Walking with God

Asquadron of Orthodox Jews gathers nightly on the steps of the imposing stone yeshiva in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood. Each wears a black t-shirt with “Edgewood Park Defense Patrol” written in script on the back, and, until November, some carried concealed, licensed weapons. They break into pairs, and head out for a night of pounding and protecting the streets. In warmer weather, they waved to residents sitting on the porches of the neighborhood’s decaying Victorian homes. They are self-appointed watchmen on the lookout for trouble, shuffling along groups of loitering boys or stopping wheeling drunks from getting in their cars.

But mostly they just walk, and walking has never received so much media attention or caused such a stir. The hubbub centers on the guns and the Greers, the prominent and outspoken Orthodox Jewish family that founded the patrol last June. The family’s patriarch, Rabbi Daniel Greer, has spent much of his adult life in the Edgewood neighborhood. His two sons, Dov and Eliezer, both in their thirties, live there as well. Dov, the elder, is a rabbi with a wry smile that often peeks through his beard. He teaches and leads services at the yeshiva his father started. Eliezer, the more brazenly outspoken, runs the Greers’ property management company, renovating and renting out nearby houses.

As the media speculated on what would happen if an Orthodox Jew shot a black man in the inner city, the Greers insisted again and again that their patrol has nothing to do with religion. “A lot of us walk around here—forget shabbos—it’s nice to walk!” Dov says.

It is nice to walk. But Orthodox Judaism cannot help but shape the Greers’ relationship to their home—and to walking. In our pick-up-and-move society, the Greers have an almost unparalleled stake in their neighborhood. They can’t escape the reality of the inner city; “white flight” is not an option for the Orthodox Jewish community. One day a week, every week, every year, the Greers must walk everywhere. The sprawling suburbs, home to many Conservative Jews, does not accommodate that need. And when crime threatened this prerogative, the Greers, instead of retreating from their homes, imposed on themselves a mandate to walk the streets every night.

Yet Dov’s insistence that this is about more than the Orthodox community is true as well. The denomination, which has long insisted on the good behavior of its adherents, can no longer go it alone. The Greers don’t just want the members of their congregation to behave. They need everyone to.

Last June, walking home in the warmth of a summer afternoon, Dov noticed three kids traipsing a few yards behind him. Two doors away from home, he broke into a run. The boys sprinted after, pushed their way inside, and started whaling punches on Dov in the foyer of his house. He started tearing right back into the boys, shouting to his wife to call 911. The Greers could not flee and so they decided to fight back. Two days after the attack, Daniel, Dov, and Eliezer held a press conference in a yeshiva classroom to announce the founding of the Edgewood Park Defense Patrol.

The methods of these modern-day Maccabees have caused more controversy and confusion than their motivations. Although the Greers insisted that members of the EPDP would carry guns—defying strong pressure from City Hall to put them down—it soon became clear that, despite the sensationalism, no one in the EPDP was likely to fire one. The activity of patrol, at any given moment, is tame and somewhat timid. The EPDP does not make citizens’ arrests—they call the police. They spend most of their time politely asking groups to move along.

The EPDP is fundamentally a visual display. The guns were a theatrical measure, not a practical tool. The appearance of the EPDP on the streets mattered as much as, if not more than, the work they did there. The EPDP has given the Greers a public platform from which to rail against the failures of City Hall and the police department. Eliezer has seized it. He holds numerous EPDP press conferences outside the neighborhood police substation. “The press conferences, with Channel 8 and Fox News—it’s like cats coming out for the cookies,” he says. Last May, in his typical rhetorical style, Eliezer shouted, “Blood is being spilled on the backs of incompetence!”

This theatricality has a purpose. The Greers’ use of spectacle in their quest to restore a sense of security is a tactic they share with the police. Though perpetually at odds, both groups have a lifetime investment in New Haven, and both have learned to use the visual to revive a concept teetering on the edge of become a vestige: “community.”

