Business owner Dixie Brewer had experienced a variety of problems with vandals, drug users and thieves at her store in downtown Bakersfield, but this one was different — in a good way.
A man who had wandered into her shop near 19th and Q streets one day last spring was clearly wrestling with mental imbalance, enough that customers were leaving and her all-female staff grew increasingly nervous about his behavior.
Brewer quickly posted a call for help on a social media page set up by and for downtown business owners. Less than a minute later, she said, a neighbor across the street — Tim Gojich, owner of Fit for Life Gym — walked in and intervened.
"I basically just kept him calm and kept him focused on the door,” Gojich said. Police were probably on the way, Gojich warned, adding, "Maybe not let me see you again on this block.”
Amid all the frustrations about crime and vagrancy downtown, business owners have begun taking matters into their own hands. And although the effort is still somewhat under development, people involved say the new spirit of collaboration and communication is working.
In March, Bakersfield's Downtown Business Association launched a program called Block to Block that designates "block captains" like Brewer to gather information from nearby businesses and share it with police and city officials. The communication also flows the other direction as block captains spread advice and updates among the area's small-business owners.
More than that, participants say the program has evolved into a small-business network through which shop owners coordinate security efforts, often warning each other about specific threats, such as the whereabouts and habits of individual criminals and troublemakers.
Bernadette Sebastiani and Cynthia Trice, co-block captains and co-owners of Blue Oak Coffee Roasting at 20th and G streets, said the program allows them to advise neighbors about people known to shoplift or shoot up drugs in public or pull down their pants and scream at busy intersections.
The program's networking aspect feels empowering, Sebastiani said, and it shows business owners they're not alone in trying to cope with a problem some say has worsened during the past year or two.
"At the very least, we're just kind of keeping each other aware," she said.
Since its rollout, Block to Block has enrolled some 70 block captains and gained the involvement of some 500 downtown businesses, DBA President and CEO Melanie Farmer said.
Modeled on similar programs in other cities, Block to Block organizes monthly meetings at which block captains can vent and listen to representatives from the Bakersfield Police Department and City Hall, Farmer said. There are also periodic roundtables, she said, where business owners can get updates on what others are doing to address their concerns.
Among the program's outcomes have been lighting improvements and referrals to organizations that serve people living on the streets, Farmer said.
"Block to Block has done very, very well," she said.
City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose district includes downtown, called the program "really positive" and "a step in the right direction."
It allows him to become aware of businesses' concerns and then share them with City Hall and the City Council, he said. As a regular attendee of block-captain meetings, he's also able to spread word about what city officials are doing to address crime and problems associated with homelessness.
"I think the real value in all of this is communication," he said.
A block captain who is new to the program, Louis Medina, said Block to Block has changed the conversation about downtown security. Instead of just ranting, he said, he's able to work proactively to create community.
It's now his responsibility to make the rounds among businesses where he works at Oak Street and Truxtun Avenue. He said he expects to take down information about recent incidents of vandalism, theft and loitering, then report them to other block captains and the DBA itself.
"We're all contributors to the improvement of the quality of life for ourselves and our neighbors," said Medina, a board member of the DBA's sister organization, the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp. "That's what I like about the idea. Very grassroots."
Brewer, owner of consignment and antique store In Your Wildest Dreams, asserted that although DBA was never set up to coordinate on security matters, it has stepped up and done well in the role despite tough circumstances.
She told about one downtown business owner who now uses an air horn to call for help when a troublemaker gets out of hand. Workers at a nearby tattoo shop promptly respond, she said, demonstrating the success of a program that, at its heart, is "businesses watching businesses."
She agreed with an assessment by Gojich that the program remains a work in progress with details to be worked out. But after suffering so many incidents of theft and vandalism that she "snapped" and sounded off earlier this year at anyone who would listen, Brewer said she no longer entertains thoughts of "throwing in the towel" and leaving downtown.
Instead, she speaks proudly of Block to Block and downtown's "little revolution of neighbors helping neighbors."