Philadelphia block captains keep eyes peeled for litter and riffraff

Living in a big city such as Philadelphia can feel somewhat anonymous. A municipal block captain program gives involved citizens a leadership role–and a chance to take on problems on their street.

Three of those block captains are on the job every day in West Philadelphia, trying to reduce crime and improve their communities.

Lucille Fletcher sits on her porch watching the cars go by, keeping an eye on her street. As the block captain, Fletcher distributes the neighborhood newspaper and recycling bins.

“I live in the 1300 block of South 46th Street, and I became a block captain … it will be 14 years this year,” said Fletcher.

She also calls the police about problems.

“Hi, my name is Miss Fletcher, I’m the block captain, from 1300 South 46th Street. Can you send the squad cars over here?”

Whether it’s speaking up at a West Shore Neighborhood Association meeting or confronting the mayor, Fletcher says everyone in her area knows who she is.

“Cause I run my mouth,” said Fletcher. “I go to places, I run my mouth, over at that library forum at Kingsessing, I’m the one that got up” to confront Mayor Michael Nutter, “loud and clear.”

“We’re always looking. We’re looking for abandoned cars, that type of thing,” said Andrew Donald, block captain on the block south of 47th near Woodland Avenue. “Any car that looks abandoned, immediately we call. We do normally get response from the authorities.”

Studies have shown that block captains have mixed results at reducing crime levels, said Caterina Roman, a research professor in Temple University’s criminal justice department.

“You really need a motivated community leader that’s going to sustain that effort,” said Roman, whose work focuses on neighborhood violence and social networks. “You can’t go out and say, we’re going to do this effort, do one walk a week for a few weeks and expect you are going to have an impact on crime.”

Tending to Regent Street

One block captain who is certainly motivated is Abdul Yousuf, a retired economics professor from Ethiopia who has lived on the 4800 block of Regent Street for 20 years. His neighbor, Aaron Birk, says Yousuf, a self-designated block captain, walks the length of the block three to four times a day.

“Very slowly, very, very slowly, with his hands behind his back, he’s usually dressed very nicely, in pressed khaki pants, and beautiful button-down shirts,” said Birk of Yousuf. “He sometimes wears a beret; he’s always looking very elegant and dignified.”

“Always I walk with my dog, they know me and my dog are always together,” said Yousuf of his neighbors.

“He cleans up after people, he shovels people’s snow, he rakes people’s leaves, he cleans out people’s gardens, he moves people’s trash, he puts their trash cans away,” added Birk.

Yousuf said his work in the civil rights movement inspired him to help out in his neighborhood. It also taught him skills that have helped him avert several car thefts.

“They came twice. One guy was behind the car, he was standing trying to open the car. I asked him ‘Can I help you sir?’ and he said ‘No, I’m all right,'” recalled Yousuf. “Sometimes even the bad guys, you have to persuade them with good names, ‘Good morning, good evening, how are you? How do you feel?’ and you disarm them.

“They become surprised, ‘How come this person nice to me?’ and they don’t do any kind of evil things, they just walk away,” he said.

Yousuf’s street is between two high schools. He’s had trouble with drugs and theft on the block. When he sees a young person causing trouble, he tries to intervene with a book such as “The Pact,” about three inner city boys from Newark, N.J., who make a commitment to become doctors.

“When I see them, ‘Oh young man, how are you today? Here’s a book,'” said Yousuf, describing his approach. “So they take it, so they get excited, they start reading the books.”

With more than 6,000 official block captains in place, Philadelphia is trying to recruit thousands more to help out with an anti-litter campaign.

What bothers you about the street you live on? Do your neighbors do something that especially annoys you? What do you do to try to reduce crime and improve your neighborhood? Tells us your thoughts in the comments below.

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