Whenever I mention the Historic Northwest Neighborhood in conversation, I’m usually met with a blank stare. When I clarify with a single word – “Tamarind” – the look turns to horror.
The neighborhood, situated between Banyan Boulevard and Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard with train tracks providing the east and west boundaries, has for years been among the roughest in the city.
In the summer of 2015, violence peaked with 10 homicides within a 2-mile radius, many of which tragically involved young teenagers.
This year, as summer comes to an end, we have not had a single shooting. Neighbors tell me that this is the first summer they can remember that didn’t involve mourning the loss of a neighbor or friend.
In past columns, I’ve highlighted changes in the neighborhood, such as the opening of the Queen of Sheeba Ethiopian Restaurant on N. Sapodilla Avenue and the unique Henrietta Bridge Urban Farm.
The work that the Community Redevelopment Agency does to revitalize the historic Sunset Lounge and create a jazz district is important to the neighborhood’s continued growth, as is the annual Heart & Soul Fest and the BBQ, Brews & Blues festival that draws crowds and celebrates the area’s unique African American heritage.
With all the physical improvements taking place, we must also recognize the leaders from this area – people who I believe are responsible for much of the positive change that we have seen.
Ricky Aiken is one such person. Ask where the 28-year-old is from, and he’ll tell you he was born and raised in “an abandoned shed behind an abandoned house” in Dunbar Village in the heart of the Northwest Neighborhood.
I met Mr. Aiken for the first time on a peace walk that he organized in the wake of one of the shootings that took place in the neighborhood.
“As a kid in Dunbar Village, we would play in the parks oblivious to what was going on around us. I remember hearing gunfire, hitting the ground, then after a few moments getting up and carrying on,” says Aiken. “When a lifestyle is all you know, it’s hard to understand that it is good or it’s bad, it’s just what you know.”
Aiken continues, “Urban Youth Impact exposed me to what was happening outside my small community and opened my eyes to the opportunities that we had. I saw amazing growth in the City of West Palm Beach, but in my neighborhood I saw the same brokenness that I grew up with. I saw my peers civically disengaged and kids hanging out on the corners fueling the next generation in a cycle of destruction. I knew that I had to make a change.”
In response to a shooting that took the life of one of Aiken’s close friends, Johnny Davis, he founded a group called the Inner City Innovators with his cousin and began recruiting others in the neighborhood to start a movement for positive change.
They hosted a series of peace marches, brought communities together in a “Rally for Peace and Kickball” in the park and on July 4th they encouraged kids to “put down the guns and pick up the water balloons.”
These “Neighborhood Hope Dealers,” who now are 14 strong, engage their peers through their activism, promoting local job fairs and holding seminars on how to empower the youth and fight gun violence as well as improving relations with law enforcement.
Another effort supporting our youth is the Ties that Bind initiative lead by West Palm Beach Commissioner Cory Neering.
The initial event brought together men and middle school-aged kids to help teach them etiquette and social/life skills such as how to tie a tie, shake hands, set goals and learn about entrepreneurship.
The event was well attended by more than 75 young men learning valuable life lessons.
Recently, with kids getting ready to go back to school, Commissioner Neering put out a call to encourage these young students with a grand send-off.
On Aug. 15, the Inner City Innovators, as well as men from around town, lined the hallways of four neighborhood schools and gave high-fives and words of encouragement to students who were coming back to school after a fun and – thankfully – peaceful summer.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m excited to witness and play a small part in this movement. Providing a word of encouragement to a young person, or teaching someone how to tie a tie or fill out a job application can make a difference.
I believe that, with all of our help and support, we can continue to bring peace to our streets.