When the sun goes down at the Annie Coleman public housing project in Liberty City, fear goes up.
Because of the lack of outdoor lighting, residents tend to retreat inside their homes and kids don’t use the basketball courts or playground. Walking to and from the store, school or bus stop isn’t safe. Socializing in the garden courtyard in the evening is risky.
“We would like to have lights for our walkways because it gets extremely dark all around our area,” said Annie St. Juste, a mother of five. “We want our children and neighbors to be able to use the walkways at night and not have to look over their shoulder every minute.”
St. Juste wants to reduce crime, promote recreation and foster neighborly interaction in her corner of Liberty City. She says, “Let there be light!”
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She and her husband, Lanston Williams, have lobbied for more street lights and courtyard lights from the county without success. So they submitted a proposal to the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge, an annual contest that devotes funding to citizen-generated ideas for projects that enhance public spaces. St. Juste’s Liberty City Lights concept, brilliant in its simplicity, is one of 48 finalists chosen from a record 441 entries. The foundation will give out $305,000 in grants ranging in value from $5,000 to $25,000 when about 20 winners are selected in late August.
We want our children and neighbors to be able to use the walkways at night and not have to look over their shoulder every minute.
Annie St. Juste
“Our Challenge recognizes the power of public space in terms of health, social and economic benefits,” said Stuart Kennedy, director of program, strategy and innovation at the foundation. “Miami is lagging behind other cities. So we decided to turn to the creative experts — the folks in the neighborhoods.
“This year’s theme is accessibility. Liberty City Lights is an example of a resident stepping up and identifying a space that needs something extra to make it useful and welcoming. It’s a great space, but it’s not safe.”
St. Juste would like to see lights installed in the areas that link Northwest 60th Street, Northwest 62nd Street, Charles Drew K-8 Center at 1775 NW 60th St., the memorial garden, the vegetable garden, the basketball courts and adjacent spacious athletic field where none of the lights have worked for years and the playground that used to be a garbage dump and was converted into a gathering spot for kids.
“When it gets dark, the wrong people are attracted to our community and engage in criminal activities,” said St. Juste. An apartment wall facing the garden gazebo that is pockmarked by patched bullet holes provides proof. “We believe added lights will not only make our walkways safer but will allow our children to play outside longer and enjoy all the benefits of the playground and basketball courts. When we have to stay late at school for parents’ night, we do not want to be fearful of walking back home.”
Kids shouldn’t feel scared in their own neighborhood, said Michael Miller, impact zone director at the Miami Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization that has made a small community center out of one of the housing project apartments. MCI’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty in Liberty City by serving young people and their families “from cradle to career.”
“It’s a neighborhood with a history of crime so you’d think they would have at least minimal lighting, but they don’t,” he said. “For kids getting out of practice or after-school activities or work it can be very unnerving just to walk home. To catch the bus, you have to walk through dark, intimidating areas. It forces people inside.”
A little lighting would go a long way, Miller said.
“If you go anywhere, the two things parents want most are good schools and safe streets,” he said. “We’re seeing positive trends here in both. Invest in community development and engagement and the community is like an organism that thrives and takes care of itself.”