Jessica Blanchard hasn't slept well in a year.
In November 2012, the young woman's northwest Oklahoma City apartment was burglarized while she and her husband were out. The thieves stole electronics, money and medications. Blanchard was seven months pregnant.
“We were gone for just two hours, just two hours,” said Blanchard, 22. “They were like scoping our apartment out.”
After the crime, the young couple moved from their ground-floor apartment to a one-bedroom unit on the second floor to avoid being victimized again. Blanchard's aunt also has stayed over every night since.
The door to their old apartment still has not been fixed. No arrests have been made in the burglary. And Blanchard said her car tires have been slashed several times. Every noise in the night makes her want to jump out of bed.
“This is where we have to live. We can't go no where else,” Blanchard said one recent day as she stood in the doorway of her apartment, her 10-month-old daughter, Alana, resting on her hip. “We are kind of miserable here, and it's because we don't want our (stuff) stolen again. What we have, we worked hard for.”
Blanchard's apartment in the Sierra Crossings complex at 1020 N Gardner sits in the midst of a 4.4-square-mile area that law enforcement authorities consider among the most dangerous in Oklahoma City.
Between 2008 and 2012, police reported 1,466 violent crimes, including 14 homicides, in the area bounded by N Meridian Avenue to N Council Road and Melrose Lane to NW 27.
A month ago, using about $382,000 from an Oklahoma attorney general's grant, the city launched a yearlong initiative to “take back” the area, which includes 41 apartment complexes, many of them rundown and serving low-income residents. The area is part of the 73127 ZIP code, where the median household income is about $35,000, compared with $46,500 statewide.
The grant is paying overtime for five police officers to monitor and respond to 911 calls involving violent crimes in the area. But police say they hope to spend most of their time working to prevent violence before it happens.
That means increasing the number of foot patrols, making contact with residents, executing search warrants, identifying drug activity and making arrests. The grant also is paying for a part-time code enforcement officer for the area.
The effort is progressing well, said police Maj. Jeff Becker, the Hefner Division commander overseeing the operation.
From Nov. 4 through Tuesday, officers have mounted almost 200 foot patrols through neighborhoods and apartment complexes, made 103 traffic stops and conducted 180 field interviews, including 14 with gang members.
They've also made 19 felony and 32 misdemeanor arrests, including taking three gang members into custody.
“We recognize that if we maintain the status quo, we are going to get status quo results,” Becker said.
Stepping up for change
About a mile east of Blanchard's apartment, on NW 10, a main thoroughfare through the community, sits Kings Worldwide Transportation, where Joey Allen is the general manager. Allen also is president of Friends of NW 10.
For nine years, the nonprofit organization made up of business representatives, homeowners, apartment managers, and members from several faith-based and service organizations raised money, secured multi-team crime sweeps throughout the area with law enforcement, removed graffiti, worked with code enforcement officers, helped create after-school programs in the Western Heights School District, adopted streets and conducted successful “litter blitzes.”
But it wasn't until the November 2008 death of a Papa John's Pizza delivery driver at a NW 10 apartment complex that Allen and the organization realized just how violent the area had become. The driver, Jeremy Moore, 29, died at the Lantana Apartments, 7408 NW 10, for $42.91 worth of pizza, chicken wings and soft drinks. Moore was working a second job to support a new daughter
“He had strong ties to many people in the area, and I think that kind of crystallized for a lot of people what our big problems were here,” Allen said.
After the killing, the first thought of many in the volunteer organization was to eliminate some of the apartment complexes.
“We really wanted to move some of our neighbors somewhere else,” he said.
Then, Allen said, he realized regardless of whom his neighbors are, they deserve a safe, clean place to live where they don't have to worry about stepping out the door and getting shot.
The Lantana Apartments closed soon after the shooting, but the vacant buildings still stand and are the frequent target of arson fires. Allen said his group has been working with the city to get the buildings demolished.
“I think when we get it torn down, it is going to change the way 10th Street feels,” Allen said.
In the meantime, Allen said the organization also is working to reduce the tension between apartment residents and those living in surrounding neighborhoods.
