By MARGAUX HENQUINET
A lively group of 20 to 25 people gathered Thursday night, April 28, in the basement of Calvary Baptist Church for the first meeting of the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association.
After the meeting started at 6 p.m., the neighbors all introduced themselves, most giving their addresses and how long they had lived there and adding their feelings about the neighborhood. Some had been there for decades, some only for a few years. Nine Columbia Police Department officers attended the meeting as well, many who are assigned to “Beat 20,” which includes the neighborhood.
A common theme ran throughout the introductions: Many residents said enthusiastically that they love the neighborhood, but several said there are things that could be better, too.
They raised concerns about gunshots, cars not obeying traffic laws and more.
Columbia Police Lt. Chris Kelley, a nighttime commander who oversees the whole city between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., addressed those concerns and gave reports about what the police have seen around the neighborhood lately. He said though there have been incidents with narcotics, drug dealing and prostitution in the area, the numbers are trending down. There were fewer calls and reports within the confines of the neighborhood in January through March of 2011 than there were in the same months in 2010, he said.
Throughout the meeting, Kelley emphasized that Columbia police cannot fix the neighborhood’s problems on their own; they need help from everyone who lives there. He said anyone who sees any kind of trouble should call and report it, which can be done anonymously. Reports help the police department track crime trends and identify trouble spots in the neighborhood, he said.
Verna Laboy, who organized the meeting, said one of her goals in starting the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association was building a bridge between the association and the police department. After the meeting, she said she was impressed by the officers’ presence at the event.
After everyone’s concerns were addressed, Laboy shifted the focus of the meeting to people’s ideas for the future. “What is your idea of a great neighborhood?” she asked. “What do you want to see?”
When Laboy was in Chicago, a friend explained to her that the city’s neighborhood associations formed around its parks. Inspired by how well that worked in Chicago, she got the idea to bring the system here and form the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association around Worley Street Park.
“We have a little park, but we can make big things happen here,” she said.
She said she would like to see Worley Street Park become a place for the neighborhood to hold festivals and host activities. She proposed starting evening walks or bicycle rides in the summer.
At 7 p.m., Laboy said anyone who was not interested in leading the association was free to leave. Very few left, and when she asked those who remained who would help, hands went up across the room. People began stepping up almost immediately, passing out papers and volunteering to collect and distribute the group members’ contact information.
After the meeting, Laboy said she was very excited about how it had gone. “The energy was high and the support was incredible,” she said.
She was happy with the 10 people who will form the leadership for the organization. “You don’t need a big crowd to lay the foundation,” she said.
That group will meet again in the next two weeks to complete the necessary paperwork and submit it to the Columbia City Council so the association can officially form. “And then we’ll get busy dreaming,” Laboy said.
The turnout for the meeting was about what she expected it to be, and, overall, she’s very optimistic about the association’s chances for continued formation and growth.
“You’ll be hearing more about the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association,” she said.