They don’t want to have to be the nosy neighbors, peering out of their windows suspiciously at every hint of activity outside in order to reduce violence in their community. No, the members of the Friendship Neighborhood in the Willmore City area of Long Beach just want to be the friendly neighbors.
The Friendship Neighborhood came about after Willmore resident Nelson Suarez, 23, was shot and killed in the neighborhood in March and after another shooting involving police happened just a few days later. In discussing ways to curb violence in the neighborhood, police emphasized nosiness, while councilmember Robert Garcia highlighted the installation of cameras at Drake Park. But the residents who started the Friendship Neighborhood wanted to focus instead on meeting their neighbors and creating community ties, said Erin Foley, one of the organizers of the group.
One of their events that aimed to foster deeper relationships and a spirit of friendliness among members of the community was its first Friend Fest, which took place at Drake Park Saturday, June 22.
“The idea is to make friends out of neighbors and to share resources and build a network of people that can help build up this community and be self-sustaining,” Foley said.
The event featured clothing, books, and various items from the Long Beach Free Store, in addition to a seed-sharing workshop, face painting, a table on up-cycling, a voter-registration table, free food, live music, and a free raffle for kids that included bicycles and soccer balls. The Friendship Neighborhood is composed of volunteers and received a $750 grant from Building Healthy Communities: Long Beach for the Friend Fest, Foley said.
“Once you get to know your neighbor, if you see something happening to their house, you’ll be more likely to help than if you didn’t know them,” said Ronnie Benini, a Willmore City resident and organizer with the Friendship Neighborhood.
Benini and her mother, Rosalia, hinted that the neighborhood already seemed to be friendlier, as they like that they can say ‘hello’ to people when walking outside.
Erin Wimberly, a Bluff Heights resident who’s involved with the Friendship Neighborhood, thinks the Friend Fest is an “alternative” to the violence.
“What it is is a very gentle and open, giving space, and that’s a very liberating thing, to know that there’s something like that going on in the neighborhood,” she said. “It helps to counteract the violence that’s occurring. It gives people something to do.”
The event even drew some Signal Hill residents. Anne Perry of Signal Hill, who was at the Friend Fest with her family, said she came to the event “for the gathering, the fellowship” and to support the community with items she donated.
Whether events like this will actually reduce the rate of violence in the area is unknown, as Foley said that she’s “not trying to predict the whole future of it.” But it’s already bringing people together, she said.
Willmore resident and organizer, Jeff Nelson, said that even though issues such as violence in their community are complex, community action like this is “a positive drop in the ocean.”
However, beyond curbing crime, Foley thinks it’s important for communities to take actions like the Friend Fest in order to assert themselves.
“I would say it’s important because you’re kind of taking the power back and giving it to the people,” she said. “You’re showing what you can do, and you’re showing that you’re a force to be reckoned with.”