Efforts to preserve the community began with little more than construction paper and a copy machine. In the early ’90s, as prostitutes roamed the streets, Daniel Greer printed out multi-colored flyers and posted them across his neighborhood. Suddenly, the mugs of suburban middle-aged men recently convicted of soliciting prostitution in Edgewood stared out from every telephone pole. Below the photos were the offenders’ names, and above was the title, “JOHN-OF-THE-WEEK.”  The number of out-of-town men trolling for sex immediately plummeted, as did the drug sales and violence that thrived alongside the industry. “He also got the law changed, so that anybody who was convicted had his car impounded, too,” Dov boasts of his father’s inspired Scarlet Letter maneuver. “Then he’d have to explain to his wife in the suburbs what happened to his car.” The John-of-the-Week program’s success has reached the level of city lore, and Eliezer and Dov have internalized its lesson.

When crime rises in a neighborhood, it poses an implicit question: Are there people here who are willing to stand up and say, “We are the community, and we will say—and enforce—what we regard as acceptable behavior?”

Daniel Greer, with the ingenuity of public theater, forced the question to a head. The answer was yes.

The police also fought the rampant crime of the early nineties with an ingenuity that worked its way into city lore. In 1990, New Haven adopted “community-based policing,” permanently transforming how the city conceives of public safety. Janet Linder, Mayor John DeStefano’s first chief administrative officer, describes the shift. “An incident happens, police respond, arrests are made,” she says, describing the “before” picture. Under the new program, by contrast, “you get to know the community, you know the people in it.”

Cops started to patrol the streets on foot and build relationships with residents on a particular block. Crime dropped, the program’s success garnered national press, and New Haven became, if not a sleepy college town, then a city more peaceful than it had been in recent memory. Twenty-one thousand crimes in 1998 petered out to nine thousand crimes in 2006.

Herman Badger, the former assistant chief of police, says,  “We’re long past the time when the police can just come in and make a community a place worth living.” He grew up in New Haven and has been a cop for 23 years. He explains that community policing changed the way business was done. “There was a big shift from ‘we’re the experts’ to ‘we’re partners.’”

Total crime is still far below early ’90s levels, but gun violence has shot up in the last year. And residents feel that, rather than redoubling their efforts in response to the crisis, police have retreated to their bunker, darting out only for emergencies, leaving their charges to face escalating crime without protection. What angers the Greers—and many other New Haven residents—is the absence of a visible police presence.

This frustration reflects a drop in the number of cops in New Haven. A decrease in federal funding for local policing under President George Bush has led to fewer police walking beats in urban neighborhoods. The police department has been knocked even further off balance by a scandal that decimated its narcotics department. Last spring, the FBI conducted a drug raid that led to the arrests of three officers on charges of theft and bribery, the suspension of the operation of the department, and the resignations of several top officials, including Badger. New Haven has been struggling to reform its policing ever since. Chief Francisco Ortiz announced his resignation in November, but agreed to stay on until a replacement was found.

The impact of these disturbances has been felt on the streets. The city has promised to increase the number of cops in New Haven, but Badger admitted in October that the department’s approach has changed since its vigorous days of community policing. “We haven’t gone back to the early nineties,” he said, “but we have become a bit more of a reactive department, rather than proactive.”

What disturbs city officials about recent crime trends is not the hard numbers but the new character of the perpetrators and the new style of their crimes. “We’re actually seeing deliberate gunfire in places where you wouldn’t before,” explains Rob Smuts, DeStefano’s youthful chief administrative officer. “Like in the commission of a robbery, after the robbery’s done. Almost in a marking fashion.”  Criminals are much younger, often 15 to twenty. And when they fire their guns, it is superfluous, unnecessary, dramatic. Victims are not being killed—they’re getting shot. In the arm, the leg, the tuchus, the foot, the hand. And they’re not shot at three in the morning, as Eliezer is prone to yell, but at six, seven, eight at night.

They have been a stabilizing force,” Elizabeth McCormack says of the Greers. She has been theEdgewood alderwoman for the last twenty years. “And then there’s the domino effect. They paint their houses and someone says, ‘Oh, their house looks nice. I guess I’ll paint mine!’”

Stepping outside of McCormack’s house on Pendleton Avenue, it’s easy to get a sense of what she means. The forty Greer-owned properties dot the neighborhood. After a few days, it’s hard not to see the family’s houses sticking out like sore thumbs against a mish-mash of dilapidation. The trademark red, beige, green, and mushroom houses stand as an affirmation of some community standard.

