New West Willow Neighborhood Association brings stability, energy to community
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
The meeting was the New West Willow Neighborhood Association’s monthly gathering, and some of the biggest news was the decline in home invasions, which dropped in July by almost 20 compared to July 2010, according to deputy Nick Krings, a Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department deputy who works the neighborhood’s foot beat.
Depending on the outcome of two investigations, it's possible there was only one home invasion for the entire month of July.
Several residents also got up and discussed the Speak Peace West Willow Rally, an event scheduled for Aug. 13 meant to honor those who lost their lives to violence over the fall and winter and to unite the neighborhood against violence.
But not all the news was good.
Krings also reported on organized fights among teens in the neighborhood. The group asked Krings questions, and neighborhood association president Angela Barbash reported that the group was already actively identifying kids. She asked for residents' help in identifying the youths.
Once identified, the kids’ names would be provided to sheriff’s deputies who can begin knocking on doors. While the idea of a miniature “Fight Club” in the neighborhood was disturbing, Barbash said it wasn’t anything the neighborhood couldn’t handle after addressing home invasions and a prolonged stretch of gun violence.
“We only had one (home invasion) in July and one in June, while at this time last year we had 21. That is such a huge deal,” Barbash told the group. “We’re dealing with a half dozen girls who are getting in fights. That’s the biggest issue we have. We’ve dealt with the property crimes to best of our ability, and we just need to remain vigilant with that.”
The neighborhood association has been instrumental in West Willow’s recent successes and has led the community through some troubling times. They initially proposed the idea of the now successful summer police operation, which has deterred crime during months when it usually peaks.
The group recently organized into a professional non-profit and can solicit grants. It organized a summer program for the neighborhood’s youths, partners with other community groups and developed a citizen’s patrol team. The group works closely with the Sheriff’s Department and has opened up previously closed communication lines with renters and landlords in the neighborhood.
New West Willow launched in 1995, and its evolution into something bigger than an active neighborhood watch program started in 2006 when the group began developing a strategic plan with the help of the Washtenaw County Office of Community Development and multiple other groups.
Then-president Nathan Norman and a small group of residents incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2007. They were turned down for a grant through the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, but have been written into a grant with the Community Action Network and are hopeful to receive assistance through that channel.
If the group is awarded the money, it would provide a social worker for the neighborhood’s community center three days a week to work with West Willow's high percentage of federally subsidized Section 8 residents.
As New West Willow organized, the summer recreation program also grew. The County’s Parks and Recreation Commission provides staffing and around 60 kids participated in this year’s eight week program.
Through a recently established partnership with Growing Hope, the community center now has a garden producing a wide variety of vegetables that is maintained with the help of the kids in the summer program.
The kids have their own section of the garden where they plant, grow, harvest then eat the food they grow throughout the summer. All other harvested vegetables and fruits are donated to low-income residents in the neighborhood.
New West Willow also recently partnered with the Fly Children’s Arts Center, which holds weekly classes for kids in the summer program. Guest speakers from police officers to residents speak about their careers and talk with the kids, and field trip destinations have included Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Rolling Hills Park and Independence Lake.
“We try to expose the kids to a world outside of their typical routine,” Barbash said. “That’s especially important for low-income kids who don’t have opportunity through their parents to go experience things, so we try to bring those experiences to them.”
One of the more significant and unique efforts undertaken by New West Willow is involving renters and landlords in the association. Those demographics are typically shunned by neighborhood associations, but New West Willow recently changed its bylaws to make everyone in the neighborhood a de facto member instead of requiring $12 in annual dues.
Now, an eight-person board has a renter and landlord representative, and the association has established communication lines with eight other landlords who control around 80 houses, or 15 percent of the neighborhood’s rental stock. The number of rental homes in West Willow has doubled from 21 percent to 42 percent in recent years. Concurrently, the amount of Section 8 housing is also on the rise.
The board sees the inclusion of renters as crucial to its success, but several landlords who own nearly entire blocks of homes and are either consistently absent or in and out of jail have yet to respond to the association.
“Those are the ones we have yet to figure out how to approach,” Barbash said. “We’re developing a strategy to get them on our side, If they connect their tenants to the neighborhood’s tenants, maybe they won’t be having turnover every six months and it would bring some stabilization to them and the neighborhood. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.”
New West Willow rents the community center from the township for $1 a year and it costs $3,000 to maintain. The group was able to raise $1,100 through donations solicited through the mail this last year.