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Backyard Coalition joins to tackle city safety issues

(ran East, South editions)

Some are from neighborhoods where drugs and prostitution are big worries.

Others live where speeding on residential streets is a larger concern.

Voicing variations on the theme, more than a dozen neighborhood activists are meeting to discuss their concerns about safety in the city. They want to find ways to make City Hall respond to what they see as a worsening crime scenario.

Calling itself the Backyard Coalition, the group is questioning police response time to calls and whether statistics suggesting less crime in the city actually paint a genuine picture.

They want to push for more officers on the streets. And they have been critical of the way problems on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S were handled after a Jan. 17 parade honoring the civil rights leader.

"It's not something we're going to resolve overnight," said Theresa McEachern, a group member who lives in Harbordale. "At this point I just want to be sure that everyone within the power structure understands our concerns and understands we're looking at the betterment of the entire city.

"We may not all agree 100 percent with each other, but from what I can see so far, everyone is open and honest, and no one has any hidden or personal agenda," McEachern said.

Members live in neighborhoods ranging from Harbordale and Bartlett Park to Jungle Terrace in the city's western region. Most of the neighborhoods are in the city's central area, and some are within Mayor David Fischer's Challenge 2001 area. Jim Biggerstaff, the Council of Neighborhood Associations president, also is a member.

"We don't want to be seen as black or white or otherwise. We want to be seen as one unit," said Lorraine Margeson, who helped organize the coalition in November.

A crime-watch coordinator, Margeson has long been active in efforts to clean up a 34th Street N strip frequented by prostitutes, drug users and dealers. She has acted as the coalition's spokeswoman but doesn't consider herself its leader.

There is no president or director "and we don't want one," Margeson said. "We want to have free-flow speech when we meet."

The coalition has met once with Fischer and other top administration officials, including police Chief Goliath Davis. There are plans to visit with them again this month.

"It would be good if we as residents can stick together with the problems we have in this city, especially drugs," said Leroy Lewis, a coalition member who is also co-chairman of a Weed and Seed committee.

"Not only on drugs, but a number of things. We need stronger leaders who can come out and be honest and work with this coalition to be able to create a new environment for our children. It's not just drugs, it's everything. But drugs are the main problem," Lewis said.

Fischer said his administration takes such groups seriously and that the Backyard Coalition "has some pretty good neighborhood people."

Said the mayor: "We don't shirk from input. The group is made up of a lot of people we know from neighborhoods. I'm not sure necessarily what their agenda is, (but) if it's constructive, they seem to zero in on public safety, that's fine."

Coalition members say they don't mean to be critical of officers on the streets, whom they generally view as doing a good job.

They also say they are representing themselves rather than their particular neighborhoods or associations.

But neighborhood quality of life is the coalition's core issue. Some residents say they've seen crack houses spring up in neighborhoods where none existed before. They worry about hookers and drug dealers being pushed from one area to another in response to police pressure.

They are concerned about the potential for violent home invasions and they wonder if police are always candid about the crime.

"We're not comfortable with the fact that the observed atmosphere in many parts of the city is accurate with city statements that crime is going down," Margeson said.

Discussion and problem-solving top the coalition's agenda, Margeson said.

Meeting with the city is the first tactic, she said. But the coalition doesn't rule out going to higher authorities, including federal law enforcement, she said.

"We need to go where we can get help," Margeson said. "We feel some of our neighborhoods are about to go under."