WESTBROOK — The city’s historic Frenchtown neighborhood, known over the years for its unsafe reputation, has begun to change its image.

Residents and city officials say efforts over the past two years by private organizations and a community policing center are bringing the community together, resulting in a decrease in crime and a growing sense of safety.

“I think there’s been a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” said Megan Perry, the community policing coordinator. “It’s about taking back that sense of pride.”

The Frenchtown neighborhood, situated between the old mills and the Presumpscot River, has a diverse population of seniors and young families, as well as immigrants and minorities. Brown Street, from Bridge Street to High Street, came to be known as Frenchtown because of the influx of French-speaking families attracted by mill jobs in the mid- to late 19th century.

According to Police Chief Janine Roberts, there has been a significant decrease in police calls to the Frenchtown neighborhood over the past two years.

Reactive police calls, meaning the police were responding to a crisis or criminal activity, decreased from 1,113 in 2015 to 913 in 2017. Self-initiated police calls, in which residents called police, decreased from 3,052 in 2015 to 1,773 in 2017.

Roberts credits the change to many factors, including “the combination of Megan’s presence and her partnership with residents who want drugs out of their neighborhood.”

The community policing center, the city’s only one, opened at 192 Brown St. in October 2015. The former apartment building houses meeting spaces and conference rooms, Perry’s office, a kitchen, and an open gathering space. The Cornelia Warren Foundation donated $15,000 to the project in its first year. Other funding sources include the city, Westbrook Environment Improvement Corporation, and a Community Development Block Grant.

Roberts started the center after seeing the approach work successfully in Portland. Brown Street was chosen as the location because it’s centrally located in Frenchtown and is highly visible. The area also had the most need, Roberts said.

“So many residents and police officers talked about how unsafe the Brown Street neighborhood was,” she said.

Perry, whose background is in child protective services, said she spent the first year “beating the pavement” to get to know people. “The presence of police officers in the area has a huge effect. It’s clear that the Westbrook Police Department is not only here, but we care,” she said.

Although Perry is an employee of the police department, she’s a civilian, which Roberts said helps her build trust with residents. Perry has brought more officers into the neighborhood, however, by hosting events such as National Night Out, Blizzard Bash, and dinners where officers and residents can interact.

“The positive interaction reminds people that this is a safe place,” Perry said.

Perry also reminds people of this by offering them resources and connecting them with social service agencies. Residents can come to the center for food and clothing, as well as items for their children. People often come to her with concerns about their friends and neighbors who are in need, which is a major change from how the neighborhood used to be, Perry said.

“I’ve seen a shift from a lot of isolation to pockets of neighbors who are now connected,” she said.

When Marilyn Hickey’s daughter moved to Brown Street four years ago, the isolation was evident. Hickey lives in Gorham but spends most days in Westbrook caring for her two young grandchildren.

“When we first moved here, our experience was that people were private,” she said. “We were aware that we had to be cautious because we heard of the not-so-good reputation of the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood has changed dramatically over the past two years, Hickey said. She now feels safe walking through Frenchtown and she’s come to know many of the residents.

“It’s gone from people being isolated and having their own struggles to having people connect and support each other with their struggles,” Hickey said. “It’s becoming more of doing life together instead of in isolation.”

In addition to the community policing center, Community Partnership for Protecting Children, an initiative operated by the Opportunity Alliance, has been working over the past two years to open a community hub in the neighborhood at 13 Reserve St. It already hosts monthly community meals at St. Anthony’s Church on Brown Street.

The hub building, which was donated by the city, is fully renovated and is expected to open once the finishing touches are complete. The building will serve as a community space where neighbors can come together and support each other, according to the organization.

Brittney Sampson, CPPC’s community connector, will be working in the hub and has been ingraining herself in the neighborhood over the past two years. She said people often donate food and clothes to her so she can give them to people in need.

“It’s rare that I’m walking about and people don’t try to give me things,” Sampson said.

Something as simple as knowing your neighbors goes a long way toward making a neighborhood safer, Roberts said.

“Megan isn’t doing it alone and the police department isn’t doing it alone,” she said. “The community is coming together to make the neighborhood safer and to change perceptions and lower fear.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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