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Children clamored aboard a Cape Girardeau city fire truck, Bob Camp and friends held a classic-rock jam session and smoke from the barbecue pit filled the air.
A laid back setting on a picture perfect day was the excuse for those who live or work in downtown neighborhoods to do something that has become unusual: act like neighbors.
"It's such a simple basic thing. People don't know their neighbors anymore and some are even afraid of them," said Rev. Bob Towner. "So something like this is almost countercultural."
Towner and about 30 others were taking part in the second annual Neighborhood Connections Picnic held at the May Greene Garden Saturday. The picnic was a celebration for the citizen's group formed to bring together people who live or work between Spanish St. and Sprigg St. and North St. and Independence St.
Founded in Winter of 2004, Neighborhood Connections now meets once every two months to voice concerns over issues as small as an overgrown yard or as deadly serious as drug activity. The group has organized neighborhood watch programs and distributed forms to report troubling activity to municipal leaders. They've even put together a "wall of fame" and "shame" to illustrate the best and worst of the community.
But Towner said the most important results have not come from any official acts by the group, rather they come from an old fashioned rubbing of elbows.
"If I've got a problem affecting my neighbors now I'm not just a local pastor walking around and whining," he said. "I can go to [Corporal] Ike Hammonds because he's my friend or I can go to [City Councilman] Charlie Herbst because he's my friend and we can all work together to find solutions...it's a paradigm change in this community."
Hammonds who has attended meetings since the group's inception says the group is vital to making people feel safe in downtown. "Sometimes it gets a bad rap because people think downtown means it's closer to some of the crime activity whether it's Good Hope or here at Themis and Fountain it gets that connotation," he said. "So organizing neighborhood watch and Neighborhood Connections is all about making people feel better when they're in this area."
Debbie Kapfer lives on Frederick Street and attends the meetings. She says she for one feels safer. "More people are coming downtown and feeling safer coming down here," she said. "We've lived in the house for 28 years and seen a lot of changes. This group is making a difference."
A game at the picnic seemed particularly in keeping with the Neighborhood Connections' mission. It was a scavenger hunt but instead of searching for objects, participants were instructed to go around and meet people. One clue asked participants to "find an elected official," another said "find a neighborhood handyman."
The game seemed to say that the people in a community are the real treasures. "I think all neighborhoods need to do this," said founding member Joan Jones. "It just serves to make the community a safer, healthier, friendlier place to live."
Towner agrees, but says even though he is happy with the accomplishments to date, he'd like to widen the scope of Neighborhood Connections' mission.
"I'd like to find a way to advocate for tenants," he said. "We have a lot of poor people in this area and some are being very well served by responsible landlords and some are not. They need some advocacy and we want to do that in a way that is a positive expression of neighborhood guidance."
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