Out-of-state visitors often ask about the pretty ivy-like ground cover that grows along Georgia highways. I tell them that it is called kudzu and that to Georgians it is not "pretty". Originally imported from China as a solution to our erosion problems, this leafy vine adapted well to the warm southern climate. Before long it was taking over everything in sight. Growing up to 14 inches in a single twenty-four hour period, it chokes out trees, climbs telephone poles, covers buildings and invades every idle acre in its path. Highway crews spray it regularly with a herbicide to keep it off the right-of-ways but it continues to spread like a plague over meadows and woodland. Peggy and I first did battle with kudzu while clearing land for our Walker Avenue home. We tried burning it, chopping it, poisoning it and digging it up - all to little avail. In a few days it would be sprouting up again to continue its relentless conquest. Interestingly, however, we discovered that a simple mowing of our lawn would keep the kudzu confined to the borders of our yard. For all of its apparent aggressiveness, we found it to be a rather gentle plant that when tended would stay within prescribed confines. Neglect mowing the yard, however, and those leafy tentacles would resume their silent take-over. The persistent mower-power of our neighbors (along with herbicide blitzes) eventually eliminated kudzu from our community.
Our battle with kudzu yielded some interesting insights into another struggle we face daily in the city - crime. Having lived in Atlanta's inner-city for a number of years, I have seen how rapidly criminal activity can take root and spread over a neglected community. I have seen how its onslaught can paralyze a neighborhood with fear. Once it is entrenched, it is like kudzu - it requires Herculean effort to root out.
I have also seen how a vigilant neighborhood can push crime back to its borders and secure safe yards and playgrounds for its children. Crime, like kudzu, thrives when it is ignored. It springs back with resilience following police sweeps. It is immune to the threat of tougher laws and stiffer jail sentences. But it does not do well under the daily scrutiny of watchful neighbors.
Take Walker Avenue for instance. This two block, forty home street is an oasis of health in the midst of a high-crime area. Children play in safety and mothers push strollers down the street on carefree afternoon walks. Break-in's are rare because neighbors have established an active crime watch. Any stranger who pauses on Walker Avenue is bound to have someone inquire as to his business. What goes on in people's homes also becomes community business. Consequently, unwholesome activity soon comes to light.
Awhile back a neighbor across the street from us started picking up daily doses of illegal drugs on his way home from work. He would split his purchase with a friend a couple doors down. What began as a friendly gesture soon turned into an enterprise. Before long his house had a steady flow of traffic coming and going all hours of the day and night. When the pattern became too obvious to ignore, four adjacent neighbors met to discuss the matter. We elected a representative to go and speak to him on behalf of the community. We said that we were making no accusations, merely sharing our concerns, but that we were unwilling to take the chance of any of our children being cut down in the cross-fire of a transaction gone wrong. No threats were exchanged, but a clear, firm message from caring, watchful neighbors was communicated. The traffic dried up in less than twenty-four hours!
Every criminal (or potential criminal) lives somewhere. Ignore his activity and the house and street where he lives will soon become malignant. All it takes for crime to flourish is for responsible people to look straight ahead when they drive down their street and pull their blinds when they get into their house. And then lobby the government to put more police on the street and build more prisons.
Is it mere coincidence that at the very time we are seized by a national epidemic of violent crime, we are simultaneously experiencing the disappearance of community? It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to establish the causal connection. If we are too busy to get to know our neighbors, too absorbed in individual pursuits to consider the common community good, too involved in church activities to show concern for the well-being of our neighbors, then it should come as no surprise when crime springs up in the very places where we once felt secure.
Kudzu may be here to stay. But we do not have to let it grow in our back yards.