The police, too, lend credence to the visual, if not as explicitly. The “Broken Windows” theory, which emerged at the same time as community policing, is an aesthetic one, espousing the once-radical idea that fixing up a neighborhood to look safe actually makes it safer. And the effectiveness of community-based policing depends as much on the visual aid of police on the streets, talking to residents, as the work they actually do there.

In line with the Broken Windows thesis, Edgewood violence has been transmuted into a visual symbol. On one tour through the neighborhood, driving along Whalley Avenue’s grimy neon drag, Eliezer says, “Right here is something we call ‘kids that are bored.’” He grabs a flashlight off the dashboard and beams the light like a teacher using a pointer. “These kids are bored.”

Out on the sidewalk, in front of Planet Apizza’s sterile glow, two black, male teenagers, draped over small bikes, stare back. Greer leans over the passenger seat to fix them in the flashlight’s glare. “It’s unlikely they’re going to buy pizza for their parents. It’s more likely that they’re bored.”

As he coasts along, Greer reels off anecdotes of recent violence:  A car crashes through a house. Bullets fly through an alderwoman’s home. A rabbi is held up at gunpoint. A shooting breaks out on Rosh Hashanah.

But despite these dramatic events, black kids on bikes—doing nothing—have become an icon of incipient chaos. In High Point, North Carolina, where recent police efforts have stamped out rampant crime, a resident was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “I don’t know exactly how to phrase it, but you just don’t see as many people riding around doing nothing.”

At a block watch meeting at the Norton substation, Bill Morris, a stooped, retired high school teacher with a few wisps of white hair on his head, demands of the small group, “Where are these kids’ parents?” No one answers. “They’re out on the street at two and three in the morning!  My mother would’ve had my hide if I acted like that.”  A few others nod. Gone are the days, distant but keenly felt, when neighbors would put kids’ tricycles left on the sidewalk safely onto their owner’s porch.

Shortly after launching their patrol, the Greers called Curtis Sliwa, founder of national community watchdog group the Guardian Angels and invited him to start a chapter in New Haven. The Guardian Angels began in the subways of New York in 1975, when Sliwa turned his cleaning crew into a citizen patrol that rode the Manhattan lines and grew into an international phenomenon. Sliwa accepted the Greers’ offer, and Sliwa and Eliezer were soon standing side-by-side at press conferences.

The divergence between the two groups’ ideologies, however, is marked by guns. The Guardian Angels are adamantly unarmed, but they do not hesitate to make arrests, confiscate drugs, or use physical force. The Greers, on the other hand, have yet to make physical contact with any of their targeted delinquents. Guns tucked inside their coats, they spent five months walking within the borders of Ellsworth, Edgewood, WestPark, and Whalley, politely asking boys on bikes to move along. The Greers’ guns were not a practical necessity but a political avowal that as long as the police remained absent, the Greers would remain conspicuously, militantly present.

Eliezer uses the word “control” a lot. Yet as he drives the streets, one man yelling from the sidewalk manages to unnerve him. He speaks with increasing vehemence and agitation. “Let’s get the state in here and do a narcotics raid!  Big deal? No. Not a big deal. What’s a big deal is nobody’s running the police department. And they don’t want to do anything!  They want to sit around.”

The rise in violence hits home for the Greers. Despite all their efforts to enact community norms, there will always be uncontrollable elements that seep through. Ellsworth. Edgewood. West Park. Whalley. These borders are permeable. The guns were a defensive cry against this basic truth.

What the Greers have always wanted is systemic change, a top-down solution to their problems. In their eyes, Ortiz’s announcement of his resignation was the first step toward a repentant, renovated police department, and so they laid off the political trigger. In November, they put down their guns.

When asked whether the EPDP contributed to Ortiz’s departure, Elizer beams, calmer than he has been in weeks. “Absolutely, absolutely,” he says. I asked him if any residents were disappointed that the EPDP was disarming. “Sure,” he shrugged. “But I can’t go door to door and explain all our policy decisions to everyone.”  The Greers are playing on a larger stage than just the streets of the Edgewood neighborhood.

While their first act has been a success, they have no interest in quitting their task until the streets are safe, the police have returned for good, and Edgewood looks like they remember it.

Sophia Lear is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.

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