Photo by Kelsey Shea
Last year, Zone 1 police officers and community members across the Northside celebrated and organized National Night Out to raise crime-prevention awareness and build community relations.

By Cristina Holtzer

On the first Tuesday of August, Pittsburgh residents won’t be turning their lights off– they’re leaving them on for a reason.

Pittsburgh’s Northside communities, along with more than 16,000 other communities nationwide will host “America’s night out against crime,” more recently known as National Night Out on Tuesday August 5, 2014.

On National Night Out, Pittsburgh residents may attend any of several neighborhood events going on throughout the city from 5 to 8 p.m. Events usually include symbolic front porch vigils and candles left in front windows when residents are home.

Last year Pittsburgh held 42 separate events, and Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety representative John Tokarski said the city hopes for more this year.

Tokarski said the events usually include lighthearted games of kickball or cookouts from residents’ porches as well as visits from safety or security personnel and demonstrations of safety equipment.

“In effort to heighten awareness, forge relationships with neighbors and enhance community relations between communities and public safety personnel, law enforcement have grown to become the standard for this nationally celebrated event,” Tokarski said.

National Night Out began in 1984 to “send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back,” Tokarski said. The purpose of the night is not supposed to be a solution to crime or a celebration of the end of crime, but rather a way to show that each community is prepared to stop it.

Forrest Hodges, Pittsburgh Police Department zone one spokesman, said he has participated in National Night Out in the Northside for the last decade and has attended events everywhere from Spring Hill, Deutschtown, East Allegheny and the Manor Care Home on Brighton Road.

“I think that any kind of function that shows that the communities are geared toward the safety of a particular community and that they are showing their force, is definitely a positive safety feature,” Hodges said.

A game of kickball will not do much to stop crime, though.

“One night is certainly not an answer to crime, drugs and violence,” Tokarski said, “[but] National Night Out represents the kind of spirit, energy and determination to help make neighborhoods a safer place year round.”

As the “opening bell” for the night out, Tokarski said there will be a rally at Market Square on July 29 at 11:30 a.m.

Interested residents can check out the National Night Out website to locate an event nearest to their neighborhoods. Hodges said there are sure to be several in the Northside.

“The Northside is a pioneering community,” Hodges said. “Every community [there] has shown throughout the year and years that they are proactive in watching their community and helping police.”

Northside Public Safety President David Stacy said he’s attended night out events in East Allegheny for the last eight years. He recalled a block party on East Ohio Street last year–each side of the street offered informational tables with volunteers from the fire department, paramedics and other safety organizations.

“The public safety council is very apt as far as doing different events, not necessarily just in East Allegheny,” Stacy said. “We have several events throughout the year. The more folks get to know each other the more crime we can work on together.”

Last year, nearly 38 million people in the U.S. participated in National Night Out, including more than 3,000 Pittsburghers. Tokarski said the night should be a way for neighbors to get to know one another and talk about how to protect their neighborhoods.

“It is our hope that through the work of community public safety committees and task forces and Zone Public Safety Zone Councils, that people will talk more to their neighbors, businesses, churches and temples and most importantly with public safety personnel about their real and perceived safety concerns,” Tokarski said.

Gossip and rumors, Tokarski said, can often stand in the way of truly solving neighborhood crimes and problem, but when neighbors are able to come together a group rumors can often be put to rest.

“The night celebrates safety and crime prevention successes and works to expand and strengthen programs for the next 364 days,” Tokarski said.

For Hodges, National Night Out isn’t about kickball, hotdogs or rallies, but about numbers.

“It shows each community that they are not alone. There’s power in numbers and that’s what this event shows. People are not alone in this endeavor. It starts out as a small group and it grows and it grows and it grows.”