Call it what you like, it’s still a great neighborhood celebration

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If you flew a hot air balloon over the metro area on Tuesday August 4, you would see the same image repeated over and over–children playing safely on barricaded streets … adults grilling hot dogs or relaxing in lawn chairs … tables covered with a plethora of delicious foods … and lively music playing for all to enjoy. Yes, to most onlookers, these celebrations might appear to be the same. Close observers would see one distinct difference: some events are National Night Out celebrations while others are Night to Unite.

National Night Out has been celebrated on the first Tuesday in August since it began in 1984. Created by Matt Peskin, Executive Director of the National Association of Town Watch (NATW), NNOs started as a way to reduce crime in residential areas. NATW believed neighbors who felt connected were more likely to look out for one another, thus reducing the likelihood of criminal activity in their community.

In its first year, 23 states including Minnesota participated, helping NNO reach 2.5 million people. Since then, participation has climbed steadily. According to NATW records, communities in every state now participate as well as people living in “U.S. territories, Canadian cities, and [on] military bases worldwide.” Last year, more than 35 million people participated in registered NNO celebrations.

While NNO continues to be successful, it has encountered controversy. Last year, the StarTribune reported some participating agencies expressed concern that Peskin’s annual compensation package is over $300,000, a figure many believe is excessive for a nonprofit organization. Also, NATW considered breaking its 25-year tradition by changing the date to mid-September. Although they ultimately decided to keep NNO in August, the issue was enough to cause some municipalities to sever ties with NATW and start fresh.

This year, more than 70 Minnesota police and sheriff’s departments will participate in the first Night to Unite. Developed by the Minnesota NTU committee and the Minnesota Crime Prevention Association, Night to Unite is a locally administered program. According to Community Affairs Liaison for South St. Paul Deb Griffith, all aspects of the event are handled locally including the logo design and products distributed at the parties. For her, the local connection made switching much more appealing.

To the public, the programs will look similar. In both cases, registered block parties may receive a visit from either the police or fire department. Also, both offer planning support and party packs. The few differences occur primarily at the administrative level and are handled by the local event coordinators.

One difference; NNO gives awards to communities with high participation. Cities are categorized according to their population and compete nationally with other cities. Griffith said NTU will instead focus on recognizing all communities for participating.

“Some of the bigger cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul like to compete and that’s okay,” Griffith said. “We’re just working to get neighbors to know each other.”

Last year, both Minneapolis and Saint Paul won first place awards in their respective categories. Both cities have elected to continue their affiliation with NNO this year. Pam McCreary, Saint Paul’s Crime Prevention Coordinator and NNO organizer, said Saint Paul considered switching to Night to Unite; however because of the support NATW has provided Saint Paul over the years, McCreary said they decided to remain with NNO.

“We made that decision before we got our NNO award, McCreary said. “That had no bearing on our decision to stay with NNO.”

McCreary expects the number of registered events in Saint Paul to swell as NNO approaches. Last year, Saint Paul had 304 registered events. However, McCreary estimates there were at least an additional 50 nonregistered events.

Because celebrating on a Tuesday night is not practical for everyone, McCreary will expand NNO to include any registered events held during that week. Events held within that time frame will fall under the NNO umbrella and receive the same benefits, including the waiver of registration fee. McCreary believes the celebration is more important than the date.

“They build community, confidence and relationships,” McCreary said.

Regardless of the official name, both McCreary and Griffith agree neighborhood celebrations strengthen communities, which in turn wards off crime. Griffith points out that both programs have been endorsed by Governor’s office because they each encourage community involvement.

“Most of the people call it ‘that night out in August’ anyway,” Griffith said. “Just get the neighbors out and start celebrating.”

Deb Pleasants (deb@tcdailyplanet.net) is a full-time mother and a part-time freelance writer/citizen journalist. She enjoys writing about social and community issues; many of her articles have been featured in the Minnesota Voices series.

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