Back in the 1980s my family dispatched me to Niagara Falls, N.Y., to represent the McKerrals at a funeral for an uncle.
During the visit, I went where my grandmother lived before she died — in a two-apartment flat only a few blocks from the falls. I spent time there every summer through about age 15.
As we sat in front of 436 10th St., I turned to another uncle and said, “I don’t recall this street having streetlights.”
My uncle replied that during my time there, it didn’t.
“There was no need for streetlights,” he said. “People spent most of their time on the porch during good weather, and everyone in the neighborhood knew everyone else by name. If a stranger wandered about, someone found out who it was.”
As a kid, I spent hours on that porch, day and night.
Fast-forward to the events in Sanford, Fla., that led to the death of Trayvon Martin, 17. George Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed Martin on Feb. 26 while Zimmerman made rounds for Neighborhood Watch in the gated community where he encountered Martin.
The shooting raises many questions but also sheds light on a number of cultural changes that have occurred that eventually led to people taking the law into their own hands.
Among those changes: working families rather than just a working father in households at all income levels; a disconnect between next-door neighbors and within neighborhoods where people live; a lack of awareness among residents about their neighborhood; budget pressures that reduced law enforcement presence; and crime moving outside its traditional haven, the inner city.
And finally, media saturation that keeps people off their “porches” and from engaging face-to-face with neighbors and friends — people perpetually looking down at hand-held devices rather than at the world around them.
One product of all this was Neighborhood Watch and groups similar to it, some with official names and others loosely organized.
Neighborhood Watch, created in 1972 by the National Sheriff’s Association, came as response to the U.S. crime rate, which rose significantly in key categories through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Law enforcement officials have said repeatedly in the wake of Martin’s death that Neighborhood Watch was never intended to turn residents into police.
“Watch, observe and report” is law enforcement’s mantra for it.
But human nature shows that once people get “empowered,” those well-intentioned paved roads become treacherous.
And black youth — dressed in a “hoodie” or not — arouse suspicion, especially in a “gated” community, which implies a pretty good economic demographic among residents.
No time machine exists that can transport us to a time when day-to-day life provided the equivalent of Neighborhood Watch.
But individually we can make contributions that might lead to better days in neighborhoods.
Taking the time to walk the neighborhood, welcome new residents, spending a bit of time with neighbors, and organizing small-scale neighborhood events that involve all ages can lead to safer neighborhoods with residents aware of activity.
And where kids can walk about in “hoodies” while eating Skittles and not get shot to death.