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It's a safer atmosphere now in the West Central neighborhood

ELKHART - Shonda Schoenborn walked down Marion Street with a stroller and her 2-year-old daughter in tow on a recent afternoon. The two were headed for the laundromat, a seemingly routine chore, but one that Schoenborn felt comfortable doing in her neighborhood for the first time in a while. Four years ago, Schoenborn lived on Marion Street, but her daughters only came to visit. Since she moved

Posted on Aug. 3, 2011 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 27, 2012 at 4:52 p.m.

ELKHART - Shonda Schoenborn walked down Marion Street with a stroller and her 2-year-old daughter in tow on a recent afternoon.

The two were headed for the laundromat, a seemingly routine chore, but one that Schoenborn felt comfortable doing in her neighborhood for the first time in a while.

Four years ago, Schoenborn lived on Marion Street, but her daughters only came to visit.

Since she moved back to the West Central neighborhood in November, she has noticed fewer criminal activity including fights and drug deals, thanks to the city-directed Project 365, a year-long effort announced last August by Mayor Dick Moore and Elkhart police in conjunction with other city departments to improve crime rates and overall quality of life on the city's west side.

She still returns from work late at night, but she's no longer afraid to walk inside by herself.

"I feel a lot safer living in this neighborhood than when I did before," the mother of four said.

Through Project 365's duration from August 2010 until July 2011, Elkhart police made 201 arrests and wrote 253 citations in the West Central neighborhood, according to department statistics.

Those arrests ranged from prostitution to public intoxication arrests to warrants served, said Sgt. Wayne Bias. The citations included traffic offenses and noise ordinance citations.

Elkhart police regularly organized prostitution stings and saturated patrols on foot, by bike and by car. Two officers from every shift were assigned to the neighborhood that runs down Marion and Harrison streets from Third Street to Oakland Avenue.

In the beginning months of Project 365, police officers found one of the neighborhood's biggest problems was the outside influence of people who came into the neighborhood and caused trouble, Bias said. As the year went on, police got tips about drug houses, prostitution and animal violations.

"Once we let the people know we were serious about them and were concerned, then we received a lot of quality of life issues that we took care of," Bias said.

A year ago, the neighborhood's allies were overgrown with weeds. Many were unpaved and were hard to navigate. The streets remained dark upon sunset. Throughout the past year, city workers trimmed the overgrowth, graded unpaved allies and have put up street lights, especially in the allies, said Building Commissioner Dennis Mann.

Crews have demolished close to 10 buildings in the neighborhood with another three or four being considered for demolition, including multi-unit buildings. About 25 houses sat vacant in the neighborhood before Project 365 started last year.

"We're trying to stay ahead of the abandoned houses and lots that have been overgrown with weeds and grasses," Mann said. "Not only are my people watching for it but so are the police officers."

Neighbors have told police and city workers the neighborhood is safer. People who used to be locked in their houses are getting outside and letting their children play outside, said Jason McFarley, the city's neighborhood coordinator. McFarley hopes the west-central neighborhood's residents start to organize clean ups, block parties and neighborhood watches on their own.

"One thing that we worked hard to do is to build up the neighborhood association and to empower the residents to resolve some issues on their own," he said.

Attendance at the neighborhood association's meetings are up to 15 to 20 landlords, residents and church members, instead of the three to four people - mostly city employees - who showed up before, McFarley said.

In the future, city workers hope to develop a centrally-located neighborhood park, McFarley said.

"I think it feels more like home to people now," McFarley said. "People can enjoy it more."

Customers stop by Corner Stop, a neighborhood convenience store on the corner of 6th Street and Marion Street, for soda and snacks. Owner Asaad Al-Timimi chats with his customers, many of which are regulars.

"I'll be honest, before I was thinking I wasn't keeping my business (here)," Al-Timimi said. "But now I think I'll keep it."

He used to close his shop early to get out of the neighborhood before dark. He remembers three shootings on the store's block last year. More than once, people have hid in his store at the corner of 6th Street and Marion Street to escape violence outside.

But within the last year, the police response times seem to have improved, Al-Timimi said.

One resident, who declined to give her name for fear of retribution, said the neighborhood has improved in the last year but some people are taking the drug deals and prostituion inside, behind closed doors. She could point to several houses close to hers that she suspected still hosted drug activity, even though the streets appeared safer. The city could place more undercover police officers in the neighborhood, she said.

To that, Bias responded, "Are we going to get rid of all crime, no, but we're going to make it more difficult for those people to do their crimes."

The neighborhood still needs work, he said.

"It comes down to the people who live there," Bias said. "They need to continue telling us what they need. We'll continue to work on their needs and facilitate."


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