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Tapping a Troubled Neighborhood’s Inner Strength []


[First of three articles]

Ten years ago, Patsy Hite, 70, rarely left her home at night. “I heard a lot of sirens so I always kept to myself,” she said.

Hite lives in the Highlands, a 40-block section in Longview, a city in Cowlitz County in southwestern Washington. The Highlands is home to about 5,000 residents. The neighborhood is adjacent to an industrial district, and was hit hard by the loss of jobs in the timber and manufacturing industries. Long-term unemployment has brought blight, family breakdown, drug use, chronic disease, and crime.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, the Highlands was desolate,” Patricia Thompson, a 61-year-old resident, recalled. “There was garbage and junk everywhere. There were thugs all around. You didn’t feel safe walking down the street.”

Today, the Highlands still has high unemployment and poverty, but residents say the neighborhood has improved substantially. From 2009 to 2012, calls to the police about burglary, stolen and abandoned vehicles, domestic violence and public disturbances dropped significantly.

“People are involved with each other, not just sitting at home with their curtains closed,” said Hite. “I’m out on the street meeting my neighbors.”

“It’s still an economically depressed area,” said Thompson. “There’s not many jobs here. But it’s safer and more hopeful. Young people are realizing they can go to college. The main difference is that we don’t leave people by themselves anymore.”

At a time when poverty and economic insecurity remain widespread in the United States, how does a very poor community like the Highlands strengthen its capacity to improve itself? What does the possibility of change look like from the vantage point of ordinary citizens who care about their community, but struggle to see a path to a better future?

The transformation in the Highlands is a product of a policy that took root in Washington State in the late 1980s, after youth violence had risen precipitously. Policy makers analyzed the problem and recognized the inter-connectedness of issues usually handled separately: child abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy, youth substance abuse and youth suicide.

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