Preparing paella at Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen for National Night Out on MacArthur.
by Andrew Churcher
While National Night Out does not begin until six, MacArthur Avenue is already bustling with activity. Local shop owners have set up tables with food and drinks outside their stores to entice the coming attendees. Demi’s is cooking Paella on the grill while further down Dot’s Back Inn is serving up caprese and gazpacho. On the dessert side, The Mill has key lime pie samples, and Stir Crazy is offering cookies and ice tea. As always a misting tent has been set up in the street, a perennial favorite of kids and adults.
A police officer with several academy cadets in tow, make their way along MacArthur, talking with shop owners and greeting early arrivals. As the event gets underway, more police officers arrive and in a very similar manner, stroll down the street, interacting with people around them. Typically, police officers like Stephene E. Mcquail and Christopher M. Gleason would be at events like this to provide security. Their presence at National Night Out serves a much different purpose. The two officers explain how the event allows for “one on one engagement with people” which they hope will foster future partnerships between the community and police, which has been the ultimate goal of National Night Out since its inception.
Matt Peskin, founder and executive director of the National Association of Town Watch, set out creating this event with the simple desire to have neighborhoods become safer through police and community members interacting and connecting with one another outside of normal, less positive, circumstances. He was able to establish the event in August of 1984 through his connections with law enforcement agencies, civic groups, and neighborhood watch groups. Every first Tuesday in August since then, neighborhoods across the country have hosted parades, cookouts, and other events to create this connection. Today around 38 million people in over 16,000 communities celebrate National Night Out.
After six o’clock the crowd thickens significantly and many people walk among the storefronts and the tents set up on the sidewalk. The YMCA has one of these tents set up and Pat Scott, the regional youth development director, stresses the importance of her organization to be at National Night Out. “We want to connect with the community,” she says.
Central Virginia Emergency Management Alliance is also here. Derek Andresen hands out informative pamphlets on how to deal with disasters and emergencies – from how to make a supply kit in case of evacuation to securing a room during a storm. Workers outside their mobile unit are available for answering pertinent questions and offering further advice to community members and families.
With the delightful aroma of food in the air, Jimmy Tsamouras discusses why his two restaurants—Dot’s Back Inn and Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen—participate in National Night Out. “It’s important to know everyone and for your neighbors to know you” he says as he continues to serve up paella from the grill. The simple interactions between shop owners like Jimmy Tsamouras and community residents during events like these are the “most important” as it brings a “sense of community pride” not found anywhere else.
Jodi Teitelman, a Ginter Park resident for more than 20 years, considers the North Side to be a “magical neighborhood” To her, National Night Out is a social event where she catches up with old friends and meets new neighbors.
Independent candidate for Richmond sheriff, Nicole D Jackson, is also at the event, handing out flyers with information on her background and her running platform.
Children in swimsuits rush into the misting tent and get soaked. Other kids begin collecting water off the tent into empty plastic bottles and begin to toss water at one another. Several of them run over to a water bowl for dogs outside one of the stores and accidently tips it over in their rush to fill their own bottles quickly. Another popular attraction is Northside’s Jonathan the Juggler. A large crowd gathers around him as he makes quick jokes and juggles flaming objects for their amusement.
As the event enters its last hour, Bob Kocher wants to make an announcement. Besides being the owner of Once upon a Vine and the one who erected the misting tents, Bob is also a member of the Bellevue Merchants’ Association. Every year at National Night Out, the organization honors someone who has helped to improve the community with a permanent marker planted next to one of the trees that line the street. Tonight, Mike LaBelle, co-president of the Bellevue Merchant’s Association and a long-time community activist, is honored with plaque, and he receives hearty applause from the crowd.
Community members, from neighbors to police and shop workers, continue to talk with each other as the night goes on. As National Night Out comes to an end, everyone appears to leave happy and content. As Jodi Teitelman says, “I came for the garlic knots (from Zorba’s) and stayed for the community.”