Volunteerism helps patch a neighborhood tear


As tensions in the mixed-income development Chatham Square and the neighboring Hopkins and Tancil public housing communities simmer, two local women hope to bridge divisions through volunteerism.
Its no secret residents in the North Old Town neighborhood havent been getting along. Built in 2001, Chatham Square was touted as a model for mixed-income development, putting market-rate homeowners next door to low-income and subsidized housing in The Berg, a traditional black enclave. 
Tension between neighbors erupted earlier this summer after residents claimed crime in the community was on the rise. Police officials countered with statistics showing crime had fallen since 2008, but new allegations that the departments methodology is skewed have called those figures into question. 
Black residents also have rallied in the face of what they consider a smear campaign by their white neighbors. 
Amid the allegations and accusations, Chatham Square homeowners Ellen Abramson and Bonnie Miller continue to volunteer at the Ruby Tucker Family Center, nestled in the heart of nearby public housing. One Wednesday a month, the duo reads to neighborhood children, leads them in activities and hands out free books.  
Its given them a chance to pass along their love of reading and an opportunity to meet their neighbors, said Abramson. While they havent become fast friends, Abramson believes their work is forging relationships. 
Yes, we have [built] relationships with the kids pretty quickly; thats something they naturally do. Theyre just eager for that kind of attention, said Abramson, a former kindergarten teacher. I think it takes a little bit longer to cultivate the same relationships with the adults. I would think that hopefully they feel good about what were doing and what our motives are, just [wanting] to share our loves of reading and literature with kids.
Miller, a professor and social worker, has had a similar experience. The kids love the volunteers, she said, but their parents generally just drop them off at the center and leave. 
Both camps have noted the standoffishness between residents on either side of Royal Street. Lenny Harris, a community organizer with long ties to the citys black community, called on residents to get to know their neighbors during a community meeting in response to allegations of rising crime.
So you [need to] talk to the white folk so they get to know you, and you get to know them, and let them know youre all right, he told a packed crowd at the Charles Houston Recreation Center in July. 
After nearly a year of volunteering, Miller now greets the children in her neighborhood, and they say hello to her in return. It is one way to forge new ties among neighbors, she said. 
This is an interesting social experiment, people from low-income housing integrated into our neighborhood. I hope it works out that people get along, she said. I think the volunteer work helps, and I would love for other people in my neighborhood to get involved.
Neither woman feels crime is on the rise in the neighborhood, though Miller recalls catching someone smoking marijuana in a car during a Sunday morning walk about three weeks ago. That might differ depending on your proximity to the public housing, Miller and Abramson admit. 
Volunteering to read to neighborhood children may not be an obvious way to deter crime, but hopefully it will lead to a little neighborly love, Abramson said.  
I think there may be cultural differences that some of the people in our community find theyre uncomfortable with. We all need to get to know one another better, she said. Thats why I thought it was important to volunteer, for the very reason that it is in the neighborhood and these kids are my neighbors.