NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Maria Pellerano and her husband were walking home one summer evening when they saw something disturbing. Two people, it appeared, were having sex in a car outside Pellerano’s Second Ward home.

She quickly went to snap a photo of the license plate. The driver and his guest must’ve noticed, she said, because they immediately sped off.

Her husband, Peter Montague, had a hunch as to what had unfolded. Not far from where they live, he suspects, johns roll up to the Commercial Avenue side of Feaster Park to solicit sex from prostitutes, who sometimes use the area as a sort of black-market storefront.

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“Then they get into the customer’s car,” he said, “and they come up our street and park, do their business, throw the condom on our sidewalk and take off.”

Pellerano and Montague recalled the incident vividly because they were coming from a meeting of the Second Ward Neighborhood Block Club and Crime Watch. They’re the unofficial facilitators of the organization, whose mission is to boost quality of life and clamp down on crime in a neighborhood that extends from Livingston Avenue to the North Brunswick line, encompassing much of Rutgers’ Douglass campus.

In other words, Pellerano and Montague are the kind of people who law-breakers don’t want to meet.

On the other hand, the members of the Second Ward’s block club and crime watch aren’t intimidating vigilantes. The power they have stems from their ties to the New Brunswick Police Department, City Hall and, at times, Rutgers University. They’re regular people who care about their community—and they have the ears of those who can do something to protect it.

“People recognize that there’s some organized activity in terms of making sure the neighborhood is a good place to live,” Pellerano recently told TAPinto New Brunswick. “It’s gotten better in that way. But I don’t ever feel like I can be totally complacent.”

A Small but Committed Bunch

From the outside, it resembled a Bible study.

The Second Ward Block Club and Crime Watch of New Brunswick was hosting its late-January meeting inside the Quakers’ building on Nichol Avenue, on the fringes of the Cook-Douglass Campus. Nine city residents sat around a circular table, discussing everything from crosswalks and fatal car crashes to food drives and a nearby community garden.

“This has absolutely been the quietest year,” one attendee said in regard to crime and loud parties. Others agreed. “I can’t remember when I last called the police,” another person added.

But the conversation soon turned to issues that might be less common—or less noticeable—in nearby suburban communities.

They shared tips on how to scare away drug dealers. Motion-sensor lights and video-recording systems could help, they said. Perhaps additional patrols by New Brunswick police officers, they suggested, would work even better.

All the while, a police officer in attendance scribbled notes on a piece of paper, preserving a record of each concern raised. A community organizer who works for New Brunswick was also on hand to log issues, field questions and inform residents of what City Hall has been doing.

The presence of city officials has spurred action in the past.

Pellerano, who coordinates meetings, recalled when some fresh faces came to a meeting and complained of an abandoned house near St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church. In an otherwise nice slice of New Brunswick, the property had become a headache.

“The place was a mess,” she said. “There was a lot of drug dealing going on there.”

Neighbors described the issue to a police officer, who took that information back to the department. Soon enough, Montague said, the drugs and shady characters disappeared. The house was boarded up, resold and renovated, they said.

That’s the kind of result that the group has pined for since its establishment 35 years ago, when several women who were concerned about crime banded together and embarked on patrols with police.

But Pellerano and Montague believe their mission takes a village.

The block club has about 60 people on its mailing list, and it draws a good deal of people when it hosts special speakers, like a past director of the New Brunswick Water Utility or a city official who knows a thing or two about code enforcement.

People tend to come out when a particular issue is directly affecting them. But what the Second Ward needs, Pellerano said, is to grow its network of people whose eyes and ears are always open to what’s going on in the neighborhood.

Quality of Life in a College City

When Pellerano took up residence in the Corwin dorms in the mid-1970s, students didn’t cross Nichol Avenue. Especially at night.

“You did not come into this neighborhood at all,” she recalled. “To get over to College Avenue, you took the bus. You didn’t walk.”

In the years since, that vision has faded. Rutgers students now occupy an untold number of off-campus apartments in the area—and, in some cases, have disrupted life for local homeowners like Pellerano and Montague.

While the couple blames absentee landlords more than college students for loud parties and trash on the lawn, members of the block club have worked to build a relationship with Rutgers.

The university has responded to their concerns. Rutgers representatives now walk off-campus areas that are popular among students each fall, distributing fliers, teaching students how to be good neighbors and connecting with locals.

That’s a boon for block club members, many of whom aim to build relationships with transient students and other renters. It may also benefit students, Pellerano said.

“While the students can sometimes be the source of some people’s concerns,” she said, “they are also being victimized sometimes.”

The house next door to hers, for instance, was broken into five times in the not-too-distant past. Eventually, a stressed parent of one student asked Pellerano why she didn’t call the cops. The answer? She wasn’t sure who, exactly, was supposed to be there.

But building relationships with students also serves to regulate how loud and late parties go, along with the overall cleanliness of the neighborhood.

That’s important to block club members, who subscribe to the broken windows theory, which argues that blight and disorder breed crime. Graffiti, for instance, may help boost gang activity or drug sales. Derelict housing does the same, they said.

The block club has also spoken out against unsanctioned fraternities, rowdy bars and unlicensed music venues.

Some of those gripes are no doubt associated with the college crowd, members said. But some have also harmed Rutgers kids—like when partiers a few years ago spilled out from an out-of-control get-together and slashed tires, some of which belonged to students, Pellerano said.

What’s Next

Pellerano and Montague didn’t set out to join the block club and crime watch. They faced a problem, figured the group could lend a hand and have been involved ever since.

“It was a way to see that we could improve the neighborhood,” Pellerano said, “both for quality of life and crime.”

At its January meeting, the group welcomed two newcomers who were concerned about drugs on their street. Will they return? Maybe.

What’s certain is that more members mean a greater voice—“and the more we can understand what the problems in the neighborhood are,” Montague added.

That’s important, Pellerano noted, because calm and crime in this area tend to come and go in waves, cresting and breaking with little advance warning to residents.

The next meeting of the Second Ward Neighborhood Block Club and Crime Watch of New Brunswick is scheduled for March 27. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page.