Jean Jean the Dancing Machine doesn’t say how old she is, only that she’s originally from Manhattan and spent 43 years in West New York. Despite her frail frame and her walker, she’s animated, jovial, and enthusiastic. How long has she been in North Bergen?
“Got my fingers crossed, I’m working on 16 years,” she said, swigging a Pepsi. “It’s like a little village.”
Jean, whose last name is Guerrero (“It means ‘warrior’ but I’m nonviolent”) has loads of friends in the senior community where she lives. She came out on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 5 to mingle with neighbors. Oh, and for the tunes. “I like the music,” she emphasized. “A lot!”
Hundreds of residents gathered in the courtyard and street outside the Lawlor Senior Citizen Building on Grand Avenue. Kids played on inflatable water slide and climbed rock walls while parents chatted at picnic tables or danced in the street.
The occasion was the annual Night Out, a national initiative partnering police with the community to combat crime.
Among the volunteers serving hot dogs and pasta were Linda Meyers, Mercy Orbe-Henao, Fran Miraglio, and Ester Cordero – who decided on the spot that her nickname was “princess.”
“The most basic, fundamental building block of crime prevention is neighbors getting to know each other.” – Robert Dowd
Asked why she and her family attended, local resident Maria Perez said simply, “The food.”
“We do it every year,” explained her husband Willie. “The kids like it. They get to see their friends.” Indicating his son, he added, “If he’s got food in his mouth he’s happy.”
Cops + community = safety
Police Chief Robert Dowd describes the purpose of the event as crime prevention. “The most basic, fundamental building block of crime prevention is neighbors getting to know each other,” he said. “And then for police to meet citizens on a more social level, more humanistic level.”
Many times, the public’s interaction with police is at a time of crisis, he explained. “They’re upset. Something traumatic just occurred. We may be in a rush. We don’t really get that time to really interact.”
Night Out is an opportunity to build relationships between the police and the community on a one-to-one level.
“All the cops you see working tonight, they’re all volunteering,” he said. “None of them’s on the clock. Everybody’s off duty. They worked their regular day or they had days off. We have close to 50 officers. They’re here because they care about the town.”
North Bergen has participated in Night Out since its inception 31 years ago. Initially it was just an informal event with the mayor and town officials going door to door to meet residents. “The last maybe dozen years we started with these block parties and we always host three: one downtown, one midtown, one uptown,” said Dowd.
The downtown event took place in the playground of the Kennedy School on 11th Street. This was the first year in this location, after outgrowing its previous home on Grand Avenue.
Julio Marenco, president of the Board of Education and an area resident, has been one of the organizers of the downtown event for more than 10 years. Along with community leaders Rob Bianco and Bob Basselice he coordinates the event with the neighborhood.
“The town has a really good relationship with all our businesses, and they help us out with these type of events,” he said. “Food Basics donated. The Coach House donated some gift certificates. Pat LaFrieda donated the hamburgers and hot dogs. The DJ donated his time. BJ’s gave the plates and napkins.”
“Target and Walmart really step up to the plate,” said Dowd. “Target gave us a $500 grant which we used to buy some gift cards. They’re the national corporate sponsor for Night Out. The department store here is phenomenal. So is Walmart. They donated six bicycles and helmets to us. It doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. That’s the key.”
The bicycles were raffled off – one boys’ bike and one girls’ bike at each of the three locations. The downtown boy’s bike was won by 11-year-old Andres Fernandez, who promptly gave it to his six-year-old brother Michael. What did Michael think of the gift?
“We live right down the block and I volunteer,” said Evelyn Garcia, who attended the uptown event with her family. “We do it every year. I was serving food. We were doing meatballs, pizza, hot dogs.”
“I’m from the Robert Fulton School,” she continued. “I’m vice president of the PTO. I live here. My kids go to the school. So we gotta give back. And you also get to meet people that just moved into the neighborhood.”
The uptown location was the largest of the three sites, stretching between 73rd and 76th St. on Broadway. Kids enjoyed bouncy houses, face painting, and other activities, while tables set up along the sidewalk offered information on local businesses and the police.
The evening wrapped up with a spirited performance by competition team students from the J&L Dance Center on Broadway. Kids from tykes to teenagers danced a high-energy choreographed routine on the street in matching pink and black outfits.
The event ran from 6 to 9 p.m., with neighbors lingering to chat and enjoy each other’s company as it got dark.
At the north end of the street, two-year-old Mohammed Awawda stood fascinated by the colored lights of a police motorcycle. Det. Mark Francin made Mohammed’s night by seating him on the motorcycle as the lights flashed.
“He loves you guys,” said Mohammed’s mom. “Whenever he sees a police officer, he’s like, ‘Mommy, police!’”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.