published Monday, August 11th, 2014

All for Highland Park: Judith Schorr was the glue that held this neighborhood together

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Jeff Rearden, right, shows a little free library he constructed to Olga de Klein last week at Rearden's home in Red Bank. The library will be placed in Highland Park in honor of Judith Schorr, a resident who died in June and was known for standing up against neighborhood crime.
Chattanooga Police Sgt. Jeff Rearden, right, shows a little free library he constructed to Olga de Klein last week at Rearden's home in Red Bank. The library will be placed in Highland Park in honor of Judith Schorr, a resident who died in June and was known for standing up against neighborhood crime.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Judith Schorr was a tenacious woman.

She marched up and knocked on the doors of drug houses and told the occupants they weren't welcome in Highland Park. She called neighborhood kids to warn of police chases through the streets. She confronted prostitutes and urged them to get help. She testified in front of state committees.

She would break into a song at the drop of a hat.

For decades Schorr was the heartbeat of Highland Park, almost single-handedly rallying the neighborhood to fight against crime, bridging the gap between police and citizens.

She diligently worked until the very end, when she died unexpectedly June 20.

She was 66. And she spent 40 of those years in Highland Park.

"She was the piece that pulled everyone together," said retired Chattanooga police Capt. Nealie Hogg. "She was a pioneer."

•••

Not long ago Highland Park -- bordered by McCallie Avenue on the north, Main Street on the south, South Holtzclaw on the west and South Willow on the east -- was a solidly middle-class part of town, a place residents felt safe walking at night.

But the neighborhood eroded as it aged. Employers and industries closed or moved out as the economy shifted, and many of Highland Park's residents traded their aging homes for new houses on Signal or Lookout mountains.

Between 1960 and 1970, the neighborhood's population dropped by 24 percent, according to a 2005 Highland Park Historic Resources Survey. As buildings deteriorated, property values dropped and landlords took over from homeowners.

Still, when Schorr moved in in 1974, she felt safe and comfortable. Not until the late '80s did she start to notice the drug dealers and prostitutes. By the 1990s it was obvious: Highland Park's crime rate was one of the highest in the city.

That's when Schorr found her calling.

She was one of the founding members of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, a group of neighbors who vowed to take back their streets. In the early days, the neighborhood watch created a giant paper map of Highland Park on an oversized posterboard.

They marked every known drug or prostitution house with a big red X. They worked closely with police, calling every time something was amiss. Schorr was especially proactive, said Olga de Klein, a friend and fellow neighborhood association member.

Schorr often asked police to perform "knock and talks" at trouble houses and jotted down the license plate numbers of cars that stopped at drug houses. Once, on the Fourth of July, neighbors couldn't get police or a landlord to respond to a neighbor who was blasting loud music, so Schorr took matters into her own hands.

"We went down there ourselves with ball bats," she told The Chattanooga Times in an April 1993 story.

She was featured in local media reports more than a dozen times over the years -- and she almost always wore the same T-shirt in the photos. It's white with an American flag, and reads "I SUPPORT Highland Park."

Once, in 1995, she called a 14-year-old in the neighborhood to warn him that police were chasing a man nearby. The boy rushed to lock the doors -- he was baby-sitting his six siblings at the time -- but before he could, the man rushed in, grabbed the phone and hung up.

Schorr, of course, called back.

The boy acted like it was his mother calling, and gave Schorr answers to questions she didn't ask, according to a Free Press story. Schorr alerted police, and after a few tense minutes, the man was apprehended, found hiding in a closet with the children. No one was hurt.

All in a day's work.

"Little by little things would change," de Klein said.

"She had no fear," agreed Shari Jump, Schorr's next-door neighbor.

•••

The victories came slowly but steadily for Schorr and the Highland Park Neighborhood Association.

She led a campaign to have Highland Park rezoned as single-family residential and won. She passed out cookies to Highland Park's police officers at Christmas time and kept a current list of officers so she and other members of her church could pray for their safety.

They hosted parades to show off newly renovated homes and held neighborhood walks to show that the community cared. Schorr helped open a center so third-shift patrol officers could have a convenient place to stop and use the bathroom or get a drink of water.

Through it all, Schorr -- soft-spoken and petite -- was the glue. She kept everyone on track.

"She was always happy," Hogg said. "Especially when she knew there wasn't any B.S. going on with me or anyone. She would let you know if you weren't doing what you said you were going to do. She'd pull you aside and say, 'Hey, you're not getting this done. You're not working with us.'"

In the weeks after Schorr's death, neighbors and police wanted to do something to memorialize Schorr. In the end, they settled on a little free library.

Chattanooga police Sgt. Jeff Rearden built the library, which is styled like a 2-foot-tall Highland Park house. He spent 80 hours crafting the piece by hand and donated it to the neighborhood association.

The little house will be stuffed with books and set up on a post at 1608 E. 13th St. in a few days. Anyone is invited to borrow the books, read them and return them.

Schorr would have loved the idea, everyone agrees.

Crime is still a problem in Highland Park. So far this year, seven people have been shot and one man was killed in the neighborhood. Thefts are common: troublemakers steal flowerpots from porches, lawnmowers from yards, playground equipment from day cares.

But Schorr's efforts are not being abandoned. New neighborhood leaders are stepping up to keep up the traditions she started.

And now the little free library will be a tangible reminder of Schorr's legacy.

"She could never be underestimated," de Klein said. "If there was something that needed to be done, she would not rest until it was solved. She laid the groundwork for everything."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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