Flashlights in hand, about 100 people marched a mile along Frankford Avenue in Mayfair at dusk one night last week, a parade of foot soldiers in the fight against crime in their neighborhood.
Up in Millbrook, about 75 residents gathered at the Knights Road Shopping Center for a meet-and-greet with Parkwood and Chalfont/Millbrook Town Watch leaders.
Across Northeast Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, other Town Watch members joined with police, elected officials and business supporters on Tuesday night in the annual event known as National Night Out. Residents showed up on a summer night to show their opposition to crime and advocate for a more united community.
“The objective is to come out here and maybe get additional people involved in the community,” said Capt. Frank Bachmayer of the 15th Police District during the inaugural Mayfair march. “We have (a big group) out here tonight, so that’s a good start.”
For the first time in 17 years, however, there was no National Night Out at Fox Chase Elementary School. That event had routinely drawn thousands to the annual schoolyard festival.
The National Association of Town Watch founded National Night Out in 1984, intending to “heighten awareness and strengthen participation in local anticrime efforts.” The NATW encourages communities to gather in porch “vigils” or to organize more elaborate events such as block parties, cookouts, marches, parades, festivals, fairs or rallies.
In that first year, 400 communities in 23 states participated, according to the NATW. Since then, National Night Out has become one of the organization’s signature events. In 2011, 37.1 million people took part, representing more than 15,000 communities in all 50 states, as well as Canadian provinces, U.S. territories and U.S. military bases.
The official National Night Out is the first Tuesday each August. In many cities, including Philadelphia, associated events occur throughout the week.
On Monday night, Philadelphia’s Town Watch Integrated Services — the publicly funded agency that oversees neighborhood-based Town Watch groups locally — conducted its citywide “kickoff” rally at a Target store in Rhawnhurst. Organizers promoted that event as a replacement of sorts for the annual Fox Chase festival, which organizers discontinued this year due to declining sponsorship and volunteer support.
In the Far Northeast’s 8th Police District, neighborhood Town Watch leaders pooled their resources for a community fair in the busy Knights Road shopping plaza parking lot.
“We’re trying to rejuvenate (Town Watch),” said Jack Tolchin, president of the Parkwood group. “Volunteers are tough to get. It’s a shame we get enough, only if there’s a crisis.”
Recruiting and development have yielded some success in recent months, however.
“We’re about a year old, now, and this year was very productive,” said Ken Grow, vice president of Chalfont/Millbrook Town Watch. “I think crime has declined (in our neighborhood). We just need more volunteers.”
Their elected officials have been on board. City Coucilman Bobby Henon and State Rep. Ed Nielson attended National Night Out, along with representatives for Councilman Brian O’Neill, State Sen. Mike Stack and State Rep. Brendan Boyle.
“I think this is an awesome opportunity to connect with communities, to meet people, engage them and get them to join Town Watch,” Henon said.
“It’s about bringing the ‘village’ back to the community and getting people involved,” Nielson added.
Capt. Len Ditchkofsky of the 8th Police District would like to see more citizens help fight crime year-round. Town Watch members do not confront criminals, but can be a vital information source to police.
“They’re the eyes and ears,” Ditchkofsky said. “They’re the people who tell us information. They put a lot of emphasis on patrol, but what I really need is [for] them to know their neighbors, know their neighbors’ families and to look out for each other.
“If you see somebody messing with a neighbor’s property, call 911.”
In Mayfair on Tuesday, Town Watch members and non-members took a similar message to the streets.
“When you see crime, bad behavior, the best way to stop it is to tell police directly,” said State Rep. Kevin Boyle.
The marchers made an impression on at least a few bystanders. They walked the 12 blocks from the “triangle” park at Frankford and Cottman to Frankford and Harbison. Those who completed the trip were rewarded with a free beer or soft drink at the Grey Lodge pub.
As the throng passed a teenage girl on one street corner, she proclaimed, “That’s a lotta people, yo.”
A couple of blocks farther, a woman emerged from a taproom with a cigarette in hand, exclaiming, “I wish I would’ve known. I would’ve done it with you.”
Other passers-by joined the parade mid-stream, while one teenage boy with a dog on a leash stepped aside to let the marchers pass.
“There’s excellent support we get from all the Town Watch groups and it’s good to have Mayfair out here to support one-another and the 15th district,” Bachmayer said. ••
For information about joining Town Watch or starting your own group, contact your local police district.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org