The Blight Fight

The officers in the parking lot make a circle when Sergeant John Delaney pulls up in his cruiser. “There he is,” one says. “The gatekeeper of the Orchard.”

Delaney didn’t choose this nickname, but his roots in Indian Orchard run deep. He grew up in this neighborhood—located about four and a half miles northeast of Metro Center—and still lives in Springfield, where he’s been on the force for 30 years. For the past five months he’s been in command of the nine officers on the Ordinance Squad, which enforces all city ordinances that call for police presence: mainly noise violations, abandoned property, and trash dumping.

It was Delaney’s idea to join his squad with the Housing Code Enforcement’s team of inspectors, led by Deputy Director Dave Cotter. This sweep of Indian Orchard (conducted last Thursday morning) is the most recent in a new weekly series of crackdowns across the city that Delaney and Cotter have led together since late July.

Delaney’s manner is nonchalant and plainspoken, but he shows a constant trace of a half-smile. He lifts his sunglasses as he approaches, scanning the assembled officers. “Did we go over everything?”

“Yeah. Everyone’s been given their assignments and maps,” says one.

“My guys are just gonna hook right up with your guys—we’re all set,” says another.

The sweep will take between two and three hours. Indian Orchard is quiet today, and code violations are less common here than in more blighted neighborhoods nearby. But the citations add up. During one sweep of the Pine Point neighborhood in the first week of October, for example, Delaney and Cotter’s team wrote 163 citations. The grand total for 2014 so far: 6,588 citations, by Delaney’s last count—about 1,000 more than this time last year. Delaney reports that the city has so far collected roughly $200,000 this year in ordinance violations alone.

Mayor Sarno has praised these efforts. So has Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, who counts Indian Orchard among his neighborhoods. “It’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said in a phone interview. “There are a lot of multi-family properties in the Orchard, and we have so many absentee landlords. It’s something we have to get a handle on.” Ramos added that he’s been keeping up with the police’s efforts. “These sweeps are a big help.”

Linda Yarber, President of the Indian Orchard Citizens Council, also expressed her enthusiasm for the increased police push. “We have a lot of longtime residents here who were born here and now have children who own property here,” she said. “Those children hear a lot about how the Orchard changed for the worse over time—more violence and more crime. Now I think they’re seeing it turn around.”

When Yarber gets a call from a concerned citizen, she gives them the cell phone number of Joseph Piemonte, the Springfield PD officer assigned to Indian Orchard. Yarber sees Piemonte as “efficient,” but adds that residents are sometimes hesitant to discuss crime on their street. “They’ve been afraid of retaliation. That’s why we give them a direct line to an officer. Everything is kept confidential.”

Piemonte said he’s happy to get these calls. “The way we perceive a problem and the way the community perceives a problem are two different things. The police may be concerned about drug-dealing on a given day, while citizens are calling in to say that their street looks like hell. But it’s all connected. It’s the ‘broken windows’ theory at work. If people take pride in their neighborhood, it sends a message, and those neighborhoods get safer.”

Now Piemonte is among the officers in the parking lot listening to Delaney speak.

“This is our second sweep in this neighborhood,” Delaney says. “We’re getting a lot of gun complaints, gang complaints.” He motions to Piemonte. “Everyone concentrate your efforts where officer Piemonte is putting you. Those blocks are blighted areas. That’s where the gang activity is.”

Officers pair up with inspectors, and the team climbs into their cruisers. A few minutes away, at various intersections, each pair parks and sets out on foot, talking to citizens and taking their time inspecting property.

Delaney and Cotter walk together, starting on Indian Leap Street. “Our goal is to hit every troubled area in Springfield,” Cotter says. “We’re going to look at every single street and every house. It doesn’t matter where it is—we go there together. They use our technology, and we use their force.”

Delaney explains what this looks like on a practical level. “When we see a violation, we get in touch with the landlord right away, and Dave’s people are right there with the city computers.”

He points to an inspector holding a laptop. “They can pull up who owns the property. We contact them right then.”

Housing code violations range from 50 to 300 dollars. All citations are issued by mail, and they always go to the landlords.

Cotter gives a different example: a vacant property being used for drug activity. “The police clear the house, we send an emergency notice to the owners, and we have the place boarded up that day. Once it’s boarded up, it’s no longer trespassing—police can arrest for breaking and entering.”

Delaney points at a black five-pointed star spray-painted on the sidewalk. “Look. You’ve got gang graffiti right here. They’re marking their territory.”

Up ahead, Piemonte’s attention is on a house with an overgrown hedge and a broken window on the third floor. He walks down the driveway and circles the house. They take some photos. They look up the landlord on a laptop. The citation takes about a minute.

“This guy lives in Somerville,” Piemonte says.

