Street Barriers that Work -- in Carefully Defined Circumstances

August 22, 1994|By ANTERO PIETILA

DAYTON, OHIO — Dayton, Ohio.--Mobilized by rising street crime and plummeting property values, residents of the Five Oaks neighborhood five minutes from downtown convinced the municipal authorities to block many of the access streets.

That was in November of 1992. Since then, traffic cutting through the neighborhood has diminished dramatically. So have such crimes as drugs, burglaries, aggravated assaults and prostitution.

Not everything is rosy, however. There was a homicide in the neighborhood again last year, in contrast to the previous year. And the number of rapes increased by 83 percent.

Nevertheless, housing prices have shot up. It is uncertain whether this is due to the confidence that security measures have given or to stricter code enforcement and a new city program that offers low-cost financing to owners and landlords wanting to fix up properties.

When Dayton authorities and Five Oaks residents began toying with the experiment, the neighborhood was widely perceived as going downhill rapidly.

"We recognized -- and the neighborhood council recognized -- that something dramatic should be done and fairly quickly," Ray Reynolds, Dayton's director of urban development, said in an interview.

But while he hailed Five Oaks' stabilization as a "move in the right direction," he was not sure the plan could be replicated even in Dayton.

"Overall, there has been a reaction that it is too dramatic," he explained, referring to criticism that centers on complaints about economic and racial segregation.

The Five Oaks experiment -- and a similar plan being implemented in Dayton's Dunbar Manor public housing project -- have poignant relevance for Baltimore.

Intrigued by ideas that would make neighborhoods more "defensible" against crime and blight, Baltimore officials have been studying ways of adopting some of Dayton's concepts in recent months. The highly publicized murders of Guilford area residents accelerated such planning.

Unlike Guilford, a wealthy section of mansions and substantial homes, Five Oaks is a relatively high-density middle-class neighborhood of 1,097 housing units. Residents in its modest homes, mostly detached or semi-detached, are racially and economically mixed.

The neighborhood is 50 percent black and 60 percent renters. All age groups are represented.

Many residents work on the faculty or staff of the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution, and worship in two area churches, Corpus Christi and Dayton Christian.

"You really would have to have those characteristics to make [the experiment] work in another neighborhood," Mr. Reynolds observed of the underlying social cohesion.

Under a plan developed by Oscar Newman, a nationally recognized urban planner and author of the seminal 1972 book, "Defensible Spaces," Five Oaks was converted into 10 separate cul-de-sac neighborhoods of 50-to-150 homes and apartments.

Eleven perimeter streets and numerous alleys around the neighborhood were blocked with fences that permit pedestrian traffic but do not allow vehicles to go through. Within the community, even more streets and alleys were blocked to vehicular traffic to form the cul-de-sacs.

The overall effect was to create a walled community. Access from Salem Avenue, a busy border thoroughfare, is particularly difficult because four streets and numerous alleys were closed, leaving only one entry point.

It is no wonder the through-traffic volume dropped by 67 percent. When I drove here, unfamiliar with the neighborhood but equipped with a detailed map pinpointing traffic arrangements, getting in was easy. Finding an exit proved maddeningly problematic, even in daytime.

With the help of Mr. Newman himself, Baltimore city officials have been studying "defensible space" ideas in recent months. His concepts are present in plans developed for residential revitalization around the Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, square blocks of rowhouses would be made more secure by limiting access to center yards with gates or fencing.

Central gating also will soon be implemented at Baltimore's Hollander Ridge public housing project. Access will be gained by residents only with a credit-card-like pass.

If the Five Oaks stabilization plan is a qualified success, efforts to make Dayton's Dunbar Manor public housing project more secure are still inconclusive.

When I visited that low-rise project, fencing and gates had been constructed. But the city lacked money to move on to repair vacant and vandalized units. Yet housing officials acknowledged that the whole project should have been done in one fell swoop to maximize the impact.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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