National Night Out promotes community togetherness, safety

Events included block parties, barbecues and other neighborhood gatherings.

Sara Schweid

What started as a simple statement of support for law enforcement officers has grown into an annual nationwide event.

People gathered Tuesday at neighborhood events in all 50 states for the 23rd annual National Night Out, a community-building and crime prevention program.

Minneapolis regularly is the biggest participant in National Night Out, ranking No. 1 for the past five years, said John Baumann, manager of the Minneapolis program.

Baumann said that last year there were about 840 events in Minneapolis and about 46,000 people participated. He said that this year there were about 1,100 events planned, and he anticipated at least 50,000 attendees, but they won’t have the exact numbers for a few weeks.

The big block parties, barbecues, potlucks and giveaways are a far cry from the original plan for National Night Out, which Baumann described as, “sit out on your porch and turn on your light.”

Baumann, who has worked with Minneapolis’ National Night Out since its inception, said they always had envisioned it differently.

“Neighborhoods build from the block level up,” Baumann said. “We encourage people to do small events – one, two or three blocks – where people really get a chance to know their neighbors, because that’s where it really makes an impact.”

Parishioners and employees from the University Lutheran Church of Hope in Dinkytown gathered under a tent on the church’s front lawn.

They greeted passers-by and encouraged them to stop to talk and enjoy the free food.

This is the fourth year the church has been involved in National Night Out, Pastor Kwdnza Yu said.

In a neighborhood with a large student population, many residents do not live in the area long, she said.

“How long they stay doesn’t matter,” Yu said. “As long as they live here, they should get to know people in the community.”

Parishioner Rosalie Elderik said events like this are important for community building.

“If you build relationships, you are more aware of people’s needs, and you’re able to help them out and support them,” she said.

Robyn Swenson, who has been organizing her block’s National Night Out events for four years, expected about 50 people at her block party at the corner of 12th and East Hennepin avenues.

The events take place in a nearby community garden, where neighbors have a chance to catch up, eat ice cream and paint stepping stones for the garden.

Swenson said events like this are important for building community relationships, especially with the diverse population in the Southeast Como neighborhood – a mix of lifelong residents, families with children and students.

“I think it builds a sense of community,” Swenson said. “It lets us slow down for a little while and get to know each other.”

Taking time to meet one’s neighbors is a simple and effective crime prevention tool, said Greg Hestness, chief of University police.

“(Police officers) are never going to be as familiar with all the neighborhoods as the residents there,” he said.

“I can’t overstate the importance of getting to know your neighbors so they know what’s out of place on the block,” Hestness said.

Baumann recalled the way a participant from last year described the evening. She said that before she had met her neighbors she paid little attention to what people were doing. Once she met them, though, she felt she had “permission” to watch out for them.

“It almost gives you permission to notice what’s going on at your neighbor’s house and to call 911 if you see something that doesn’t look right,” Baumann said.

Maryann Madison attended an event at the Seven Corners apartment complex in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. She isn’t a neighborhood resident, but she brought her granddaughter, who lives in the area.

Madison said it is important for neighbors to get to know one another.

“When they’re united, communities become safer,” Madison said. “If you see someone suspicious who doesn’t live in the community, you are more likely to report them.”

Minneapolis police officer J.B. Werner attended the Seven Corners event. He said bringing neighbors together is one of the most important things to do.

“When you know your neighbors, you care more about them, and you’re more likely to take action when something is out of place,” Werner said.

The challenge, Baumann said, is keeping neighbors active even when nothing is wrong. They tend to be the most active when there are problems on their block – a string of burglaries or car break-ins – but one of the goals of National Night Out is to keep neighbors involved in the community year-round, he said.

“There’s nothing really magical about the first Tuesday in August,” he said. “The important thing is for neighbors to get together with neighbors.”