By Laurie Merrill
From her kitchen chair in the heart of west Phoenix, Luann Pope has seen the fall and rise of a neighborhood. Pope, who lives at 27th Avenue and Hazelwood Street, has witnessed prostitutes come and go, homeless camps settle and disband, and empty lots – once filled with trash and broken glass – transform into colorful spaces with splashy murals. There still are problems, Pope said, but the community between Camelback and Indian School roads near 27th Avenue has come a long way.
“Things have cleared up a lot,” said Pope, who has lived in her home for seven years. “Everyone deserves a nice place to live.”
A lot of the credit, in her opinion, goes to the Neighborhood Safety Initiative, a nearly six-year-old crime-busting partnership between Grand Canyon University and the Phoenix Police Department that adds patrols and specialized enforcement to the streets.
Three miles to the north, Bud Cloudman, who lives in a single-story brick house near West Tuckey Lane and North 35th Avenue, said GCU’s expansion has increased the sense of safety and added visually pleasing aesthetics with new businesses such as the GCU Hotel and Canyon 49 Grill.
His neighborhood, formerly in decline, is now on an upswing and considering historical status, he said.
“GCU has been tremendously successful,” Cloudman said. “It’s improved the quality of life. It’s upped the value of my home.”
Pope and Cloudman live in or near the corridor between Interstate 17 and 35th Avenue and Bethany Home and Indian School roads, which receives extra and targeted law enforcement because of the NSI.
Launched in 2012, the NSI is a unique public-private partnership between Phoenix and GCU in which each contributes $100,000 annually to fund police officer overtime in streets surrounding the University.
“The bottom line is the Phoenix Police Department will conduct extra patrols and crime-suppression programs with the goal of impacting the crime rate,” said Joseph Yahner, GCU Director of Public Safety and Phoenix’s former Police Chief.
The initial agreement from 2012 to 2017 recently was extended another three years. Years of saturated enforcement have made a definite dent in crime. During the first five years of the initiative, property crimes declined 26.8 percent (compared to a 3.8 percent drop citywide during that time frame) while violent crimes fell 8.6 percent (compared to a 13 percent increase citywide), according to FBI crime reporting statistics.
“When this first started, GCU didn’t have a police department,” Yahner said. “Now we do.” This lightens the load on the Phoenix department because GCU police now handle the University’s calls for service. These are typically more minor complaints, Yahner said, and Phoenix police are free to handle everything else. The NSI enables police to make more arrests in the short term and drive crime out of the area in the long term.
“That makes it safer for families living in the area and for K-12 students returning home from school,” Yahner said. “And it makes the area more attractive to businesses.”
The area also benefits from community groups such as the Phoenix Neighborhood Services Department, the Violence Impact Project Coalition, Canyon Corridor Neighborhood Alliance and Vecinos Unidos Siempre Block Watch.
Pope is one of a number of enthusiastic activists who work to make west Phoenix safer one street at a time.
“When we started cleaning up 27th Avenue, we started at the south end because that area is the worst,” she said.
To help a business owner who repeatedly was getting burglarized, lighting was added and a nearby bus stop was reconstructed to make it safer and more attractive.
Pope’s pretty brick home once was located near the epicenter of local prostitution, she said. Hundreds of cars cruised by nightly.
“It was right outside my window,” she said. But targeted enforcement of the kind made possible by the NSI has changed that, Pope said. Police have cracked down by towing customers’ cars and conducting surveillance to help identify lawbreakers.
Today, a beautiful mural of a tree, symbolizing rebirth, stands in a lot across from Pope’s home. Cloudman moved into his home nine years ago and is the new kid on the block. His neighbors across the street have lived there more than 20 years, his neighbor to the left more than 40 years and to the right more than 15 years.
GCU has made it possible, Cloudman said, for this established, mature community with grass lawns and well-built homes to continue improving.
“The GCU effect has made a difference,” Cloudman said. “I’m hoping it will continue to expand.”