Oct. 19, 2002 An effort is being made on St. John to bring the resources of a federal crime fighting program to keep a residential community from losing its quality of life.
The Weed and Seed program is designed to deter criminal and anti-social activities that drive neighborhoods into decline across the United States. It also fosters a better quality of life by attracting programs that help families and promote economic well-being. Sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department, Weed and Seed is already operating on St. Thomas.
But attracting those kind of resources has been a tough sell for St. John. Island Administrator Julien Harley said that since the lush green island and its small, peaceful population attracted millions of visitors a year, it just didn't fit the profile.
"St. John is unique," Harley said. There is a public housing community, but there's no drug or crime problem there.
After several months of trying to justify the reasons why Weed and Seed should come to Love City, the group turned to the St. John Community Foundation for help.
Executive Director Carol DeSenne said, "The steering committee met from January to April and felt they weren't getting anywhere. The foundation was asked to come in April and be the lead agency."
The group decided to focus its efforts in a community about a half-mile south of Cruz Bay called Pine Peace. DeSenne said the commitment of residents and homeowners has been demonstrated by their consistency in showing up at planning meetings. Close to 60 people showed up for a meeting held earlier this month at St. Ursula's Multipurpose Community Center, 35 of them from the Pine Peace community.
"People are really coming out to try and make this work because there are people living there who have really seen their neighborhood come down in the past five years," DeSenne said.
Homeowner Henry Jackson, who lived in the area since childhood, said the residents were accomplishing a lot. He recalled how the area began as a sparse array of wooden houses surrounded by bush and traversed by a dirt road.
"The quality of life has changed because almost everybody has their own home, and most of the kids have gone away to college. We have a store. We used to have a shop. I think the neighborhood has changed immensely," he said.
But he also said other things were changing, including the amount of loitering and crime. DeSenne said it took some time to document the problem, but the group gained the cooperation of police who agreed to help.
As authorities separated statistics compiled for the St. Thomas-St. John district, and as volunteers collected more than a hundred surveys from area residents, the Weed and Seed proposal group was better able to make its case.
Within the bounds of the community, residents and law enforcement professionals have cited a rise in drug dealing and drug houses, gambling and the number of residents who have to check in with the parole officer. Kids in the area are sometimes recruited as couriers for large amounts of cash used to place bets on cockfights on St. Thomas.
Violent crime is not a real problem on St. John. The largest problem is with burglaries, the kind of crime that provides quick cash to those who want to fund illegal activities.
"When the proposal first came in they denied it, but when they came in and saw how hard the people were working, they decided to give it a chance," Harley said.
The committee reviewed a 400-page implementation manual and solicited commitments from public and private agencies to do their part to make life better for the people of Pine Peace.
Among those supporting the community is a local painter who has agreed to take on 10 apprentices in a "Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate" initiative in conjunction with the V.I. Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission.
Most recently the Department of Public Works entered discussions on the removal of abandoned cars and discarded appliances that undermine community pride and drive down property values.
For Jackson and some of the other residents involved in the effort, the goal is working toward a vision of what the community could be if it can reduce the blight and attract the things it wants.
Some of those goals came out of an initial meeting with DeSenne several weeks ago at the Cruz Bay Baptist Church, where the group entertained the possibility of greater commercial development, recreation facilities, a health center and expansion of the community playground.
But the time is fast approaching when the St. John Weed and Seed steering committee will be able to test the strength of its arguments to Justice. With an Oct. 31 deadline fast approaching, DeSenne said many positive steps have been explored in the six months of team building and committing to improving life in Pine Peace.
Plans are also in the works to push projects that can be funded locally. "If we don't become a Weed and Seed site, this committee will not disband," DeSenne said.
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