Gunfire signals it’s time for attention to neighborhood decline

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008
ELIZABETH PHILLIPS is an assistant city editor at the Columbia Missourian.

‘They are not gentle people,” my neighbor, who is Indian, observed over chai one night.

We were talking about some of the people in our neighborhood, which has gone downhill over the past year. For two years after I moved into my quiet, north Columbia apartment in the White Gate neighborhood, the only time I heard sirens was when someone had a seizure. Residents of my apartment complex and the one across the parking lot share a pool where I swim laps on summer mornings. The few neighbors I know get together for tea or dinner sometimes, and I’ve rarely heard noise past 9 p.m.

But a few months ago, I heard a car was stolen a couple of blocks away. One neighbor told me he found a six-inch knife lying in the grass as he was on his way to a garage sale a block away, and his wife said she had to take their 5-year-old son back to their apartment after she saw a couple having sex in the pool, with their two small children swimming a few feet away.

A month ago, a new neighbor moved in across the hall. He’s had a party almost every night, and I’ve complained to him and the landlord several times.

It was all only a warm-up.

Early on the morning of July 17, the sound of gunshots and squealing tires jarred me as I sat in my recliner, reading. I looked out of my bedroom window and saw a blue car with a white roof back into a parked car and speed off into the night.

My hands shook as I dialed 911.

Fifteen minutes later, two police cars arrived. Three or four uniformed officers combed the parking lot and the area around the buildings. My phone rang. An officer outside asked me which car was hit. I asked if I should come outside and point it out. She told me to stay inside. I almost panicked.

As a reporter and an assistant city editor at the Missourian, I’ve written and read dozens of stories about assaults, robberies and slayings. I’ve almost developed a clinical detachment from the reality of crime in Columbia. My detachment flew out my bedroom window that night.

Two more squad cars arrived. Officers, with their guns drawn, entered the building across the parking lot. Four, five, six people came out of the building.

More squad cars arrived, and then the SWAT team’s armored van.

Over their public address system, officers ordered anyone still in the basement apartment to come out with their hands up. Members of the SWAT team, wearing helmets and toting assault rifles, stormed the apartment.

The blue car with the white roof reappeared, rolling slowly down the street. Officers surrounded the car and pulled a man out. I watched as officers pushed him against a squad car and handcuffed him.

The man had shot at residents of an apartment across the parking lot from mine after an argument, police said the next day.

The initial fear I felt as a witness to an act of violence so close to a living space I share with two cats gave way to anger. What right did this man — or anyone else, for that matter — have to destroy the peacefulness and safety of my personal space?

I’ll graduate in December and move away, leaving my deteriorating neighborhood behind. But as a resident of Columbia, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the rise in crime. Several families with small children live in the buildings surrounding mine, and the Rainbow House, an emergency shelter for children, is just two blocks away. At the day care across the street from the Rainbow House, I often see children playing on the swings.

I’ve talked about going to my city councilman and my neighborhood association with my concerns for months, but I’ve always found an excuse for doing nothing. I was working, or I had a paper to write, or I was just plain tired.

Those gunshots woke me up. As a student, it’s easy to think of my apartment as nothing but a temporary stop on the way to more final destination. But I’ve grown to think of Columbia as home, even if it is a temporary one.

It’s time I talk to my councilman about my home, Columbia, and what’s happening here.

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