East Highland neighbors meet tragedy with unity

By Nathaniel Needle

This is my story about my neighborhood. My wife Mihoko and I have raised our two sons for the past 8_ years in the same 3rd-floor walk-up on Home St. We moved here from Japan. In Japan, I got used to having the only white face (well, New York Jewish, so maybe rye face, or often wry face) in the room, or the whole train station for that matter. But Home St. took even more getting used to. It felt less like coming “home” than arriving on a new planet, one colonized by people from all over Earth. My 3-decker is a sampler of the neighborhood: on the first floor, recent Brazilian immigrants; on the second floor, an African-American family whose roots on this continent probably go back a century or so more than my family’s roots do; and on the top floor, my family – an Asian immigrant, a Buddhist Jew, and a couple of bi-cultural kids.

In order to make simple conversation with half the people on my street, I bought a Portuguese phrasebook (my son has a 1st floor Brazilian playmate), and dredged up every scrap of the mostly Puerto Rican Spanish I absorbed in my high school hallway. I only have a few Spanish phrases for my neighbors from Ecuador, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela, not to mention Puerto Rico. But I don’t regret studying French instead of Spanish in school! For French has earned me a veritable jambalaya of acquaintances from Haiti to Vietnam, as well as Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and other West African nations (note: my Ghanaian neighbors, although also West African, generally speak English, like my neighbors from Kenya in East Africa).

It’s not only geographic and linguistic diversity that distinguishes my neighborhood. It’s also: older people mixed with throngs of kids; college students here for a few years alongside residents dug in for decades; small businesses sharing turf with non-profits ranging from the Art Museum to social services providing for physically and mentally challenged neighbors as well as low-income neighbors who would otherwise be homeless.

What I’ve found, by and large, is that only people who can embrace this level of diversity stay here. The result is that most of the folks who live and do business in this neighborhood love it passionately. For my wife and me, it’s precisely where we want to raise our kids: in the navel of the real world, with a cross-section of the whole world.

Of course, this being the inner city, we have crime. So, September through May, on the 2nd Monday at 7pm, at the East Highland Area Neighborhood Association (EHANA) meeting, we use the first 15 minutes to chat with our Community Impact Liaison Officer about the WPD’s most recent crime statistics for our area. We’re told our neighborhood compares quite favorably to others with similar mixes of income level and ethnicity.

EHANA, however, is not just a “crime watch” group. Since 2004, its founders, realizing that safety (and quality of life) depends on neighbors getting to know each other, have encouraged constructive shared activities. These have included partying, gardening, investigating complaints, pestering the City to do things, supporting the Worcester World Cup, building liaisons to the colleges, securing a “place at the table” regarding Lincoln Sq. planning, and more. Activities stem from what specific neighbors want to take on. Volunteers then seek approval to use the EHANA name as sort of a super-hero suit, to beef them up as they pursue their missions.

EHANA usually meets at Elm Park Community School, 23 North Ashland St, in the center of the neighborhood. It’s the only public school within EHANA’s boundaries: east-west from Lincoln Sq. to Park Ave., and north-south from Institute Park to Elm St.

Now, recently, Becker student Willie Smith was knifed to death in an altercation pouring out onto North Ashland St. from a house party. Not long after, a brutal assault upon WPI students resulted in serious facial injury to one student. This was also on North Ashland St., but had no connection with the attack on Mr. Smith. Within the week, these tragedies were followed by the random fatal stabbing of Shelleigh Wilcox on Lancaster St. by a person with a mental illness who had shown no previous inclination to violence.

The police increased foot patrols, and both Becker and WPI stepped up security in and around campus. Neighbors appreciated this, but still, many of us were in shock. Our first thoughts went out to the victims and their families. Women Together/Mujeres Unidas organized a vigil for Mr. Smith; Becker students followed up with one of their own. But our second thoughts were: had a cloud descended upon our neighborhood? Suddenly, Mihoko and I were wondering, was it safe for our boys to be zooming blithely around the streets as they had become used to doing? There was no pattern of organized gang activity to support a rational belief that evil had taken over our streets, but staying rational wasn’t easy.

EHANA’s October 13th meeting was well timed to address this mood. Fortuitously, we met on the WPI campus, since the 2nd Monday that month was Columbus Day, when Elm Park School was closed. This was an inviting location for all neighbors, including students, to vent their feelings. Gratefully, I heard no blanket condemnations of college students, mentally ill people, or any other group. Since EHANA was focusing the agenda on the recent crimes, the police were asked to stay the whole time, not just for their usual 15 minutes. WPD officers and a WPI police sergeant fielded many questions. A T&G reporter let everyone know she was taking notes. Her front page article accurately portrayed our fears. But she also reported the healing responses we resolved to make. These included an all-night Halloween Peace Vigil and a Community Peace Tapestry hand-woven by dozens of neighbors of all ages. So I was sad to see the page one headline: “Highland Neighbors Fearful.” I realize that’s the fraction of the truth that editors believe sells newspapers. But even so, those misleading bold letters bothered me.

So, for this article, written a month later, I asked a representative selection of neighbors: 1) How had you been feeling about the neighborhood before the serial tragedies of early autumn; and 2) Have your basic feelings changed since then?

To warm up, I called 3 members of EHANA’s current elected Executive Committee. This is no homogeneous bunch from some blueblood elite, oh no! In fact, I think it’s fair to say that, as wonderful as these 3 people are individually, they might well have never connected socially if not for their common interest in the neighborhood. (Note: two other Committee members, whom I couldn’t reach for this article, are WPI students.)

