Old and new converge at Night to Unite in Richfield

Old man and baby
Richfield Crime Prevention Officer Jill Mecklenburg, with Officer Amanda Johnson to her left, hands out souvenir cups to people who could correctly answer trivia questions about Richfield during a Night to Unite celebration last week. From left, Leonard McNeise, Bob Hall and Buzz Heinecke take their stabs at the trivia. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Neighbors across Richfield gathered the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 7, as Richfield celebrated Night to Unite, the national initiative meant to bring people together in the name of making their neighborhoods safer places.

About 45 representatives of the Richfield Police Department, Fire Department and City Council spread across the city, vising many of the 165 neighborhoods that gathered for the night.

The event was extra special for the 7500 block of Thomas Avenue South, where neighbors marked their 21st year gathering for what used to be called National Night Out. There, old met new, as usual 100-year-old Leonard McNiece returned from Presbyterian Homes in Bloomington to his old neighborhood for the event, while six-week-old Iliana Fuentes took in here first Night to Unite.

“I like the fact that we had the youngest and the oldest here, which, you know, made it complete,” said Mary Tolvstad, who has hosted the annual gatherings at her home since 1991.

The baby is the newest edition to a neighborhood where the term “new” is relative. For instance, Tim Erlander, who lives next to Iliana and her first-time parents and is referred to as the “neighborhood grandpa,” has been there 37 years.

But “I’m the newcomer,” he noted.

His neighbors laugh when asked how long they have known each other. Many of them go back to the 1950s, when new neighborhoods were going up all over Richfield. They recall a neighborhood that was already tight before the annual gatherings began in 1991, when “it was just an excuse to get together” as much as anything, said longtime resident Bob Wood.

“Together” has been a normal state of affairs, the neighbors said.

That feeling, Wood recalls, came along with the children who were crawling all over the block — it was no big deal for parents to watch one another’s kids. “Every time I came home, I don’t know how many kids were at the table,” Wood remembers.

He was one of four current or former Neighborhood Watch block captains — from one block over on Upton Avenue — gathered at Oranjestad’s last week, having succeeded McNiece in the role. By the captains’ math, the foursome has lived in the neighborhood for a combined 200 years.

In a relatively docile place, their goal has been simply to “keep things at a minimum, don’t let neighbors tear each other’s hair out,” said current block captain Jim Neufield.

Before Neufield took the post, Buzz Heinecke served as captain, and appreciates the value of neighborhood togetherness promoted by Night to Unite. “You can’t have better security than neighbors,” he said.

To a point, those are the people Stacy Fuentes and husband Imer Fuentes will look to, with baby Iliana now in the fold. “If things happen,” Stacy Fuentes said, “you can always count on your neighbors.”