The park next door

The first few days of the month always bring a crowd to Mizelle Park.

Sunday, more than a dozen people gathered on the tiny parcel of land between North Lane Street and North Bunn. Some sat on the grass, backs against the graffiti-covered wall of the E&S Diversified Services building; others clustered around the park’s bench and concrete planter.

A man wearing wire-framed glasses, his slim gray ponytail pulled through the back of his Vietnam vets baseball cap, palmed a shooter of dark-colored liquor and stroked the large, black-and-white dog tied to the tree next to him. Around him, others sat in the shade drinking and talking. When a pair of pedestrians made their way down the path winding through the tiny park, the dog snarled and lunged to the end of its leash.

“It’s ok,” the man said, taking a swallow from the bottle in his hand. “He won’t bite, he’s a military service dog.”

While the dog was more bark than bite, the park isn’t always that way.

Across the street, business owners see the corner greenspace draw a steady rotation of illicit activity, violence, police and paramedics. People drink; people fight; sometimes someone gets sick or arrested and the next month, it happens again.

Ed Sullivan, whose father opened Sullivan’s Custom Upholstery more than half a century ago, calls it like he sees it.

“They say crime don’t pay and I say bullcrap,” said Sullivan, gesturing towards the park from his cluttered shop across the street. “It pays all day long.”

There are laws against public drinking and fighting, but Sullivan sees them broken all the time. He’s worked at the Mountain View Drive business for decades. Inside the shop, there are heaping piles of seats stripped of their covers and floor-to-ceiling racks filled with rolls of material and a radio playing Rush Limbaugh. He said he’s able to conduct his upholstering business with little disturbance from the park across the street.

But Sullivan said he’s seen the same situations play out again and again, and he doesn’t think police have the tools to fully deal with the problems at Mizelle Park. He said he believes local laws need sharper teeth; a slap on the hand doesn’t fix anything.

“There’s no true punishment,” he said.

Just a few miles down the road, community leaders and police have wrestled with similar troubles in Town Square Park. Despite summer bike patrols by the Anchorage Police Department, there was frequent drinking, drug use and vandalism to adjacent businesses. So, in April, the University of Alaska Anchorage hosted a public forum to address possible design solutions to some of the issues in the park. A bench was removed; some trees were trimmed. Throughout the summer, the Anchorage Downtown Partnership has hosted a variety of concerts and other activities in the park.

It may be too early to tell, but the community attention seems to be making a difference.

In Mountain View, there are several similar neighborhood efforts to spur change.

Earlier this year, the Anchorage Community Land Trust announced its application for a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program grant; intended to fund “research-driven, community-oriented” crime-fighting initiatives. ACLT Executive Director Jewel Jones said the grant winners could be announced by sometime next month. And at its last meeting, the Mountain View Community Council passed around a sign-up list for a new public safety committee. Maybe some of the neighborhood’s residents could come up with new ways of addressing community concerns, MVCC leaders said at the time.

Their concerns extend beyond Mizelle Park.

In June, neighborhood patrolman Bob Lincoln told the council about a recent gunfight that had unfolded in the street outside his house. He said he called police but it took nearly 20 minutes for an officer to respond. A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department said they found a damaged green Intrepid and shell casings on the ground, but no victims or shooters. Since then, there’ve been more than a half dozen reports of gunshots throughout the area, according to police reports. July 20, officers responded to reports of a shooting in the area of North Bliss Street and Parsons Avenue. APD spokeswoman Anita Shell said police found shell casings on the ground and damage to a nearby home. Witnesses reported seeing two vehicles drive away following the shooting, but Shell said nobody was injured and “no suspects were located, identified or arrested.”

It’s things like that that prompt neighbors to look for other ways to keep the area safe.

Between the volunteer community patrol, newly formed neighborhood public safety committee, crime-prevention programs and community council initiatives, people are working to make a change.

There are initiatives like National Night Out, which aim to tamp out crime by providing opportunities for people to socialize and meet local law enforcement. Tuesday night, the 31st annual event was held at the Mountain View Community Center and featured free food and entertainment.

From his perspective in the heart of the neighborhood, Sullivan said he’s not sure if any of those things will make a difference. At their root, he said he thinks the problems at the park stem back to a number of things. There should be tougher penalties for law-breakers, he said, but also better answers to addiction, joblessness, homelessness, debt and all the other issues that drive a person onto the streets. He said he doesn’t know what those answers might be.

Until someone finds them, he’s come to expect a crowd at Mizelle Park.

“I see it getting worse, cause people have less and less disposable income,” Sullivan said. “In two or three years, I could be one of those; you could be one of those.”

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