Allentown leaders search for ways to reach youth, revive neighborhood groups
Intense gun violence this summer in Allentown has compelled city leaders to examine what more the government can do to help neighborhood groups thrive and what more it can do to improve the experience of growing up here.
Twenty-seven people were shot in the city in June and July. One died.
Two meetings this week offered some hope but also demonstrated the difficulty and limitations of tackling problems from City Council chambers.
On Wednesday, a new youth advisory task force led by council Vice President Julio Guridy outlined the advisory board’s main objectives and took stock of existing services and resources available for children and young parents.
It also brainstormed how the city can do more to support young families from the outset. Frustrated community members insisted the initiative must first and foremost be a grassroots effort and must welcome the city’s most troubled youth, including gang members, to achieve meaningful change.
“I know people want to see things done yesterday,” Guridy said. “But we work in order here, we have a process. It might be slow, but we’ll get there the right way.”
Attending the meeting were one or more representatives of the Allentown School Board, CareerLink’s CareerForce youth program, Lehigh County Children & Youth Services and Community Services for Children.
Deidra Vachier, vice president of early childhood development at Community Services for Children, advocated for city support of universal pre-school. Its Head Start and Early Head Start programs focus on empowering children and parents, she said, but they’re only reaching a fraction of eligible families because of funding. Annual waiting lists regularly exceed 1,700, she said.
Mayor Ray O’Connell voiced his support for the effort and, citing Philadelphia’s use of a soda tax, said he was working with the city legal department in search of a “creative way” to fund free Pre-K.
“I’m not a proponent of a soda tax, but we can come up with creative ideas that I believe the people of Allentown would be willing to get behind in order to support universal Pre-K,” he said.
Vicky Kistler, director of the city’s health bureau, encouraged the board to solicit input of teenagers and children and base its mission on what they have to say. She recalled the positive response from both students and parents to the Allentown School District’s Mad Hot Ballroom dancing competition.
She also said kids come “in droves” to a city health clinic after it incorporated design changes to its lobby that students had recommended to make it more welcoming.
All the talk about supporting existing organizations will have no short-term impact unless the youth board tackles the city’s gang problem, resident Miguel Morales said. He suggested the city is wasting its time unless it takes more radical steps to address those he believes are behind the majority of violent crime.
“Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Millie Canales and Jessica Ortiz, community organizers and center city mothers, said they came representing, in Ortiz’s words, “the youth of the hood — the Bloods, the Crypts, the Latin Kings, all of them.”
“The kids you need aren’t the ones selected by school principals, but the knuckleheads,” Canales said.
She promised to shepherd those teens to future meetings of the youth board.
“I hope they’re welcome when they come to this door, however they come,” Canales said.
Richard Lovell introduced himself as a victim of Allentown gang violence in 2014 and acknowledged being a former member of the Latin Kings who has since “made a conscious decision to engage with the troubled youth in the community.”
Lovell said he appreciated the work of the various community services organizations present, but said they’re not reaching the most at-risk youth. Such kids feel isolated and need mentors willing to meet them where they are and offer a more positive source of belonging.
“It’s about who you have in your life that’s willing to engage with you and care about you,” he said. “You need to grab these kids by the shirt and say, ‘Hey, come on, there’s something else you need to know. This isn’t all there is. There’s more out there.’”
If Wednesday’s meeting had an edge of exasperation, Thursday’s was checked by poor attendance. Excluding city employees and elected officials, eight residents showed up for a summit of neighborhood groups hosted by Courtney Robinson, chairman of council’s community and economic development committee.
Those attending discussed how the city can support neighborhood crime watches and newer community groups that increasingly don’t fit the mold of the former.
Robinson said the city can take some basic steps to help promote existing groups, such as including a list in its Adventure Allentown guide and updating its 411 App with a feature identifying nearby groups for any given resident. He also suggested the city make a howto guide on launching groups and dedicate a city position to act as a point person for community groups.
Community organizer Ed White also suggested creating an Allentown welcome pack and completing more frequent census-type surveys to get a better sense of issues and concerns of those residents who can’t attend city meetings.
Allentown police Capt. Glenn Granitz oversees the force’s center city platoon and regularly attends neighborhood meetings across the city. He said he tries to “treat each group like an investigation, figure out what makes it tick, and then meet it at that point.”
For example, regular meetings work for some of the more established neighborhood groups, while others such as Jordan Heights have shifted to event-based meetings where community members feel more comfortable.
“The last two months have been stressful for the city, but out of every moment of challenge comes an opportunity for growth and change,” Granitz said. “I really think getting more people involved could be the silver lining coming out of this summer, and I’m excited to be part of the ways that we as city employees can figure out how to reach our citizens and interact more successfully.”
Morning Call reporter Andrew Wagaman can be reached at 610-820-6764 or awaga[email protected]
Neighbors come together during the 10th annual block party of South Race Street in Allentown. Neighbors sit outside under trees, tents, play games and chat away while the smell of grilled foods, music and laughter fill the neighborhood block party on July 27.