Five-year-old Payton Benson lived and died in a neighborhood where the potential for street violence is an undercurrent of everyday life.
Most people who live and work in this pocket of north Omaha don't live in fear. They mow their lawns and walk to the corner store and let their children play outside.
But they also know that their streets are too often places where gang rivalries and drug disputes are sorted out with gunfire.
The same area that's home to well-established churches, headquarters of successful nonprofit agencies and a restaurant with its own national television show is also well-versed in street violence.
Over the past five years, the area around Fontenelle Park — roughly, 40th to 52nd Streets, from Ames Avenue to Northwest Radial — has seen 16 homicides. Last year alone, police filed reports for 65 crimes involving guns, 13 of them aggravated assaults.
Neighbors interviewed last week said most people in the area lead quiet lives. But from block to block, the feeling of safety can vary dramatically.
In the immediate area around 45th and Emmet Streets, where Payton was killed Wednesday by a stray bullet, people are familiar with the sound of gunshots.
“A lot of the people around here are older, they've been here a long time, they're pretty respectable and respectful,” said Cessena Bradley, 35, who lives with her parents next door to Payton's family.
But she said there are pockets of trouble nearby, including people who shoot at each other in the streets.
Bradley said she hears gunshots at least once a month.
“They shoot when they get ready to in these parts,” Bradley said. “They're not afraid of anything.”
When there are gunshots, Bradley said, police often respond quickly, she assumes because of the Omaha Police Department's ShotSpotter gunfire detection system.
Before Wednesday's shooting, Bradley felt safe standing on her front porch to have a smoke, although her teenage daughter doesn't feel good about catching the school bus a block away.
“I should be scared now, right?” Bradley said.
In the duplex unit next door to the one in which Payton was shot, 21-year-old college student Osman Hilawle said he and his father worry enough about neighborhood gang crime that they rarely leave their home.
“We usually just try to stay inside and not go outside unless we're going to the corner store,” Hilawle said.
A pastor who lives next door to the duplex has a more positive view. The Rev. Jose Guerra, who leads a South Omaha church, said he and his wife have lived at 45th and Emmet Streets for more than 10 years.
Do they generally feel safe?
“Yes,” he said. “We don't worry about anything. Sometimes there are loud parties, but mostly it is peaceful.”
Guerra said neighborhood children play outside, including in his yard. Young teenagers, five or six of them at a time, shoot baskets using the hoop in his driveway.
“I say you can play, but you have to take good care of things,” he said.
They do, Guerra said.
Lawrence Butler, a former star football player at Omaha Central High School and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, grew up at 45th and Emmet Streets. His parents still live there, in one of the many well-kept homes on the block.
“That's their house. They've lived there their whole lives,” Butler said. “I don't see any issue with them living there. It's a nice place to live. The neighbors get along really well. You just have some bad apples.”
Usually, trouble in the street is between the people involved in the trouble. “It's sad to see that string of violence still continues,” he said, but it normally doesn't directly affect neighbors.
It did on Wednesday.
“It hits close to home,” Butler said. “My parents found a bullet in their house, too.”
People who live a bit farther away share similar concerns.
Tony McCroy, who has lived in the area for most of his 51 years, said there are plenty of longtime residents who take pride in their homes and are involved in community groups. He's the president of the Fairfax Neighborhood Association, which covers the area just to the east of where the shooting took place.
“The (homeowners) in the neighborhood have more ownership and are more likely to get involved and watch out for things,” he said.
And even in a neighborhood with more violence than some, daytime always seemed to come with some protection. But McCroy said he worries that could be changing.
“There was a time when you felt that if you lived there and you were home and in by a certain time you were OK, because the idiots were out late doing stuff,” McCroy said. “But this happened at 9:30, 9:45 in the morning. The 24-hour window of trouble is very concerning to me.”
Changing that trend, McCroy said, will require more people willing to speak up about the things they see happening in their neighborhood. He said people know which houses and neighbors create trouble but look the other way out of fear.
