WEST PALM BEACH – Maxine Morgan moved into Dunbar Village over two months ago, dreading the worst, but hoping for the best. It seems that beauty and, in this case, safety, are truly always in the eye of the beholder.
“I have never felt so safe in my life,” Morgan said while sitting on a flowered couch under her wired living room window.
The unit is small, and a bit cramped. But for the 55-year-old, her 89-year-old mother and her two granddaughters, it’s home.
The unit reflects its age. Dunbar Village is one of the oldest housing projects in the state; the 246 units were originally built in 1940.
Its notoriety is rooted in the heinous crime that occurred almost a year ago last June, when a woman and her son were beaten, robbed, sexually abused, and tortured by a gang of youths between the ages of 14 and 18.
But almost a year later, the lawns at Dunbar Village are manicured. Fresh coats of paint freshen up the outside walls of the apartments. Street access has been limited to a one-way in, one-way out format. And police officers are on watch around the clock.
Morgan is one resident who appreciates the changes. She lived in Riviera Beach before moving into the public housing project in northern West Palm Beach.
In her old area, street violence was common, and she never dared even sleep near a window in her old home, let alone allow her granddaughters to come over and visit.
The difference for her between then and now is tangible, in acts as simple as just being able to sit on her front porch and feed the birds.
“Dispatchers know the neighborhood in and out, and Officer Williams is our protector,” the older woman said, smiling broadly. “We’re living in a real gated community.”
That’s not necessarily what one might expect to hear from a resident of a place some have referred to as a hellish environment.
But Officer Brian Williams patrols the area by day and sometimes by night. Dunbar is his official assignment. In the last three to four months, he has been one of two officers working the public housing sector.
Williams said the method to his madness isn’t rocket science, just communicating directly with residents.
“I’m not just policing the neighborhood, but I’m approaching them like I’m also a resident who also cares about the condition of the community. I’m not always in uniform and I take the kids to check out my equipment,” Williams said. “At the beginning people were a bit stand offish and thought I was there to write citations, but now they see me and call me personally to update me and let me know how their kids are doing.”
According to West Palm Beach Housing Authority Executive Director Laurel Robinson, many of the security measures have really brought about distinctions.
“The one-way-in, one-way-out entrance, after they closed the 15th street route in, really kept people who don’t have to be in Dunbar out,” Robinson said
“And, the active presence of an officer I think had a chilling affect because people know there is 24-hour surveillance.”
The West Palm Beach Police Department and the Housing Authority meet with Dunbar’s new residents council on a monthly basis. The council is made up of elected volunteers within the neighborhood. They offer their complaints and concerns, and expect to see something done about them.
Williams said he sees this as a move in the right direction, allowing residents to take control of where they live.
“The people in Dunbar are, just like me and you, they just want to be left alone to take care of their families,” Williams said.
He calls it the best assignment he’s had in the nine years he has worked for the department, because it tends to be more preventive. There hasn’t been a crime directly against anyone in Dunbar since he’s arrived, he said.
The community outreach program sponsored by the West Palm Beach Police Department has added to that by beginning fundraising dinners for the residents council to hold activities for people who live in Dunbar.
The program also began an essay contest for the kids to write about “My neighborhood, my world, my life, my truth.”
“Basically we’re trying to give the children an outlet to let us know how they view their life and what is their reality,” said Sabrina Harris-Wallace, emergency communication supervisor at the West Palm Beach police department. “We want to send the message that yes, bad things have happened there, but a lot of good has happened too. There are talented kids doing many things in school, like one little girl is taking a video class.”
Wallace said the group is also planning to start an e-newsletter to put all the essays together like a legacy to those who lived there.
Not everyone is convinced that Dunbar is a nice place to live now, however.
Citoya Greenwood has lived in Dunbar for three years too long, in her own words. The neighborhood has improved, in her opinion, but she said she believes “we’ve come a long way and have a long way to go.”
She is a resident, but also a grassroots organizer who runs the blog Dunbarvillage.blogspot.com to shed light on the circumstances there. She was also one of the first to step up and speak to the media after the high-profile crime, and she invited Al Sharpton to the community in January when he was visiting Riviera Beach.
Greenwood admits a lot has changed; she doesn’t see the same gatherings of young people behind her home into late hours of the night, and she appreciates the added security. Her home is just three or four doors down from where the crime took place.
“People still come in that shouldn’t be around here,” Greenwood said. “We still have issues of people coming in selling drugs, but people don’t say anything because many like that lifestyle.”
The young, single mom said in the end, not enough people care enough to get as involved as she has.
“There have been too many broken promises and people are tired of hearing it,” she said.
In the rape case, a woman told police the masked teens accosted her and her 12-year-old son in their apartment at Dunbar Village on June 18, 2007. The teens are accused of repeatedly raping and sodomizing the mother, beating both of them and forcing her to perform oral sex on her son. The suspects then doused the victims with cleaning solutions, likely in a crude attempt to clean the crime scene, police said.
When the rape occurred, police thought as many as 10 teens could have been involved.
Four have been arrested: Jakaris Taylor, 16; Avion Lawson, 15; Tommy Poindexter, 19; and Nathan Walker Jr., 17.
Taylor has pleaded guilty to burglary and two counts of armed sexual battery in a deal with prosecutors that will allow him to avoid life in prison in exchange for testifying against his friends. The plea deal may lead to the arrests of more suspects, investigators say.
Almost a year after the attacks, Dunbar has children playing in the streets, throwing balls, picking mangos and enjoying the afternoon sun.
There are people outside talking to their neighbors and hanging laundry and whiling away the afternoon. It’s like any area where survival instincts are well-honed—people adapt—and continue to live their lives.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Citoya Greenwood