One of the items on our list of factors that might be important in the long-term for this community is civic engagement.
Along with attracting younger workers and managing water resources, civic engagement is one of the subjects of our occasional series on the Opinion page called 10 Years Out.
Civic engagement can mean a lot of things, from neighbors who help each other keep the sidewalks clear of snow to large numbers of people running for local elective offices to service clubs that provide volunteer labor for local events.
All those are ways that people engage with each other and show that they care about one another.
A number of people in the city of Kenosha are getting involved with their neighbors through the Neighborhood Watch program, which is run by the Kenosha Police Department’s crime prevention officers, Ron Francis and Jeff Wamboldt.
There are now 231 Neighborhood Watch groups in Kenosha, Wamboldt said in a phone interview. That’s up from 55 about seven years ago. Usually Neighborhood Watch groups involve the houses on one city block.
Most of those groups, once they are organized, meet once a year, although some meet more often.
“It’s all voluntary,” Wamboldt said. “We suggest that the meet once a year. Some of our Neighborhood Watch groups meet two to three times a year.”
Crime reporting and crime prevention is only part of the mission, Wamboldt said.
Neighbors looking out for one another is one component. Residents and police helping each other is another.
The third component is building a sense of community.
That’s not necessarily easy in a city where many people commute long distances to jobs.
Either Wamboldt or Francis attends all the Neighborhood Watch meetings. Wamboldt said they often find neighbors who’ve lived in an area several years meeting for the first time at an inaugural Neighborhood Watch meeting.
Curt Wilson, an alderman who is also a Neighborhood Watch captain, said the groups help bind the community together.
“I waved at all the neighbors going by,” Wilson said, “but I really didn’t know them until we started having annual meetings.”
As an alderman, he is often invited to Neighborhood Watch meetings in his district. Last year he helped to establish eight more groups. Now there are 14 in his district.
“People are committed to it,” Wilson said. “It only takes an hour or two a year, but the rest of the year, you know what your neighbor looks like. If something changes, it’s obvious. People are more aware.”
Dino Marchesini, another Neighborhood Watch captain, said the group originally formed when neighbors were concerned about a drug house that was eventually declared a nuisance property and seized by the city.
“We were trying to get this taken care of individually. We didn’t know what to do,” Marchesini said. “Neighborhood Watch showed us how to organize a little group. Once you get to know each other a lot better, it just works.
“I don’t think our neighborhood would be where it is right now if it wasn’t for Neighborhood Watch. It’s a lot better than it was. It gets better all the time now.”
Marchesini said the group still meets once a year, usually in the parking lot of McKinley Elementary School, 5520 32nd Ave.
“All I do is I get the people together,” he said. “It helps me communicate with the neignbors, especially new people coming in. I hand them a packet and say this is what we do around here.”
Wilson said he thinks Neighborhood Watch helps improve the quality of life.
“It’s all a sense of community,” Wilson said. “If we keep to ourselves and don’t get involved in something as successful as Neighborhood Watch, I think we’re losing out. It doesn’t eliminate crime, but it helps.”
Wamboldt said one of the effects of Neighborhood Watch is to “put a face on the police department,” which makes people less hesitant to call the police.
“We tell them they can call us for just about any reason,” Wamboldt said. “We tell them, ‘We want you to talk about the small things.’”
Nobody claims Neighborhood Watch is the only factor, but as Neighborhood Watch groups have increased in Kenosha, burglaries have declined.
And all those neighbors got to know each other, too.
Steve Lund is the editorial page editor of the Kenosha News. His column appears on Thursdays.