“I don't feel threatened by it, but a lot of people do,” he said. “And until you can have people feel safe about coming forward, I don't think they will come forward.”
Sister Marilyn Ross, the executive director of the Holy Name Housing Corp., says she thinks that will happen if the area can generate more economic activity. Her organization has been building and renovating housing in the neighborhoods around Payton's home for more than three decades.
She said she's encouraged by developments such as the Walmart at 50th Street and Ames Avenue, which had its grand opening the morning Payton was killed.
“When you see businesses and banks along a main street come in, there is an increased feeling of safety,” she said. “Of course, (violence) can happen at Walmart, anyway. But in terms of the major crime — gangs and drugs — neighborhoods become less vulnerable because of the presence of successful businesses and good housing and active residents.”
The success of businesses that provide jobs for local people is particularly vital in neighborhoods dotted with extreme poverty.
Payton's home stands just west of the dividing line between one of Omaha's poorest ZIP codes and one with a larger middle class.
On the blocks to the east, nearly 49 percent of families with children live below the poverty line, and the median household income is $24,306, according to U.S. Census data.
In the next ZIP code to the west, 19 percent of families are below the poverty line, and the median income is just over $40,000.
Gangs have been active in the area for years and become a part of many young people's lives — whether they're directly involved or not.
That includes some of the girls who participate in programs offered by Girls Inc., a nonprofit group a few blocks south of Payton's house.
Roberta Wilhelm, the organization's executive director, said many of the girls she works with don't live in fear of violence. They feel safe at home, at school and at Girls Inc.
But some have family members or friends who have been shot. And in her decade with the organization, Wilhelm has come across more and more teenage girls who tell her they're involved with boys who have joined gangs.
It's difficult, Wilhelm said, trying to tell girls to avoid the boy next door. But too often, she said, spats over teenage romance can turn into gunbattles between rival gangs.
“These are the boys who live in their neighborhoods, go to their schools,” she said.
But both Wilhelm and Ross say they feel safe going to work. And both are encouraged by recent efforts from police, community groups and neighbors to make the neighborhood safer.
“We've never had an incident in 31 years,” Wilhelm said. “If your security hasn't been threatened, you tend to feel safe. ... We have people in the (Holy Name) parish who have lived in this area their entire life. I don't think they feel unsafe or they would have moved.”
Tom LaHood, who for 50 years has lived in the same home several blocks south of Payton's, agrees.
He said he's seen plenty of changes — the corner by Payton's home was once a thriving business spot, with a grocery store and a pharmacy, and the area once had more professionals — but he's never wanted to leave.
“Things like this are just shocking to everyone,” he said. “The chances of this happening are just so remote, but by and large, I always feel it's a very safe neighborhood. I've never felt unsafe.”
World-Herald staff writer Matt Wynn contributed to this report.
Crime rates are higher than city's average in neighborhood
The Fontenelle Park neighborhood had about 17 violent crimes per 1,000 residents over the past year, based on census data and crimes reported through Jan. 15. Its rate ranked fifth of about 75 Omaha neighborhoods, about three times higher than in Aksarben, with a similar population. Fontenelle Park's violent crime rate was about half as high as Omaha's most crime-ridden neighborhood, which is several blocks east of where Payton's family lives, near Adams Park.
|Fontenelle Park neighborhood||Aksarben neighborhood||Citywide|
|Violent crime rate||17.49||5.9||5.9|
|Gun crime rate||8||2.7||3.3|
The map represents the 65 crimes involving a gun that occurred in the Fontenelle Park neighborhood in the 12 months ending Jan. 15. The dots may represent more than one gun-related crime. Gun crimes include any type of crime where a gun is used, from homicide to criminal mischief. Citywide violent crime rate is based on final 2012 data reported to the FBI. Neighborhood crime rates are based on World-Herald analysis of initial police reports. Final figures will likely be lower.