I-C-U block watch keeps eyes on violent streets

By Ashley Luthern



In the dark of the night, Victoria Allen drives where some wouldn’t venture during the day. She patrols the South Side streets of East Lucius, East Philadelphia, East Avondale and East Boston avenues, one hand on her police scanner and the other on the wheel.

She’s always on the lookout for anything suspicious.

During a recent ride, Allen resembled a tour guide as she pointed out places in her neighborhood.

“That house is vacant; that house gets a lot of domestic calls; that house has a bunch of shoes outside on the porch all the time,” Allen said.

Knowing such details has made local block watches, such as ICU (“I See You”) of which Allen is a part, invaluable to Youngstown police, who are working to curb violence, especially after the Sept. 25 shooting death of Thomas Repchic, 74, at East Philadelphia Avenue and Southern Boulevard.

“There are only 155 sworn police officers, but there are 80,000 residents,” said Sgt. Charles Swanson, Youngstown special-projects officer. “We need those 80,000 to be the eyes and ears because we can only be so many places.”

Allen, 38, and a lifelong South Side resident, has earned a reputation of a dedicated and reliable source, often telling emergency dispatchers a number of officers to send. She drives back to her neighborhood during her lunch break from a security company in Boardman. Once she gets home for the night, she makes at least three more rounds.

When asked if she ever thought she would fill this role of neighborhood watchdog and activist, Allen responded “No, never.”

Her breaking point, she said, was the Jan. 23 murder of Angeline Fimognari at St. Dominic Church on East Lucius Avenue.

“It just lit a fire in me,” she said. “Actually, it’s always been burning, but it added more fuel to the fire.”

Allen usually travels past the church every other Saturday, but took another route the day of Fimognari’s death because she was running late. That murder, coupled with a personal interest to protect her three children and brother, led Allen to found the ICU block watch in February.

Although her family provided motivation, one relative had no part in her decision. Allen is related to Lavance Turnage, who was involved in the 1996 shooting of Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains. She said Turnage had “zero” influence on her actions.

The ICU block watch motto is: “The business that goes on in your neighborhood is my business.”

“You just made it everyone’s business with that music playing. You just made it everyone’s business with your kids coming from alleys and throwing paper in my yard,” she said.

Allen admitted that she and her minivan are well-known in the neighborhood, and some groups of people scatter when she approaches.

“Some people don’t like it,” she said. “I’ve gotten a couple of hate stares. Other people have said that I was snitchin’. I have never said anything that I’m not afraid to tell them to their face. If I see you doing wrong, I’ll call.”

Allen and her fellow block watchers do not make light of the danger in their neighborhoods. Block watch treasurer Joe Kirksey said at a recent meeting that he had dubbed the area “Little Beirut,” because of the violence.

A sample of 911 calls from East Lucius Avenue includes reports of suspicious people, a baby crying, gunfire, fights and loose dogs. So far in 2010, there have been 577 calls to the city’s 911 dispatch from Lucius, compared to 590 at this time last year, according to records.

Allen once had a male teenager come to her driveway because he spotted her car. He had a gunshot wound in his neck, and Allen, who only knew his first name, called an ambulance.

“I always put myself first and be safe,” Allen said, adding that she monitors her police scanner for emergency calls and never leaves her car.

The block watch isn’t concerned only with crime. Pit bulls running loose, vacant houses and motorcycle clubs are all topics of conversation at meetings, which are every third Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Metro Assembly of God Church on South Avenue. During these meetings, residents have a direct line to their councilman, John R. Swierz Jr., D-7th, who attends meetings.

“It’s not just about crime,” Swierz said. “They are an informational source, and very often times it’s through their help and assistance that we can effectively shut down a place serving minors, for example. They have the information because they see it on a daily basis.”

Even though Allen didn’t foresee herself knowing police codes and patrolling her neighborhood, officials recognize the importance of what she and many other block watches do every day – and night.

“Their tips are very reliable,” Swanson said. “Victoria is very dedicated and cares very much. It seems like there’s no stopping her.”

For Allen, the situation is simple.

“If we don’t do it, no one will,” she said. “And I refuse to lose.”

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