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How one Oregon community reduced gun violence by 60%

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Like many cities, Portland, Ore., is seeing a devastating increase in gun violence. Last year, Portland counted the highest number of homicides in three decades. Katia Riddle brings us a story about one community's creative strategy to try and make the gunfire stop.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For most of the nine years she's lived here, Nadine Salama's working-class neighborhood in East Portland has been peaceful. Salama is sitting on a bench in Mt. Scott Park.

NADINE SALAMA: My baby grew up here.

RIDDLE: She points to the place her daughter took her first steps. This park is the crown jewel of the neighborhood. It stretches for blocks. One-hundred-foot Douglas fir trees tower over a community center and tennis courts. But in the last year, the neighbors say, gun violence stole the park from them.

SALAMA: Right over by Hometown Pizza right there.

RIDDLE: Salama looks out across the street where many shootings happened. The gunshots, she says, became relentless.

SALAMA: Five, six, seven times a month, sometimes five days in a row.

RIDDLE: One night, during a drive-by shooting, the driver lost control of his car. He crashed into a fire hydrant in front of her apartment. Her daughter witnessed the whole thing.

SALAMA: That was a moment where I was like - it felt very surreal to me. And I knew that this can't go on.

RIDDLE: Salama wasn't just worried about her own child. She saw the shooters flee the car.

SALAMA: Couldn't have been more than 16 or 17 years old. And they were so scared.

JOEL SOMMER: I was doing a Zoom call. It was, like, a Monday night at 8 p.m.

RIDDLE: Joel Sommer is a pastor at a church just down the block. He recalls the first time he heard shooting at the park.

SOMMER: And just heard popping through the window.

RIDDLE: Sommer's church is called Access Covenant. Their faith is in a nonviolent Jesus.

SOMMER: Who is this person who insisted on love in the face of violence?

RIDDLE: Many in his congregation are in helping professions, like social work or medicine. It's work that they believe emulates the teachings of Jesus.

SOMMER: Who believed that we change the world by starting from the bottom up and that we could do it all without weapons.

RIDDLE: These neighbors agreed. Police on every street corner was not the answer to gun violence. Instead, they started asking themselves how they could create peace.

JONATHAN JAY: Community members know a lot about what this problem looks like in their neighborhood and can generate great ideas - often the best ideas.

RIDDLE: Jonathan Jay is a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. Jay studies how factors like traffic patterns and tree cover affect gun violence. He points to a case study in Philadelphia. Residents in one neighborhood lowered gun violence when they turned abandoned lots into green spaces.

JAY: By making people feel safer in the neighborhoods, it helps restore social processes.

RIDDLE: Processes like conversation and looking out for each other - he says making small changes in the built environment can make a big difference. That's what the Mt. Scott community in Portland set out to do.

SALAMA: So the barrels are in a six-block radius around the park.

RIDDLE: Nadine Salama gestures toward orange traffic barrels. The neighborhood worked with the city to install them. They slow traffic, which deters drive-by shootings. Among many other changes, Salama points to increased lighting in the park and reclaiming Mt. Scott for community events.

SALAMA: It worked.

RIDDLE: Shootings have dropped in the neighborhood by more than 60%. The data is still preliminary. And Pastor Joel Sommer says the work isn't over.

SOMMER: I do think that any individual who decides to take a nonviolent approach in a moment can absolutely create peace wherever they are.

RIDDLE: Peace, he says, isn't something people are entitled to. It's something communities have to work for every day.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.