Fight gun violence in the city with better street design

How four people made small changes to reduce gun violence in a Portland neighborhood by 60%.

When Nadine Salama moved into a new building across from her daughter’s favorite park in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, she was thrilled.

For years, Salama and her 9-year-old shared a home with Salama’s company, Green Tulip Peace & Nature School, a preschool and a daycare. They were thrilled to have their own space when they moved in January 2020. The apartment was only three minutes from Salama’s work.

Then, six months after they moved, there was a shooting in front of their house.

Salama, who has lived and worked in Mt. Scott-Arleta for 12 years, found herself reassuring her neighbors that this sort of thing was not common in the neighborhood.

But the shootings were becoming more and more common. In the summer, Salama says the neighborhood saw five or six shootings each month. “It was something we went through every day,” she says. In addition, filming that previously took place at 1 a.m., or midnight, now begins at 6 p.m.

The shootings were and are part of a wider increase in gun violence in the US Last year, Portland had its highest number of homicides in three decades. Across the country, gun violence has increased by more than 30% during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Philadelphia, there were 562 homicides in 2021. And the city has already recorded 632 non-fatal and 160 fatal shootings this year — a 9% decrease from last year, but still nothing to brag about.

Salama noticed that the physical layout of his neighborhood made it conducive to drive-by shootings. Mt. Scott Park sits adjacent to 72nd Avenue, a major thoroughfare that allows shooters to get away quickly. Opposite the park, a church car park with five entrances also allows for a quick escape.

“[Shooters] would shoot to one side of the road, pull into the parking lot and smash into our side streets,” she said.

What Salama did next helped reduce gun violence in the neighborhood 60 percent, reported NPR. Could a similar solution help Philly solve part of its gun violence problem?

As an involved neighbor and owner of a kindergarten, Salama started local. She contacted parents, youth organizations she had worked with before, and the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association.

Everyone was consenting. They decided to first work on reducing access to the church parking lot.

“We didn’t want to lose our community,” says Salama. “We thought the best way to solve this would be to start creating barriers and making it harder for the perpetrators to get away with them and be able to escape.”

Joel Sommer, pastor of Access Covenant Church, had rented a small space in the church. Sommer put Salama in touch with church leaders. “When they heard what Nadine was asking for, they immediately cordoned off two of the exits” using simple chain barriers, he says.

Salama then contacted Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who directs Fire and Rescue Services, Portland’s Office of Transportation, and Community and Civic Life, to see how to add streetlights to the park and set up speed bumps to slow down traffic.

Since 72nd Avenue is commonly used by ambulances and other emergency response vehicles, the speed bumps were a no-start. Hardesty put Salama in touch with Dr. Jonathan Jay, a Boston University professor who studies how traffic patterns and tree cover affect gun violence and came to town to meet Hardesty. Jay met with Salama and Andre Miller, a community justice organizer for the city. Salama showed them around the park and told them where bullet casings were in the neighborhood.

The trio hatched a plan to convert a nearby ramp lane – which allowed cars to turn left without entering the intersection, giving shooters a quick escape route – into a community space. (Residents are currently voting on proposed uses for the space.)

But Salama was looking for more immediate action. She recalls hearing gunshots as she cooked dinner in her apartment in September 2021. After the shooting, a car crashed into a fire hydrant as the driver tried to flee the scene.

“My daughter was playing in her room, and we distinctly heard gunshots at the end of the road, like towards the park,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe for my daughter to come down the stairs to our car alone because there could be a stray bullet.”

Salama collected videos of the incident from his neighbors and pushed Hardesty’s office to take action. The City has installed orange traffic barrels printed with “Local Access Only” on residential streets within the six-block radius of the park, forcing cars to slow down. Within a week, the message had passed and they were able to dismantle the barrels.

“I think we were all shocked at how quickly it made such a huge difference,” says Salama. “Vehicles couldn’t just turn on a whim and accelerate down any road.”

The next step was to reclaim Mount Scott Park and the nearby church property as community spaces. Salama worked with neighbors and organizers to plan events in the park. The idea was to bring people together, play music and bring their kids to reinstill a sense of pride in the neighborhood.

“We had just brought in a lot of community members and were keeping the park busy. Fill it with music, joy and happiness,” she says. She soon had another event in the church parking lot.

After these changes, the neighborhood went 57 days without a shot. More impressively, gun violence was down 60% — and stayed that way, even as other Portland neighborhoods saw an increase in shootings.

This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Citizen and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange of the Solutions Journalism networka nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues.

Courtney Duchene is a contributor to the Philadelphia Citizen.

Abdul J. Gaspar