A slightly tense and confrontational passion filled the air of an old meeting room at Union Baptist Church on Springfield’s east side. Gathered there on a humid Thursday evening last week were more than 50 activists, neighbors and business owners – all concerned about the state of their neighborhood. Their meeting was precipitated by tragedy, but some say it was the wake-up call the community needed.
“Let’s start respecting ourselves so we can change our community,” says Mike Williams, a longtime east side activist. Williams says the shooting death of 22-year-old Kaiser Bender of Springfield in April made him and other east side residents see a need for changes, not only within the community, but within themselves.
Though the group has no name or hierarchy, it does have specific goals – some of which were achieved last week. Bender’s murder happened outside Mr. Gyros restaurant at 1100 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. around 3 a.m. on April 22. The east side group says the restaurant has become a hotbed of disturbances – loud music, littering and even violence – because of its late hours and allowance of disruptive behavior. Acknowledging the group’s concerns, Mr. Gyros owners Waleed and Diana Dobié of Springfield agreed to several requests, such as closing at 1 a.m., cleaning up trash and kicking out disruptive customers.
“This is my community; I grew up right here in Springfield,” Diana Dobié says. “Without the community, we would not have made it this far. We would like to take the time to apologize to anybody that we have offended.”
But the focus was wider than changing the practices of one business.
“I own a home over there and I’ve lived over there for 10 years, and I think it’s about time the noise and the violence stops,” says Thomas Fields of Springfield. “It needs to stop, but we can’t put that all on this man right here,” Fields said, referring to Waleed Dobié and his business.
Williams says some businesses treat their east side patrons with disrespect, but he doesn’t expect businesses to change without a change from patrons.
“Just as we’re telling business people to respect us, we’ve got to respect them and ourselves,” he says. “We can’t go into his business kicking stuff over, taking stuff, spray painting it at night. That’s a business. We want that business to look great and be successful.”
Henry Hall, a Springfield resident who goes by the name J-Love, called on east side residents to “do the right thing” and speak up when they witness a crime.
“If you see someone get murdered, and you don’t speak up because of the ‘street code,’ I’m telling you now, the street code was gone a long time ago,” Hall says. “There comes a time to step up. That young man [Bender] died in front of all those people, and nobody saw nothing. It doesn’t make sense.”
Hall says efforts for improvement must start with individuals.
“We are here today to change our community,” Hall says. “However, we realize in order to change our community, we must change ourselves. We change ourselves by changing our behavior. We change our behavior by changing our way of thinking.”
Encouraged by early growth in the east side group’s size, Williams says they will continue to work for long-term improvements in their lives and their community.
“We want our kids to be successful. We want crime to stop. We want businesses to develop. We want home ownership. We want to live the American Dream, but in order for us to live that American Dream, we have to change ourselves. We are much too comfortable with how we live.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.