About a year ago, hostilities broke out at a public meeting where a company unveiled plans for a new low-income housing apartment complex along Melrose Lane near Council Road. Allen estimated as many as 100 people showed up to oppose the project.
“Every one of them picked up that microphone and said ‘We don't want you here. We don't want any more apartments. We don't like what has happened. We don't like those neighbors,'” Allen said.
The company withdrew its petition for construction soon after.
Allen acknowledges that negotiating a truce between apartment and neighborhood residents is still “very much a work in progress.”
The added police presence and crime prevention efforts can only help, Allen believes.
As business owners become more involved, neighborhood associations continue their work and crime declines, Allen said “We really do believe we can continue to knit the fabric of the community back together here.”
A little more than two miles west of Allen's office sits Greenvale Elementary School. The red brick building at 901 N Greenvale Road is surrounded by at least six apartment complexes, including the burned-out Lantana Apartments.
Greenvale students are used to seeing people with guns and hearing gunshots, Principal Diane Klein said.
“It's normal; that's normal,” she said.
“When a child says, ‘I heard gunshots,' it's kind of like ‘the dog ate the homework,' and you think, ‘Oh, there's no way,' but it's true. Then you think, ‘Wouldn't it be nice for these kids to have a little quiet corner of their apartment to just read, to just breathe?' A lot of them don't have that,” Klein said.
It's a similar story, about a mile away at Council Grove Elementary School, 7721 W Melrose Lane, where like at Greenvale, most of the students come from apartment complexes south of NW 10. It's not unusual for children to talk to their teachers about the violence they have seen at home, Principal Joann Holman said.
“Some of our students have told me that they have to sleep on the floor in their apartment because there are stray bullets that come through the wall,” Holman said.
“I know I have had a mother tell me that she had to get them out of that apartment complex because that wasn't any way you should raise your child, where they have to sleep on the floor to be safe from gunfire.”
Both Western Heights School District elementary schools suffer from many of the struggles plaguing the area: high crime, poverty, low parental involvement and homelessness.
At Council Grove, 92 percent of the school's 480 students receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. Of the 287 students at Greenvale, 98 percent qualify for the meal subsidy.
Because of the difficulties the children face in their home lives, Holman and Klein said they try to ensure their students know school is a safe place for them.
“We greet the kids at the door,” Klein said. “We make sure they have a free breakfast. We try to make sure that they know that at our schools they are safe, no matter what is going on outside.”
Both principals hope the new anti-crime initiative in the neighborhood will help their children develop healthier relationships with police.
“I would like (police) to come into the schools and spend some time at lunch or recess with the kids so the kids will learn that they are not the enemy,” Holman said.
A rocky road
About two miles northeast of Greenvale Elementary, off MacArthur Boulevard on a gravel road named Lytle Drive, sits the secluded subdivision of Lytle Grove and the longtime home of Sandy Harris.
Today, tall oak trees lining the road to Harris's home almost muffle the sounds of the city, but for the occasional gunshot or police helicopter buzzing overhead.
Harris, 69, remembers as a boy riding his bike down MacArthur Boulevard to NW 10, where there was a barber shop, a gas station, a doughnut store and other cornerstones of community life. After graduating college, he was unable to get an apartment in the area because he didn't have a job and lacked credit.
“They were so exclusive that they wouldn't even talk to me,” he said.
Today, that same bike ride would take him past a strip club and rundown storefronts. The apartments now are dilapidated or vacant, many with broken or boarded up windows.
So far, the violence erupting in the surrounding neighborhoods has not traveled down Harris' gravel road, but he and the others who live in the dozen or so homes in Lytle Grove don't have to go too far to find it. Just a few blocks north, near MacArthur Boulevard and NW 16, a man was robbed and fatally shot at midday in April.
Both Harris, and Phillip Teel, another Lytle Grove resident, said they hope all community members back the police initiative.
“They can only do so much on their own, but if we all support them and get behind them and do what they ask us to do, then it will be successful,” Teel, 52, said.
For now, the increased police presence makes Teel and Harris feel hopeful for the neighborhood.
“We bought the peace and the quiet and the tranquility, and we have seen that erode a little bit,” Teel said. “We don't want to see it go away, and we are going to fight to keep it.”