Three fifth-grade girls, each armed with a new digital camera, scampered down West Oakland sidewalks last week, snapping photos of the worst the streets had to show at 8 a.m. on a school morning.
Their assignment: Take the first of a series of "photo audits" of the neighborhood's dangerous attributes.
The students photographed cars racing so fast along San Pablo Avenue that only the crossing guard's insistent whistle slowed them down as a group of students crossed the street. And they took shots of a bus stop considered so dangerous that many avoid it.
They snapped photos of about a dozen men gathered in a sliver of a park infamous for drug dealing, prostitution and assaults, but which lies along one of the main walking routes to their school, Hoover Elementary.
The girls' photo audit around Hoover Elementary was the first data gathered in Oakland for a new six-city nationwide pilot project in poorer communities to reduce the violence and other dangers that keep many residents inside.
Numerous other activities are also planned for the 16-month project, which is coordinated by the Prevention Institute in Oakland and funded by five major organizations, including Kaiser Permanente. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided technical assistance, and the collaboration is called the "Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership." Besides Oakland, Chula Vista in Southern California, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia and Louisville, Ky., joined the project.
Health experts agree that many factors contribute to the higher rates of disease found in neighborhoods like West Oakland, where most of the residents are black, Latino or Pacific Islander, and nearly two-thirds earn less than $30,000 per year, according to 2000 census data. And compared with wealthier neighbors in the nearby Oakland hills, for example, those who grow up in West Oakland are twice as likely to die of heart disease or cancer, three times more likely to die of stroke, and have on average a 15-year decrease in life span, the Alameda County Public Health Department reported in 2008.
But Loel Solomon, vice president of community health for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, said fear of violence among residents significantly contributes to unhealthful lifestyles.
"It's a big one, because it has multiple ramifications," Solomon said. "It diminishes people's comfort in walking around a neighborhood to get physical activity."
Residents are also unable to fully enjoy assets the area might possess, like an open space or a community garden.
"If they're lucky enough to have a corner store that has fruits and vegetables, people are afraid to walk down the street and get the food," Solomon continued, since often groups of people they find threatening hang around the store. Others have told him they're reluctant to shop for groceries after work, as they're a target carrying groceries in the evening.
In addition, Solomon said, fear of violence keeps neighbors distant, as people tend to stay to themselves to avoid trouble.
"Violence causes people to not be on the front stoop," he said. "It erodes social bonds." And those social bonds are critical for neighbors to come together to improve a community, or fight back against crime.
People who have witnessed crime, or lost a friend or family member to a homicide, are also more likely to cope with anxiety, depression or high stress. That in turn reduces motivation for pursuing a healthful lifestyle, and tends to increase dependence on smoking, alcohol and drugs, according to a report on the connection between violence and healthy living released this week by the Prevention Institute. Kaiser funded the report, and its findings were used to develop the nationwide pilot project.
The project focuses on bringing together existing community groups, and aims to help them coordinate their activities so they can adopt a more unified approach for preventing violence and thereby improving community health. Recruiting youth as participants and leaders is also a key goal.
While law enforcement plays an important role in preventing physical attacks, that alone won't rid neighborhoods of violence, said Virginia Lee, a program manager with the Prevention Institute.
"They're there to clean up the mess," she said. "We think about how we prevent that from even happening."
The Prevention Institute's new report, called "Addressing the Intersection: Preventing Violence and Promoting Healthy Eating and Active Living," described the risk factors for violent behavior, as well as "resilience factors" that prevent frustrations and anger from leading to violence.
Risk factors include poverty, community deterioration, media portrayals of violence and abuse as ways to solve problems, lack of good jobs, ineffective education systems and fragmented families. But to the degree someone experiences strong social networks, meaningful opportunities for community participation, a positive school climate, economic opportunities and strong family attachments, the influence of those risk factors diminishes.
The West Oakland project will focus on the "Hoover Historic District." At the district's center is the bane of the community -- St. Andrews Park, a highly-visible but small city park on busy San Pablo Avenue. It's also near three senior facilities, a preschool, three heavily-used bus stops, and is along the main route for many children walking to Hoover Elementary School two blocks away. Among the project's key goals are creating safe corridors for students and residents to walk, and converting St. Andrews Park into a family-friendly destination.
"A lot of them say they feel scared walking past that," said Tiffannee Jones, an outreach consultant at Hoover Elementary who was among a group of adults trailing the girls. "So what they'll do is they'll cross further down or further up, close to the fire station."
Jones said the students speak to her about what they've seen in the park. "It just takes away their innocence," she said. "People that they've known have been murdered there. Prostitution and drugs, they're very rampant. They've seen it."
For 10-year-old Cierra Quillin, one of the fifth-graders taking the photos, the project gives her a sense of hope. "Today I was recording things that I want to change about our community, so there can stop being bad stuff," she said. "So kids can learn what to do when they grow up," added Cierra, who wants to become a lawyer.
Jones said projects like this also show children other scenarios for their neighborhoods, besides the ones they've witnessed all their lives.
We tell them " 'You don't have to be a part of that. It's your responsibility as a youth coming up to go and change that.' "
Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.