Sandra Ansaldi (co-founder and past chairperson of EHANA): “There’s incredible ethnic diversity in this neighborhood, but it’s also combined with an interest in learning about other cultures, even among college students living here. The diversity can make it really hard to bring people together, but once you’ve got them together, they’re friendly and happy to meet each other. If you invite someone from another culture to a meeting or an activity, it may take a couple of years for them to take you up on it, but, meanwhile, they seem pleased that you asked. When I introduce myself to people by saying, ‘I’m your neighbor’, they may seem startled at first, but then I can see them taking to the idea that that’s actually a basis for a relationship. Because of the recent crimes, I am a little more alert and cautious lately. I drive my car to some places at night instead of walking. There is an ‘element’ that cruises around in cars on weekend nights. They seem like they are looking for trouble, but I don’t know if they live here or not. Still, I’m not afraid in this neighborhood, and I do walk around at all hours.”

Chris Ariel: “I don’t see a lot of open conflict between groups in this neighborhood, but I’d like to see more bridges built. I’ve never felt unsafe, but I wouldn’t want students to feel in danger, unwelcome, or vulnerable, so I wish there was some way to bridge the gap between students and non-students even more. If students at Tech (WPI) or Becker interact more with other people in the neighborhood, only positive things will come out of that. They would enrich themselves, certainly. When I go to the Price Chopper (author’s note: the neighborhood’s only supermarket, something we all have in common), and I see students engaged in group shopping, asking each other questions like how to brew coffee, I realize that there’s a whole new universe opening up for them.”

Joyce Pierandrea: We’re a microcosm of the whole country here – it’s good for children to grow up with all this diversity. As for the violence, we have to remember that most of it occurs among people who know each other, especially among young people. That’s why we elders tend to feel pretty safe here. For a little while, the crimes bothered my sense of personal safety, but then I regained my basic confidence. I was concerned that the tragedy (on Lancaster St.) would reflect badly on mentally challenged people in general. We should remember that actually, such people are more apt to be victims.”

Having thus warmed up, I cast about for a wider spectrum of opinions

Ryann (senior at Becker, last name withheld because I forgot to ask her what it was): “I feel safe. I learn a lot from being around everyday people in the neighborhood, asking directions, going shopping, and talking to people in the stores. The neighborhood responded well to the crimes that happened recently. Also, Becker has stepped up the campus police presence a lot, and they give us rides to other dorms at night if we need it.”

Hermoine McConner (my downstairs neighbor): “I feel safe in this neighborhood because a lot of people have been here for a long time, and they are observant, and they know when someone strange comes in looking for trouble. Also, because people know each other, they tend to look out for each other.”

Costanza (Doherty High School senior, name changed to protect the innocent, meaning me, if her mother ever caught me using her real name): “I feel safe walking around during the day, and I think we all get along pretty well. Having neighborhood activities like the (July 2006) block party gave me a chance to meet some of my neighbors, especially people who are older than me that I wouldn’t get to know otherwise. Now I say hello to those people every day.”< Esau Vance (Associate Pastor at Mt. Olive Pentecostal Church on Highland St., residing at Wachusett St. halfway between North Ashland and Lancaster Streets where the stabbings occurred): “In my humble opinion, I think things in the neighborhood have been going very well, even harmoniously. I've always felt good about the colleges and what they contribute to the neighborhood. The students for the most part are serious about their studies. The crimes did create a higher sense of alertness, for example, in terms of checking to see who's at the door before opening it. But frankly, I was surprised to hear about those incidents, because this neighborhood in general feels pretty quiet.” Bruce Deck (resident manager at the home on the corner of Dayton and Fruit Streets operated by South Middlesex Opportunity Council - SMOC - for low-income people who would not otherwise be able to procure housing): I think everybody gets along good right now. If we do have problems, neighbors will come over to complain, and it's usually something having to do with parking or trash that wasn't actually caused by our residents. As for those stabbings, people in the house felt really sorry for the victims. But the residents certainly didn't feel that anyone was accusing them of being part of the problem. I do a bit of a crime watch myself, generally keeping an eye on things.” Now let me draw some conclusions. What shape is my neighborhood in? What can neighbors do to make a difference when bad things happen, and before bad things happen? First, as Sandra says, being someone's neighbor is a meaningful relationship. Any two neighbors, no matter what their other differences, probably have some interests in common and something to gain from knowing one another. So make that relationship real by using it as an excuse to say hello to someone, no matter how old they are, where they are from, what language they speak, or how they look to you. Second, it's worth making a Neighborhood Association even if all you do is find clever ways to bring people together who would not otherwise meet and say hello. The more we recognize one another as neighbors above all, above any other differences we have, the more safe we will feel, and the less of a foothold trouble will be able to get in our streets and our homes. Third, bad things can happen even in great neighborhoods, but in the face of tragedy, great neighbors are able to reaffirm their unity and find even more reasons to get to know, protect, and take comfort from one another. Finally, if you live in the inner city, even when you have come to feel safe, don't forget to stay careful, watchful, and alert. The next EHANA meeting, 7pm on Monday, Dec.8 at Elm Park Community School, is a Potluck Holiday Party for all. To ask what you can bring, call Joyce at 508-793-1561. Come even if you just bring yourself. Children welcome! We'll unfurl the Peace Tapestry!

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