Delaney nods. “You can tell right away.”

“His bushes aren’t clean.” Piemonte turns and looks at a row of clean yards across the street. “But I’ll bet you that one’s owner-occupied. And that one. And that one.”

Piemonte will circle back in two weeks to see if this property has improved. If not, he’ll write another citation.

Those who receive citations have 21 days to appeal at Housing Court, says Piemonte. “But if a landlord is going to fix the problem right away, we’ll get rid of the violation form. All we want is the place cleaned up. If it takes a citation to get someone’s attention, and they fix the issue, the citation can go away.”

Delaney leaves Piemonte and Cotter, climbing back in his car to go check in with other officers. He drives down Main Street. It’s not yet noon, and the street is still quiet.

“We got a complaint recently that there were 25 people living in one apartment on Center Street,” Delaney says. “We were there with the landlord, and he gave us permission to go in. We knocked on the door, and sure enough, there were at least 18 people in there. And when we walked into the kitchen we found a stolen motorcycle. Within 24 hours all of those people were out of there. The landlord had them evicted.”

The car takes two right turns and pulls down Water Street, along the Chicopee River. Delaney pulls over outside an abandoned lot that used to be owned by a trucking company. “Now people dump their leaves and their trash here. See, there are no streetlights up on these poles. If we were here at night—total blackness.”

Delaney contacted the city earlier this summer to request new streetlights, but he says it hasn’t been an easy sell, since this block has only ever contained one business, and that business is gone.

A short drive later, he pulls up Moxon Street. The pavement ends, and the street becomes a narrow strip of dirt road through forested city land.

“You’ll see people coming up here with pickup trucks and dumping trash. See? Garbage. Someone’s old TV. If the city doesn’t take care of it, it becomes a dump over time.”

The cruiser loops back down to Worcester Street, past the old Chapman Valve Factory, which closed in 1995.

“My dad used to work there. He was a draftsman,” says Delaney. “That’s the reason I grew up in the Orchard. Back then, I spent all day out of my house. That was in the ’60s and ’70s. I roamed the neighborhood as a kid.”

Outside an apartment building on Worcester Street, he motions to an ownerless, dew-soaked couch. “That’s been here for a week.”

As several officers walk this street, computers open, Delaney stops to chat with a local resident on the street. The man won’t give his name for publication, but says that he’s 73. He’s lived in the Orchard his whole life.

“I love it, but it’s not the same,” he says. “Safety’s got a lot to do with it. That street right there? I don’t even go up there. Properties on this street tend to do okay. Except that one.” He points to a house across the street. “I’ve called you guys about this. The landlord moved out, the tenants moved out. Everyone knows that it’s empty. One of these days, someone’s going to torch it.”

Delaney explains why his officers are there today, and promises a resolution soon. This prompts another complaint from the man: what he describes as a lack of police response to a mugging he reported three years ago.

“I can look into it for you,” says Delaney. “See what happened with that.”

The man shrugs. “Too late now.”

Delaney is still pondering this a few minutes later, as he drives away. “I feel bad about that,” he says.

Interactions like this aren’t unusual in large metropolitan areas. Sometimes when a broken window gets fixed, another one—or two, or three—breaks.

When asked about the frequency and tone of citizens’ complaints, Linda Yarber spoke reassuringly about the Citizens Council’s ability to communicate quickly with the police. “What people need to understand is that different things take priority at different times. I hope that people can be patient and have faith in the authorities to do their jobs.”

But the stakes are high, says resident Margarita Matta—often, they’re life and death.

Matta, 50, lives with her son on Water Street. Her house is the one on the corner of the overgrown industrial block Delaney referred to as “total blackness.”

She frowns as she stands on her front porch in her bathrobe. It’s early afternoon now, but still chilly.

“This is a dangerous spot,” she says. “They were supposed to clean up this whole area here, at the corner. There are piles of leaves and trash there that have been there since last summer. I started to clean it, but it’s too heavy for me. Tires, mattresses. That’s not my responsibility. It’s the city’s. I keep calling about it—no answers.”

Matta, a health care worker in Chicopee, brought up her son in South Hadley. They moved to this street because it’s quiet, she says. She just hadn’t realized how quiet.

“I feel like the police don’t see this street as a priority, she says. “But it’s a street just like every other street.”

Twice, she says, a pizza delivery person has been called to her address, then been jumped and mugged by the same teenagers, hiding in the bushes, who placed the call.

“This is a good house. This is a good place,” she says. “I have it looking really cute in the summer. So, I tell Delaney, can you help me out? I’m on the edge of a dangerous spot. Just see for yourself. Come back here at night, and look around. You’ll see what I’m saying.”•

Author: Hunter Styles

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