid internships and jobs to 63 youth and adults. It runs farm stands throughout the county, provides produce bags by subscription and by “prescription,” offering free produce to low-income families through its “Food As Medicine” partnership with Social Services and Kaiser Permanente. It has a catering division and sells salsas and jams in local retail stores. Operation My Home Town has served nearly 400 clients and, according to an independent study, had a significant impact on the one-year recidivism rate compared to the state average.
In 2014, Neideffer and the growing cadre of partners were awarded the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant that has taken the work to a new level. In planning the grant's implementation, the Engine Team learned about Summer Night Lights, an approach to crime prevention that had shown good results in Los Angeles and Sacramento. A presentation by the Sacramento Summer Night Lights team convinced the Ashland-Cherryland partnership that this model would be a great centerpiece for the Byrne grant. It would reach large numbers of residents; it would be visible, positive, and fun, and it would engage the business community as well as public and nonprofit agencies.
The Engine Team voted to shift resources in the Byrne grant to make Eden Night Live a reality in Ashland and Cherryland. The grant funded a position at the Chamber of Commerce to engage residents and business people; a food trailer with a full kitchen that budding entrepreneurs could use to sell their wares; furnishings for the site, and stipends for youth staff and for performers and artists. Public Works staff, deputies, youth, DSAL staff and other volunteers worked feverishly to grade and clean the site, remove weeds, load in 100 tons of sand for a beach volleyball court, set up picnic tables and lights, paint murals, and mark out a soccer field. The Engine Team members spread the word far and wide. DSAL and the Chamber booked musicians and dancers and organized activities. DSAL brought in its mobile climbing wall.
Eden Night Live kicked off in July, and right from the start the team could tell they were onto something big. “There was a good community buzz about ENL from the day we started preparing the site,” Neideffer said. “It felt a little like the circus was coming to town.” Hundreds of people of all ages and colors were showing up every night; eating, talking, dancing, playing, talking informally with deputies, and expressing delight that there was something safe, fun, and free to do on the border of Ashland and Cherryland on a weekend.
As the festival evolved, it became even more of a community resource. The Crime Prevention Unit used the site to host “Talk With a Cop” gatherings for residents to get to know deputies and express their concerns about safety in the neighborhood. These conversations drew 40-60 residents per event. The Unit also worked with a parents’ group to host a Latino night in the summer, with the parents playing a key role in organizing activities and publicizing the event.
In November, the Eden Night Live site was used for a sorrowful purpose that nevertheless brought people together in a powerful way. Sheriff’s Office Explorer Karla Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, was tragically murdered in Oakland. Her funeral was on the same day that her interview to become a Cadet was scheduled with the Sheriff's Office. Sheriff's Deputies coordinated her funeral service completely. More than 150 Sheriff's Office Explorers and another 100 Explorers from other agencies joined over 800 mostly Spanish-speaking friends and family at St. John's Church. After the service, at the request of Karla's parents, more than 500 people came to the Eden Night Live site to honor her and find comfort in each others' company. The Sheriff’s Office both organized and catered the event and facilitated expressions of love and respect for her memory. Though a horrific and terribly sad event, the joint response by the Sheriff's Office, Karla's family and the people from the neighborhood highlights the legitimate and authentic relationship forged between the ACSO and this community.
As the end of the year approached, the Eden Night Live site transformed into “Winter Night Live.” The winter celebrations included free skating on a synthetic skating rink, six days a week, a weatherproof marquee tent, a winter wonderland, and two big weekends of celebrations, including a tree lighting ceremony and a Posada Communitaria, a traditional Mexican and Mexican-American procession and party. The Posada was jointly organized by DSAL and the Padres Unidos of Cherryland Elementary school, and it brought out 500 people for a procession, piñatas and gifts, and huge cauldrons of pozole and trays of homemade tamales.
It hasn’t all been good times and smooth sailing. Soon after Eden Night Live launched, the DSAL food trailer was stolen from the fenced site. It was recovered quickly, but suffered some damage that needed to be fixed. The property that the festival uses is also slated for development, so the team needed to work with the Housing and Community Development team to find a new site.
Eden Night Live kicks off again in June, on another vacant property on East 14th Street in Ashland, under the guidance of the Chamber of Commerce. The festivals are slated to run through October, and the Engine Team hopes to attract over 20,000 residents this year. A team of 22 community volunteers, deputies and staff have already gathered for a cleanup day to help prep the site for sports, games, music, and family fun. While moving the site creates challenges, it also helps to draw attention to the event in a different location and highlight how many vacant lots sit along a few neglected blocks on an important commercial corridor.
With our ArtPlace America grant, the Engine Team is look at how to develop a permanent home for Eden Night Live, the arts, and local entrepreneurship along the corridor. Resources for Community Development and DSAL are already partnering to look at renting one of the many vacant properties and pursuing funds to redevelop it.
Looking at economic development as a piece of the public safety puzzle isn’t a new idea. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a technical assistance provider for the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation initiative, has been doing it since 1994 through its Community Safety Initiative. Research shows that partnerships that align law enforcement, community organizing, and physical and economic revitalization have achieved double digit reductions in crime rates.
What’s unusual about Eden Night Live is that this festival, and a host of other community and economic development projects, are being driven forward by the Sheriff’s Office, in communities that lie in the unincorporated County, without city infrastructure to support them.
“When Sheriff Ahern and his deputies says, ‘Hey, jobs matter; parks matter; the arts and culture matter; the built environment matters, specifically from a public safety perspective,’ it can be powerful and persuasive bully pulpit,” Neideffer said. “We have played a key role in attracting resources and attention to our neighborhoods, and in reframing police-community relations.”
When community members see Sheriff’s Deputies alongside residents shoveling dirt, expressing their views at planning meetings, or engaged in other activities designed to address the root drivers of crime, relationships build, Neideffer said. Trust builds.
“True community policing is big, and requires you to think in terms of decades, not months or even years,” he said. “People have to see you’re down in it with them, and on their side, for the long haul.”