Sunday, January 12, 2003

Police, community effort made Burnet Avenue safer, for now

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tight up against Children's Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and Cincinnati Zoo, Burnet Avenue had become one of the worst of the city's meanest streets.

Drug dealers sold crack in plain sight. Gunshots rang out nightly. Parents of sick kids staying at the Ronald McDonald House were afraid to walk next door to the hospital.

So when the neighborhood decided to take the street back, it used everything it had: More police, support from major institutions and engaged neighbors with a zero tolerance for crime.

"We really fought hard in that one particular area," says Tom Jones, who led the former Avondale Public Safety Task Force. "We said, `This is not a place to screw with.'"

For three months last spring and summer, extra officers patrolled the street, paid for in part by neighbors chipping in $10,000. The Violent Crime Squad targeted Uncle Milt's bar, buying cocaine inside and convincing City Council to oppose the bar's liquor license, a process that's pending.

Of the felony arrests the squad made from January through September, almost 15 percentwere on Burnet, the most popular arrest location in District 4. All but two arrests were for drugs.

Now, calls for shots fired have decreased. More businesses posted No Loitering signs. The post office put up a gate to close its parking lot at night. The crowd in front of Stag's barbershop thinned after officers warned the place about letting suspected drug dealers run inside to avoid police. Parents of sick children aren't so afraid.

"District 4 and the Violent Crime Squad have been extremely helpful," says Jennifer Goodin, director of the Ronald McDonald House. "They have been very diligent. By that, I mean I saw them many hours on the job."

Still, the street, described as a "drug mall" as long as a quarter-century ago, remains a hot spot for crime.

It's a street that varies widely between the intersection with Erkenbrecher Avenue, bordered by the hospital and Ronald McDonald House, and its end at Forest Avenue, where officers make a lot of arrests after drug deals in a grocery parking lot.

"It's somewhat better down at that end," says Eula Hunter, an 84-year-old retired school cook who has operated her odds-and-ends store near the grocery for 20 years.

"But down here? They get 'em, and then they're back again."

Along the four-block stretch sit at least a dozen abandoned and boarded-up buildings. Four or five more are empty and for rent. Burnet Used Tires - tires for $15 and up - is surrounded by piles of rubber and used cars.

Gang graffiti decorate buildings. A sign on the Soul Town CafÈ II says the property is videotaped for customers' safety.

The community push for more law enforcement and more attention from City Hall has waned. Ms. Hunter hasn't seen Mr. Jones in months.

"You can never give up," she says.

The task force, which spearheaded the effort, is defunct. Frustrated, Mr. Jones says it's difficult to keep up the pressure.

The drug dealers, he says, have just moved up the street. Officers don't dispute that.

"We've worked hard there," says Sgt. Rick Lehman, supervisor of the District 4 Violent Crime Squad.

"Is it fixed? I wish I could say that."


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