I live in the Meadowood neighborhood on Madison's southwest side, on a street lined with well-kept ranch houses. They're mostly owned by retired empty nesters or young families. In the early evenings, it's not uncommon to come across couples pushing strollers, chatting with silver-haired couples walking their dogs.
Lawns are a big deal in Meadowood, which is clear on the many summer weekend mornings when I awaken to the sound of lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed trimmers before 8 a.m. The steady din can last until dusk, when the accompanying mosquitoes drive the amateur greens-keepers indoors.
Right around that time, the amateur pyro-technicians take over, and the pleasing sound of chirping crickets is interrupted by explosions from backyard fireworks that drive our dog to the bathtub for shelter. Independence Day, I've learned, is a weeks-long event in my part of town.
But the noise that bothers some of my neighbors most is that made by teenagers, most of them black and male, as they walk home down the middle of the street after dark from various neighborhood parks. These teens are gregarious and occasionally profane, and their conversations can echo off the houses and parked cars as they pass by.
Some neighbors are more than just annoyed by this. They complain that these youths have threatened them while hanging out at the Meadowridge Shopping Mall. Others report lawn furniture being upended and flowers being trampled.
They have lobbied our alderperson, Thuy Pham-Remmele, who has in turn tried to set the city's curfew back one hour to 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. That was rejected last month by the Madison Common Council.
Many of my neighbors continue to insist that something drastic be done. They say kids are frightening residents and wreaking havoc. Isthmus blogger David Blaska has warned of "wilding in the streets" of the southwest side.
Pham-Remmele has encouraged these reactions, forwarding one recent email from a concerned resident under the heading, "Our Neighborhood Has Tipped!"
Let's all take a deep breath.
Sure, it would be nice if the neighborhood were quieter. But a tighter curfew would not likely silence Meadowood's leaf blowers and bottle rockets. And research suggests it wouldn't even do much to abate juvenile crime.
In a 1998 study, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examined statistics from 1980 to 1996 in California communities. This analysis showed "no support for the proposition that stricter curfew enforcement reduces youth crime either absolutely or relative to adults, by location, by city, or by type of crime."
And while nobody thinks it's good to let kids run around late at night, the rate of youth crime in a given area is much more strongly correlated with the rate of adult crime in that area. And when cops are picking up kids for curfew violations, it means they're not spending time on other arguably more important issues.
Does our community really believe the best way to confront at-risk kids who are out at night without adult supervision, engaging in no criminal activity, is to put them in the back of a squad car?
Perhaps the best way to convey a neighborhood's values isn't via cops carrying guns and handcuffs, but instead through face-to-face contact.
Maybe the Meadowood Neighborhood Center, which opened in the Meadowridge mall in mid-February and runs programs for both seniors and kids, could help this along.
Janet Dyer, a supervisor with Madison School & Community Recreation, which runs the neighborhood center, agrees it can play a role in this regard.
"We have some kids that police officers have talked to us about," she says. "Maybe they haven't successfully participated in other programs, but they seem to enjoy coming to the center after school."
Many of these kids live in the apartment buildings on Balsam and Russett roads. They don't have basement rec rooms to hang out in or a parent's car to drive, so they end up spending a lot more time hanging out in the 'hood, which puts them in touch with the old guard.
Or does it? There may be far less in the way of interaction than suspicion. And since understanding and respect come with familiarity, the residents of Meadowood would be well served by getting to know each other.
Jason Joyce is director of digital media for Isthmus.