Downtown, during its busiest hours, often resembles a full-fledged police state. There are cops on bikes, cops on horses, cops on foot, cops shining flashlights into cars on Orange Avenue, cops giving out tickets for jaywalking, off-duty cops providing security for the more popular bars. As Orlando Police Department spokesman Orlando Rolon puts it, "Everywhere you turn, you see officers."
So it should be safe, right? Yes and no. There is more crime downtown than in other neighborhoods like the upscale Thornton Park or the middle-class Colonialtown. Police statistics for the downtown grid show 130 "part one" crimes from July 28 to Sept. 28 of this year, including four sexual assaults, 11 burglaries, 30 aggravated assaults, 71 larceny cases and eight car thefts; Thornton Park and Colonialtown together reported 46 "part one" crimes in the same time frame.
Then again, there are a lot more people downtown, often doing a lot more drinking, than in both of those neighborhoods combined. Viewed on a per capita basis, downtown's crime stats don't seem out of line. That's the position taken by police officials and the Downtown Strategic Transition Team, established by Mayor Buddy Dyer last spring to make recommendations on revitalizing downtown. Simply put, if downtown's dangerous, no one's complaining.
"It's less dangerous than a lot of the neighborhoods in the city," says DSTT member and Orange County Democratic leader Doug Head.
So why did the mayor's DSTT declare "real and perceived safety in downtown Orlando" as one of its top goals?
Michael Poole headed up the DSTT's Quality of Life subcommittee, the group that recommended making downtown safety a priority. "I'm not sure we made the determination that downtown was safe or unsafe in my mind," he says.
Indeed, the DSTT didn't even pull crime stats comparing downtown to other city neighborhoods or other urban cores. On the one hand, he points out, it's hard to say exactly how safe is safe. After all, at what point does the city say a certain level of crime is OK?
Poole's subcommittee "didn't deal with the reality of safety," he says. "We didn't see that as an issue. It's not an issue of downtown being unsafe today. The issue is about preserving [that safety] and making some people feel safe."
"It's the sense people get," Head echoes.
That's the heart of the subcommittee's recommendations -- improving the perception of downtown as a safe spot in which to eat, drink and/or be merry. To that end, the Quality of Life group called for the city council to "fill retail 'dead spots' with active uses," "provide more lighting," increase the city's "official presence" and improve cleanliness.
If downtown streets are dimly lit and dirty, and buildings are abandoned and graffiti-laden, Poole reasons, the place will be perceived as unsafe, whether or not it really is. For an area struggling to survive, perception can be just as fatal as reality.
"The committee thinks that the public thinks that downtown isn't safe," Head says.
Poole and Head are correct; downtown does have an image problem. But in the era of the gated community, could perception be an inherent problem in any urban core? Will panhandlers and punks -- now matter how benign -- always scare away soccer moms?
Probably. "If you're talking about the homeless and panhandling," Poole says, "that issue is more by sense. I would call it prejudice. Clearly there is an unknown to a lot of people. It's unfounded fear."
As Head points out, that prejudice exists. "Why do people find it OK to go to Downtown Disney and they don't come to downtown? It's perception -- that's a place where they don't have trouble. They don't have homeless people. You have a sense that someone's watching you all the time."
Perhaps better lighting and litter-free streets will bring families downtown. It's more likely, though, that first there must be something to draw them here. Not many families will be taking advantage of later bar hours, should the city approve them. There is a need for something to do downtown between the end of happy hour and the beginning of late-night specials -- a movie theater or destination dining. In other words, issues out of the purview of the Quality of Life subcommittee.
"Our committee was in charge of the touchy-feely," Head explains, throwing around the word "interconnectedness" as well. "People ought to feel they can go downtown and hook up with something." (Surely the frat boys waiting in line at Tabu can empathize.)
As for increasing downtown's "official presence," that doesn't necessarily mean more cops. It could also mean "downtown ambassadors," Head's ambiguous notion of volunteers walking around, directing lost visitors and just offering a familiar face. And yes, Head envisions those ambassadors coming from the ranks of the retired.
"Grandpa needs the exposure to the kids and the kids need exposure to Grandpa," he says.
In the same vein -- establishing a sense of community -- the subcommittee also proffered the notion of creating a weekly newspaper, perhaps published by the Orlando Sentinel, "geared toward the downtown community."
Yes, but wasn't it the Sentinel that endorsed former Mayor Glenda Hood's vision of a sanitized, Disneyesque downtown? (In all fairness, they have gotten on board with Dyer's notion of a 24/7 downtown.) And isn't there a weekly paper out there somewhere that already lavishes a lot of attention on downtown?
"I don't know where the fuck that came from," Head says. In earlier discussions, Head says, the idea was to form some sort of community flyer to replace the city-operated, now-defunct O-Town News.
The day after the DSTT released its report, Mayor Buddy Dyer postponed its most controversial element -- moving back drinking hours in a designated entertainment zone -- until after his re-election in March (as of now, he's running unopposed).
Those opposed to such a move -- bar owners outside the zone and conservatives who believe nothing good happens after 2 a.m. -- are already ringing the safety bell. A letter released by Roxy Nightclub owner George Robbat says that hardcore drinkers, not the kind of retail/restaurant patrons the city wants, will be the only ones piling into downtown late night, deepening the area's image problem.
"The reputation of the downtown as a safe place is being jeopardized by the hooligans that frequent late night bars and the office, restaurant and retail owners are being hurt," Robbat writes. He's asking city leaders to either extend drinking hours citywide or not at all.
Rolon, the police department's spokesman, was once a backer of the extended hours in a special district -- if drunken shenanigans are confined to one area, it makes it easier for the cops to round up the bad guys, right? Now he backs Robbat's all-or-nothing plan.
"It scared the hell out of me," Rolon says of Robbat's letter.
Fear may prove to be a deciding factor in downtown Orlando's future. Let's hope that after a decade of sanitization, we're not too afraid of becoming a real city.