WESTBROOK — Organizations in and outside of the Frenchtown neighborhood have worked over the past two years to bring the community together, resulting in a decrease in crime and a higher sense of safety.
The Frenchtown neighborhood, which has been known over the years for its bad reputation, has been changing its image recently. A number of new organizations and the addition of a community policing center have played integral roles in making the neighborhood safer and more inviting.
“In a neighborhood that has historically had struggles, offering a connection to law enforcement and quality of life services lays a strong foundation for affecting big positive change,” Megan Perry, the community policing coordinator, said in a Jan. 31 interview at the center.
The Frenchtown neighborhood, which is situated between the old mills and the Presumpscot River, has a diverse population of seniors and young families, as well as immigrants and minorities.
According to police records provided by Police Chief Janine Roberts, there has been a significant decrease in police calls to the Frenchtown neighborhood over the past two years. Reactive police calls, meaning the police were responding to a crisis or criminal activity, decreased from 1,113 in 2015 to 1,090 in 2016 to 913 in 2017. Self-initiated police calls, in which residents called the police, decreased from 3,052 in 2015 to 2,250 in 2016 to 1,773 in 2017.
“I think the level of criminal activity has decreased, but it’s still there,” Roberts said. “I’ve heard from other residents and from city councilors that they’ve noticed an improvement.”
Roberts credits the change to many factors, including “the combination of Megan’s presence and her partnership with residents who want drugs out of their neighborhood.”
The community policing center, the city’s first and only, opened at 192 Brown St. in October 2015. The former apartment building houses meeting spaces and conference rooms, Perry’s office, a kitchen, and an open gathering space. The Cornelia Warren Foundation donated $15,000 to the project in its first year. Other funding sources include the city, Westbrook Environment Improvement Corporation, and a community development block grant.
Roberts started the center after seeing the approach work successfully in Portland. Brown Street was chosen as the location because it’s centrally located in Frenchtown and is highly visible. The area also had the most need, Roberts said.
“So many residents and police officers talked about how unsafe the Brown Street neighborhood was,” she said.
Perry, whose background is in child protective services, said she was aware of the neighborhood’s reputation when she took the position, but she never viewed it as a deterrent. The first year of her position was spent “beating the pavement,” Perry said, to get to know people. She said it was important people both trust her and recognize her as a resource.
“It’s about creating awareness so people know they can ask for help,” Perry said. “The presence of police officers in the area has a huge effect. It’s clear that the Westbrook Police Department is not only here, but we care.”
Although Perry is an employee of the police department, she’s a civilian, which Roberts said helps with the trust issue. Perry has brought more officers into the neighborhood, however, by hosting events such as National Night Out, Blizzard Bash, and dinners where officers and residents can interact.
“I feel like positive interaction with police goes a long way here,” Perry said. “The positive interaction reminds people that this is a safe place.”
Perry also reminds people of this by offering them resources and connecting them with social service agencies.
“I’d like to think my office has a reputation for being a place people can come for help,” she said. “If people can feel safe coming here to have a basic need met, they’ll feel more comfortable making reports.”
Residents can come to the center for food and clothing, as well as items for their children. Perry said residents have been “proactive about protecting each other” and people often come to her with concerns about their friends and neighbors who are in need. This is a major change from how the neighborhood used to be, Perry said.
“This neighborhood continues to amaze me,” she said. “I’ve seen a shift from a lot of isolation to pockets of neighbors who are now connected.”
When Marilyn Hickey’s daughter moved to Brown Street four years ago, the isolation was very evident. Hickey lives in Gorham but spends most days in Westbrook caring for her two young grandchildren.
“When we first moved here our experience was that people were private,” she said. “We were aware that we had to be cautious because we heard of the not-so-good reputation of the neighborhood.”
The neighborhood has changed dramatically over the past two years, Hickey said. She now feels safe walking through Frenchtown and she’s come to know many of the residents.
