Just a year ago, Virgil Flaim Park, (also known as the Lake City playground) was plagued with negative behaviors. Public drunkenness, drug use and sales, prostitution, fighting and aggressive behaviors drove many park visitors away.
Neighbors living near the park banded together to help change that, and they succeeded. Today, it’s a Lake City success story. On a sunny day like today, you’ll find children playing, people of all ages utilizing the walking path around the park, soccer games, BBQs and more.
How’d they do it?
Kris Meyers, one of several neighbors who helped spearhead the efforts cites the “Broken Window” theory as their starting point. The theory asserts that an area which looks poorly cared for will attract negative behavior, while an area that is well-kept is more likely to attract positive behavior. Positive behavior, in turn, activates the area and helps deter crime.
Empty alcohol containers found at the park last year
Last year, Meyers and several other neighbors began walking the park daily in teams of 2 to 5, picking up trash. They wore orange reflective vests, carried buckets and pinch-style trash grabbers. On any given day they’d pick up a variety of disturbing items: dime bags (small plastic bags used to package and sell cocaine and methamphetamines), colorful used condoms a child might easily confuse with a deflated balloon, needles and other paraphernalia. During one particularly notable week, Meyers said they collected 80 empty beer cans, an empty bottle of rum and two empty bottles of wine, then found almost the same number of empty alcohol containers again just two days later.
As they worked, they began recognizing faces – both of neighbors out to enjoy the park and others using the park for illegal activities. Meyers said they always kept a calm, friendly demeanor. If they were collecting empty containers near someone, they might ask, “Do you mind if I pick these up?” If there was any hint of confrontation, Meyers said they would simply smile and move on.
Meyers also helped organize the neighborhood by starting the Hiram Place Neighborhood Association. Like a neighborhood watch group, the association has no fees, it’s just neighbors working together to address safety concerns. Neighbors were encouraged to join and Meyers and his crew provided coaching on how to call 911. Meyers was quick to point out the difference between complaints and legitimate safety concerns. Noisy kids playing ball might be upsetting to some, but not a real safety issue. Someone drinking alcohol, yelling and acting aggressively, on the other hand, would be a legitimate safety concern.
A worker from the Lake City Professional Building enjoys his lunch in the afternoon sunshine
Meyers and his neighbors also worked with the city and nearby landowners. They persuaded Lorrig and Associates, the owner of the Lake City Professional building, to trim back a large laurel hedge which visually separated the building from the park. The hedge was lowered to just below eye-level, providing more visibility. The northeast corner of the park also tended to attract the worst behaviors, so they worked with the Department of Parks and Recreation to remove low-hanging branches from trees in that corner of the park. The increased visibility helped deter crime.
Meyers notes how much the park has changed over the year. He still checks the park regularly for trash, but finds little. The frequent 911 calls are now few and far between. And best of all, a blossoming sense of community has built in this quiet pocket of Lake City.
History of Virgil Flaim
Virgil Flaim has a long history in the neighborhood. The park once served as the playfields for the Lake City School before it became what it is now – the Lake City Professional Building. After the school closure, Virgil Flaim became one of the first projects created with a grant from Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund. The area has served as a neighborhood park and playground ever since. Recently, Skate Lake City was awarded a grant to design and build a skate spot at the park. Neighbors hope it will bring further positive activity to the area.