ELKHART — Willie Hines has a bird’s-eye view of Roosevelt Park from his living room, and what he saw and heard late at night in the recent summer months was disturbing.
“Every evening when it’s nice, they’re shooting dice and spraying graffiti,” Hines said.
Beyond that, though, the darkened pavilion became a magnet for late-night trouble that included vandalism, fighting and a lot of garbage that’s left to be cleaned up afterward.
Patia Hubbard lives in the adjacent apartments at Roosevelt Center and said she would love to spend more time in the park with her two children, ages 1 and 3, but doesn’t venture there often.
“I don’t really take them out there because there’s a lot of fighting,” Hubbard said.
Hines and Hubbard are among many in the Roosevelt neighborhood concerned with late-night activities in the park, which some say is a symptom of a larger problem.
Many point to a lack of police patrols and lighting.
“Police only seem to show up when there’s a fight,” Hines said.
A police presence would change things, he said, in part because people in the park don’t make an effort to conceal their activities.
“All they gotta do is sit back and watch and they can see what is going on,” Hines said.
Residents and city officials believe the entire neighborhood surrounding the park along Indiana Avenue and east of Benham Avenue is in need of attention following a summer that included a homicide across the street from the apartments and numerous complaints of crime.
The topic surfaced Monday night when councilman Rod Roberson was alarmed to see minutes from a park board meeting that included a reference to closing the park.
That turned out to be a poorly worded sentence that didn’t represent plans by the city and even caught Mayor Dick Moore off guard.
Parks superintendent Karin Frey said closing the park was more of a suggestion than a concrete proposal. Moore said the suggestion didn’t come from park staff or the board.
Regardless, it sparked a sharp exchange among council members that put the spotlight on Roosevelt and may well coincide with changes.
Moore made it clear that closing the park was not an option and said officials are planning to add lights to the park, which has none. Curtailing park hours is another option, but Moore said he wants to wait to see if lighting makes an impact.
Several council members voiced a sense of immediacy.
“If that becomes the new normal, it is a larger, deeper hole that we’re going to have to pull it from,” said councilman David Henke.
Ron Troyer, the fourth district councilman whose district includes Roosevelt, said he recently walked through the area with a businessman and said he was concerned for his safety — a comment that didn’t sit well with Roberson, an at-large council representative and longtime resident of the neighborhood.
Roberson was among the first residents to move into the renovated apartments in 2008 and saw the old school playground transformed into the park the following year, so he admittedly took offense to comments from Troyer and Henke.
“What we need to do is get a hold of the crime issue,” Roberson said. “That doesn’t say it’s in any way, shape or form worse than other areas.”
Roberson said he’s frustrated with the crime and problems associated with the park, but believes a comprehensive approach is needed. Lighting and better police involvement are part of the solution, but more importantly, he said, police and others need to build relationships with people in the community. He said he believes numerous groups are moving in that direction.
One of those key “assets” Roberson pointed to is LaCasa Inc., which led the charge to renovate the apartments and continues to own and manage the property.
LaCasa organized two neighborhood cleanup projects in the summer.
Jason Moreno, a community organizer with LaCasa, said the projects, known as Rock The Block, underscore the neighborhood’s desire to take action.
“The willingness of the people in that community to make changes that they need is there, and now it’s a chance for the city to become involved in that conversation,” Moreno said.
Specifically, Moreno said he thinks the neighborhood would benefit from improved street lights along Indiana Avenue, which he said has more foot traffic at night than the downtown business district.
Moreno said he thinks increased patrols are only a small part of the answer.
Frey said the parks department wants to be proactive and that problems with garbage and vandalism also occur along the downtown RiverWalk as well as Island Park and High Dive Park.
“Vandalism and trash happen all over. The only thing is, it was much more numerous in that location,” Frey said.
Asked if she sought increased police patrols, Frey said she made the police department aware of the situation.
Moore said he’s also discussed the issue with police.
Since park activities drop off significantly as temperatures fall, Moreno and Roberson said the winter months offer an opportunity to develop a plan before spring arrives.
“I see the table being set to do some wonderful things in the Roosevelt area, but I think we need people pulling with one another instead of attacking the area,” Roberson said.
Also contributing to this report was Truth reporter Sharon Hernandez.
Area crime statistics
The following statistics were provided by the Elkhart Police Department and reflect the number of times police were dispatched to a four-block area surrounding Roosevelt Park between Jan. 1 and Dec. 5.
11 auto thefts
5 criminal recklessness incidents
2 sex crimes
5 weapons violations, which include possession of a firearm without a permit and possession of a firearm by a felon