How one Oregon community reduced gun violence by 60%
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Like many cities, Portland, Ore., is seeing a devastating increase in gun violence. Last year, Portland counted the highest number of homicides in three decades. Katia Riddle brings us a story about one community's creative strategy to try and make the gunfire stop.
KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For most of the nine years she's lived here, Nadine Salama's working-class neighborhood in East Portland has been peaceful. Salama is sitting on a bench in Mt. Scott Park.
NADINE SALAMA: My baby grew up here.
RIDDLE: She points to the place her daughter took her first steps. This park is the crown jewel of the neighborhood. It stretches for blocks. One-hundred-foot Douglas fir trees tower over a community center and tennis courts. But in the last year, the neighbors say, gun violence stole the park from them.
SALAMA: Right over by Hometown Pizza right there.
RIDDLE: Salama looks out across the street where many shootings happened. The gunshots, she says, became relentless.
SALAMA: Five, six, seven times a month, sometimes five days in a row.
RIDDLE: One night, during a drive-by shooting, the driver lost control of his car. He crashed into a fire hydrant in front of her apartment. Her daughter witnessed the whole thing.
SALAMA: That was a moment where I was like - it felt very surreal to me. And I knew that this can't go on.
RIDDLE: Salama wasn't just worried about her own child. She saw the shooters flee the car.
SALAMA: Couldn't have been more than 16 or 17 years old. And they were so scared.
JOEL SOMMER: I was doing a Zoom call. It was, like, a Monday night at 8 p.m.
RIDDLE: Joel Sommer is a pastor at a church just down the block. He recalls the first time he heard shooting at the park.
SOMMER: And just heard popping through the window.
RIDDLE: Sommer's church is called Access Covenant. Their faith is in a nonviolent Jesus.
SOMMER: Who is this person who insisted on love in the face of violence?
RIDDLE: Many in his congregation are in helping professions, like social work or medicine. It's work that they believe emulates the teachings of Jesus.
SOMMER: Who believed that we change the world by starting from the bottom up and that we could do it all without weapons.
RIDDLE: These neighbors agreed. Police on every street corner was not the answer to gun violence. Instead, they started asking themselves how they could create peace.
JONATHAN JAY: Community members know a lot about what this problem looks like in their neighborhood and can generate great ideas - often the best ideas.
RIDDLE: Jonathan Jay is a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. Jay studies how factors like traffic patterns and tree cover affect gun violence. He points to a case study in Philadelphia. Residents in one neighborhood lowered gun violence when they turned abandoned lots into green spaces.
JAY: By making people feel safer in the neighborhoods, it helps restore social processes.
RIDDLE: Processes like conversation and looking out for each other - he says making small changes in the built environment can make a big difference. That's what the Mt. Scott community in Portland set out to do.
SALAMA: So the barrels are in a six-block radius around the park.
RIDDLE: Nadine Salama gestures toward orange traffic barrels. The neighborhood worked with the city to install them. They slow traffic, which deters drive-by shootings. Among many other changes, Salama points to increased lighting in the park and reclaiming Mt. Scott for community events.
SALAMA: It worked.
RIDDLE: Shootings have dropped in the neighborhood by more than 60%. The data is still preliminary. And Pastor Joel Sommer says the work isn't over.
SOMMER: I do think that any individual who decides to take a nonviolent approach in a moment can absolutely create peace wherever they are.
RIDDLE: Peace, he says, isn't something people are entitled to. It's something communities have to work for every day.
For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.
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