Melanie Shorey knew the challenge she faced in rehabbing the house on Whitney Place that she bought three years ago at public auction for $3,000. It had been a hangout for drug addicts; their used syringes littered an adjoining alley.
“The first few months I was living there, people were still doing drugs in the back alley,” recalled Shorey, who is 27 and works for an energy efficiency company. “It was a touch-and-go neighborhood. It would get better and then get worse. Soon after I bought the house, I wanted to start a block club.”
The Whitney Place Block Club that Shorey launched on Aug. 30 is the newest block club in Buffalo, according to Linda Freidenberg, president of the Board of Block Clubs of Buffalo and Erie County. It became the city’s 559th certified and registered block club.
But that number is misleading. Three-quarters of the city’s 559 certified block clubs are inactive, Freidenberg said.
Aging leadership and unstable membership are the reasons.
“Many of them have fallen along the wayside, so we need to re-energize the ones that still exist,” Freidenberg said. “There are some that have been around 20 or 30 years in the Masten District. The others still exist, but they only come together when there’s an issue. It’s better than nothing, but they are not as informed as they should be.”
Block clubs play a critical role in increasing the quality of life and safety in city neighborhoods. They promote unity among neighbors, set community standards and serve as watchdogs against crime.
But today’s block clubs are facing new challenges.
To re-energize the city’s block club network, several community organizations are offering seminars on forming block clubs, associations and tenant councils. One seminar earlier this month sponsored by the West Side Youth Development Coalition targeted the Black Rock-Riverside neighborhood and drew 40 residents.
“It’s difficult to keep people interested,” Freidenberg said, “especially once the problems and issues have receded. … You need to have frequent meetings – once a month. You need to have interesting speakers at those meetings, and you need to serve food.”
Shorey, an urban planning student three years ago, had done her homework in researching property on the Lower West Side. When she attended the city’s annual foreclosure auction, she recalled, no one bid against her. At the time, Shorey – a native of Orange County – lived at Prospect and Porter avenues and had fallen in love with the charm, architecture and cultural diversity of the Lower West Side.
“It was a fringe area,” she said. “There were professional couples from Boston and California mixed with Burmese and Hispanic families. It truly is an urban setting.”
Also in Shorey’s new neighborhood were a nonprofit needle-exchange program for drug addicts and a methadone clinic. Gang-related violence, prostitution and drug sales were concerns of the small band of neighbors Shorey gathered to meet at Spot Coffee on Delaware Avenue to talk about starting a block club.
After two meetings, the group drew up bylaws, selected a name, and the Whitney Place Block Club was born.
“I’d like to see more block clubs,” said Buffalo Police Lt. Steven J. Nichols. “They are the eyes and ears. They tell us what is happening. The neighbors help us put a case together. Whether it’s a party house or shooting dice on the street, a patrol car comes down the street, and the illegal activity disperses.”
Nichols heads the Buffalo Police Department’s unit of community police officers who have spearheaded numerous street sweeps in response to complaints of gang activity, loud parties, theft of cable services, rats, stray dogs, abandoned property and housing code violations.
Evictions are an important tool. A tenant in one house on Whitney between Virginia and Carolina streets was evicted after repeated complaints of loud music.
Three years ago, Shorey said, her neighborhood was at a tipping point. Since then, and after the arrests of nearly 50 alleged members of the Seventh and Tenth Street gangs, conditions have calmed. Still, Shorey is determined to stay vigilant.
“I’m going to be aggressive,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in collective action. I know that it takes a block club to reach out to City Hall. As an individual, I can’t do it alone.”
Not just about problems
Earlier this month, residents of Black Rock-Riverside concerned about crime and property values gathered in the Polish Cadets Hall on Grant Street to learn more about block clubs, as refreshments were served.
Like many of Buffalo’s older neighborhoods, houses in Black Rock-Riverside have passed through generations of families.
Debbie Baker, of Peter Street, is vice president of the Grant Amherst Block Watchers. The club is composed of residents who live on Bridgeman, Howell, Bush, Reservation, Germain and Peter. For 10 years they have met once a month to discuss concerns over absentee landlords, abandoned property, drug sales. But this block club also gives back to the community. For the past six years, it has sponsored a child’s stay at Cradle Beach Camp. And each year, it teams up with the Grant-Amherst Business Association for the Rediscover Amherst Street Festival and a floral beautification project.
“It just isn’t about complaining all the time,” said Baker, who grew up in the house she owns today. “But if you say nothing, you’re just as much to blame.”
On the other side of the city, block clubs are challenged by an aging membership base.
Ada Hopson-Clemons, program director of the Masten Block Club Coalition, is a longtime block club organizer who trained under Louise Bonner.
Bonner, who founded the Durham Place Block Club in 1975, paved the way for many of the 90 block clubs registered in the Masten Coalition. Bonner, the woman who became known as “Miss Block Club,” died in 2012 at age 71.
The Durham Place Block Club she launched is now the oldest in the city. Its president, David Worthy, may be one of the oldest officers at 87.
Recruiting new members is a critical step for a successful block club, said Hopson-Clemons. That’s why for years she took her grandchildren with her to weekend block club meetings. Today, her grandchildren are teenagers.
Hopson-Clemons now lives on Courtland Avenue in Lovejoy and is the vice president of the Courtland Block Club.
“What a lot of block club presidents do is bring their grandchildren with them to the meetings so they get used to doing community work,” Freidenberg said. “I guess that’s what you have to do to get kids involved these days, because they just don’t take the ownership that older people do.”
There is another obstacle to maintaining neighborhood block clubs. In some parts of Buffalo, the neighborhood went missing.
In the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, many of the streets – Sherman, Smith, Peckham, Sweet, Lombard, Gibson – may average two to four houses a block because of the ambitious demolition program launched in 2000 that has resulted in the razing of 5,800 houses.
“The houses have all been torn down,” Hopson-Clemons said. “It’s hard to form a block club where there are only two houses on the street. If you see five homes, you think you have a neighborhood. I know that’s sad, but that’s the truth.”
Friedenberg has worked with block clubs for two decades. She sees more of a need now than ever to energize the neighborhood clubs.
“Because of all the crime in the neighborhoods,” she said. “And the city could use more beautification. We want to entice more people to move back in the city. Lord knows, we have enough room.”