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A Crime-Fighting Overture

Neighbors Hoping City Adopts Plan To Use Classical Music To Help Clean Up Park

March 4, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

For years, the drunks and drug dealers and hookers who hang out at Hartford's Barnard Park have been all but oblivious to the city's efforts to get them to leave. But now the people who live and work nearby are turning to a new weapon in their effort to reclaim the park.

Classical music.

A small band of neighbors is working with the police department to enlist Beethoven, Brahms and Vivaldi in their campaign to clean up one of the city's most notoriously abused public spaces.

"We want the criminals to know we are serious about taking back this park," said neighborhood activist Carol Coburn, who came up with the idea after reading about similar efforts in West Palm Beach, Fla., as well as cities in Canada and Australia.

Coburn and other proponents of her plan said one aim of piping classical music into the park would be to annoy the drug dealers, drunks and habitual lawbreakers to the point that they would want to leave.

Police in West Palm Beach say crime decreased as much as 40 percent in some public parks where classical music was played over speakers, Coburn said.

The plan has also reportedly met with success in Duncan, British Columbia, where classical music was used to combat chronic drug dealing. Police officials in Sydney, Australia, say crime went down at several public transit stations after classical music began to be played there.

Another goal, supporters said, would be to provide a more pleasant experience for people who might want to walk in the park or stop to eat lunch once the place is cleaned up.

"If you're someone who wants to go there on your lunch break, you'll probably enjoy the music because it won't be played too loud," said Hartford police Lt. Harold Even. "But if you're one of these people who hangs out at the park all day engaged in illegal activity, it's going to get on your nerves."

Even praised Coburn and other neighbors for working closely with Officer Mike Allen, the patrolman who was assigned to walk the beat around Barnard Park - also known as South Green - last August. Since then, Allen has rallied the neighborhood to take steps to make the area less welcoming to criminals, including increased security at local apartment buildings where drug sales and drug use have been rampant.

Todd Cooper, an employee at the Valvoline corporate office building at 25 Main St., which looks out over the park, said he and other employees have watched in horror as people in the park have openly used drugs on park benches or squatted in the bushes to relieve themselves in broad daylight.

"I never would have even considered going there to have lunch, but this summer I might if we keep making progress like this," he said. "I'm not sure if classical music will do much to drive them out, but as long as everyone keeps working together to clean up the problem, that's the important thing."

Allen said the plan to pipe classical music into the park would need city approval, as well as funding through grants or donations, before it could go forward. But he and Coburn said growing support for the idea from residents and business owners around the park will make it hard for city leaders to turn down.

"I think it's a great idea," said Jose Vega, the assistant director for community services at the Community Renewal Team offices on Main Street.

Instead of driving out criminals, however, Vega said he hoped the music would serve to calm those who gather at the park and perhaps civilize and educate them.

"It might be a great way to open up their minds to other ways of living their lives," he said.

Though skeptical of such a scenario, Allen said classical music was chosen because it's not the kind of music that tends to rile people into violence or other criminal passions.

Domenic Vallera, the manager of the 24-hour Shell gas station and convenience store at the corner of Broad Street and Capitol Avenue in Hartford, said his store plays classical music to keep customers mellow, particularly late at night.

"We've been using it for seven years and it's been pretty effective," Vallera said. "It's not very hip, but everyone can relate to it."

Not everyone is enthusiastic about using classical music as a crime-fighting tool, however.

"I think it's a vulgarization of the music," said Edward Cumming, the director and conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. "This isn't some kind of highbrow Muzak designed to turn off the masses. It's meant to be enlightening and enjoyed and listened to."

Others, such as UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, said the plan suggests that Hartford is becoming desperate in its effort to fight crime.

"Beethoven is not going to save you," he said. "There are many ironies in this proposal, not the least of which is the fact that some of the greatest composers in history are now being viewed as some kind of bug spray or disinfectant."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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