Danielle & Christopher Lehman: Wake up Arcata, you’re losing your town

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Danielle Lehman

The sound of gunshots echoed through our neighborhood last night. My husband ran outside to find a screaming woman covered in blood wandering onto our neighbor’s porch. She had been shot in the face and the arm by her boyfriend who fled the scene on foot and ran through downtown Arcata armed at 11 o’clock at night.

Our neighbors, stunned, drifted into the street as the police, firefighters and EMTs arrived sounding sirens, their lights illuminating our living room.

While I watched through my window, holding my six-week-old, my three-year-old wandered out. “Mommy, what happened?” she asked as I struggled to find words to explain the scene across the street. My neighbor called her teenage son and told him not to walk home-it wasn’t safe.

My husband was born in Arcata. After we met in college and married, we moved back here hoping to raise a family in a small town. Like so many that reside here, we were attracted to a community defined by its idyllic scenery, farmers’ markets and festivals almost every month of the year. Mostly, we sought the sense of community he grew up with.

Recently though, this dream feels threatened. We are beginning to question whether the small town he grew up in even exists anymore. Day-to-day, out walking with my children, I see drug deals and try to navigate my stroller through groups of intoxicated people crowding the sidewalks.

Grow houses a couple of streets over, armed robberies 10 blocks from our house, a stabbing in our grocery store parking lot and the most recent shooting are all symptomatic of a grave problem our community faces. And seemingly our community sits idle struggling to understand what is happening here just as stunned as my neighborhood last night.

We try to shield our children from violence but that becomes impossible when it happens across the street from our house. We try to provide them with one of our most basic rights–to feel safe. As neighbors, we gathered and comforted each other as we tried to make sense of the terrible act of violence that had just occurred.

As a community, we need to do the same. We must define the problem that puts our community at risk so that we can begin to find answers. I replied to my toddler by saying, “A woman was hurt very badly.”

“Why, mommy?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know.”

Christopher Lehman

Whether in Baghdad or Arcata, there’s nothing like gunshots and a bloodied woman wailing in the street to give you a wake-up call. Last night, it was Arcata.

I woke up this morning and peeked out the window to see a few policemen still surveying the crime scene. Beyond, loomed some dark and threatening rainclouds. The newspaper didn’t yet have a report on last night’s shooting, but it did talk about this week’s big rainstorm about to hit.

So, telling myself I needed to get a jump on the storm, I went outside to mow the lawn, prune the rose bushes, and tidy my yard. To my surprise, at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, nearly every one of my neighbors were outside their homes too, doing various chores before the storm came.

We exchanged waves, shoulder shrugs and concerned looks. Yet, the rainstorm was the last thing we were concerned about.

Our community has always been tight. We tough it out together six hours away from civilization, through foul weather, earthquakes, and wildfires, by staying close and celebrating our common circumstance.

But this morning, my neighbors and I were waking up from the fact that the storm we are in is not blowing off of the Pacific Ocean. Our community itself, whether we want to accept it or not, is changing.

Last year, a friend of mine was jumped, beat up and robbed while walking home. I had to move my small business from its Ninth Street location because the mid-day drug and alcohol abuse on the street, sidewalk, alley and front stoop of my office with its accompanying street fights, litter and stale urine stench was finally too much to ignore. And, the national media made a spectacle of our community for the out-of-control commercial grow house operations taking over whole neighborhoods.

This is not the Arcata I came from. Our fairs, festivals, mountains, rivers, beaches, schools and entrepreneurial spirit are what I want my two daughters to grow up loving like I did.

It is time to wake up from our dream of Humboldt County living. There is work to do in our community before this new storm catches us unprepared.

Danielle and Christopher Lehman and their two daughters, Natalie and Eliza live downtown in Arcata. Danielle teaches English at Arcata High School and Christopher owns a small public affairs consulting firm.

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