“It’s gone from people being isolated and having their own struggles to having people connect and support each other with their struggles,” Hickey said. “It’s becoming more of doing life together instead of in isolation.”
Helping connect people has been part of Perry’s job, but it’s also been happening through the work of Community Partnership for Protecting Children, an initiative operated by the Opportunity Alliance. CPPC has been working over the past two years to open a community hub in the neighborhood at 13 Reserve St.
The hub building, which was donated to CPPC by the city, is fully renovated and is expected to open once the finishing touches are complete. The building will serve as a community space where neighbors can come together.
“I see the hub as being the next beautiful step in a continuum of care in this neighborhood,” Hickey said.
Chris Gorman, of CPPC, said the organization chose to open a hub in Frenchtown because it saw the need. He said the hub is intended to “reduce the stressors” that lead to child abuse and neglect and other family issues. He added that CPPC might oversee the hub, but neighbors determine how it’s used.
“It’s technically called the neighborhood resource hub, but the neighbors are the resource,” Gorman said. “Our work isn’t about giving people things. It’s about helping people give things to other people.”
Brittney Sampson, CPPC’s community connector who will be working in the hub, has been ingraining herself in the neighborhood over the past two years, similar to the way Perry has. She said she’s witnessed residents’ generosity firsthand, along with how much they want to help themselves and each other have better lives.
“It’s rare that I’m walking about and people don’t try to give me things,” Sampson said. “The best thing about my job is seeing all these amazing things happen and helping people connect the dots.”
Sampson said people often donate food and clothes to her so she can give them to people in need. The hub will serve as a place where people can find these items as well as a place to learn new skills and develop friendships. The programming at the hub will be neighbor-driven and could include things such as cooking classes, knitting time, and career help.
CPPC, which serves many neighborhoods in greater Portland, also hosts monthly community dinners. Westbrook’s dinners are held at St. Anthony’s Church on Brown Street, and Hickey credits them with bringing people together in the neighborhood. She said coming together over meals helps connect people.
“The reality is, we’re all struggling and we’re all broken so we have to come together and support each other,” she said.
Something as simple as knowing your neighbors goes a long way towards making a neighborhood safer, Roberts said.
“Megan isn’t doing it alone and the police department isn’t doing it alone,” she said. “The community is coming together to make the neighborhood safer and to change perceptions and lower fear.”
Perry said she’s definitely noticed this shift as well.
“I have had neighbors who have conveyed feeling safer,” she said. “There’s an overarching feeling of being safer. I don’t know if I can take credit for that.”
“I think the biggest piece of this role is how collaborative Westbrook is,” Perry said. “It’s those partnerships that make all of this happen. I wouldn’t be so successful with this if Westbrook wasn’t so successful.”
The next step towards moving Frenchtown forward will be changing the public perception of the neighborhood. Despite all the positive changes, Roberts said other Westbrook residents haven’t changed their view. To accomplish this, she said, people need to be made aware of the many events happening in the neighborhood so they can see the area for themselves.
Sampson agreed and said, “There are moments that happen and it builds momentum.” That momentum has been in the community for a long time now, Perry said. She said while crime has only started to decrease lately, the desire for this change has been present for awhile.
“I think there’s been a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s about taking back that sense of pride.”
Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.
With the addition of a community policing center and the presence of Community Partnership for Protecting Children, including community builder Brittney Sampson (left), the Frenchtown neighborhood has become much safer over the past two years. Residents Jim Tripp and Marilyn Hickey said they’ve noticed a positive shift.
Westbrook’s Community Policing Coordinator Megan Perry, whose office is located on Brown Street, has been working for the past two years to make the Frenchtown neighborhood safer and to offer resources to residents in need.
Chris Gorman and Brittney Sampson (left and middle), of Community Partnership for Protecting Children, have been working for two years to open a community hub in Westbrook’s Frenchtown neighborhood. People like Marilyn Hickey, who cares for her grandchildren on Brown Street, said the hub will help bring neighbors together.