Levin Park was still littered Tuesday evening with the countless beer bottle caps and miniature dope baggies that are the hallmarks of a decades-old scourge afflicting the Austin Community. But for several hours, several hundred people enjoyed a bit of food, music and the relaxed company of their neighbors on a warm, summer evening. For one night, Levin Park was fully in the hands of the good people of Austin, rather than those who see the neighborhood’s streets and parks as drug sale territory to be acquired and defended with intimidation and violence.
The park, which sits near the jigsaw dividing lines of the 28th, 29th and 37th aldermanic wards, was the focal point of the 15th District’s 22nd annual National Night Out festivities. As a milling crowd slowly built from 50 to 100 to well over 200 people, a caravan of police and elected officials arrived. Among the many squad cars were ones from neighboring Oak Park and Cicero, two towns that share both borders and policing strategies with the 15th District.
While D.J. Eric Williams of Lighthouse Productions spun CDs by such artists as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and Aaliyah, families and friends munched on hot dogs and chips and sipped cold soda as they gathered on the grass in small groups.
28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith and 29th Ward Alderman Isaac Carothers stood among the crowd, but did not speak publicly. Carothers, who had just left the 25th District Night Out festivities, stressed how important such events were for communities like Austin.
“This is an opportunity for the police and the community to come together,” he said, “to illustrate that the police and community aren’t as far apart as some people would have you believe.”
For Ald. Smith, who has consistently stressed the need to mentor and protect the next generation, the event was an opportunity to show young people that his generation believed young people mattered. Without that, he said, there is little hope for the future.
“We’re trying to help foster, for lack of a better word, a homogeneous feeling,” said Smith, “trying to promote kids being interested in school and being interested in the community. We want to continue to get kids involved.”
As the crowd of citizens watched, new 15th District Commander Alfonza Wysinger and third watch Commander Lt. Joe Gorzkowski inspected some three dozen officers in an “outdoor street roll call” on the basketball court.
Walking to the microphone, Wysinger looked over the crowd and welcomed them to the festivities.
“This is just the beginning of many years to come for the citizens and police in Austin,” he told the crowd. Recalling the part of his own youth spent on the very court where he had just conducted the roll call, he told his audience, “I spent a lot of time playing basketball on this court.”
“This is for you, not for us,” he said, inviting citizens to feel free to approach him and dialogue. “I look forward to working with each and every one of you.”
With that, Gorzkowski told his officers to fall out, and they broke ranks. As the police officers dispersed to their various assignments, Wysinger wandered over toward the crowd to shake hands and talk with citizens.
He was pleased by the number of people who attended.
“As you can see by the turnout, we have a lot of citizens involved here,” he said, adding that the evening was a testament to people who are committed to being part of the solution to a longstanding problem.
“It’s just our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the neighborhood,” he said.
Looking around, Wysinger saw a special place where he used to regularly come to enjoy sports and comraderie as a youth. It is, he said, a place he wants to see others enjoy as he once did.
“I had some good times here,” said Wysinger, who spent several summers playing basketball and 16-inch softball in the park. “No gangs, we just played ball.” Behind him, a group of young men quickly reclaimed the basketball court and were soon racing up and down its length, engaged in the sort of intense but benign athletic battle that Wysinger had recalled so fondly from his youth.
Now, as the district’s highest ranking police official, Wysinger is in the position of providing protection for another generation of young men who aren’t always able to enjoy the park without fear. Meanwhile, away from the court, several officers mingled with the crowd, as children ran about with soft drinks in hand, and several dozen people sat on folding chairs, listening to music as they waited for a singing group to perform. Thirty yards off to the north, two dozen young children screamed and laughed as they cavorted on the park’s playground equipment.
Nothing looked certain Tuesday night in Levin Park, nothing looked permanent. But it certainly looked hopeful. It looked like a start.