Thursday, May 1, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell
Who''s in Charge? Mayor Anna Caballero, Chief of Police Dan Ortega, County Supervisor Fernando Armenta and City Councilman Sergio Sanchez all agree that the problems that plague East Salinas are deep, and require structural changes.
Part 2 in a series
Census Tract 7: A Special Report
Freshman City Councilman Sergio Sanchez is driving around East Salinas looking for a park. He passes by a house with an old refrigerator sitting in the front lawn. Five little kids play around the broken appliance. Ice cream men--paleteros--stand on every corner, and kids walk home from school and play basketball in the streets. Moms push baby strollers along narrow sidewalks, and old men in white straw hats return from work.
These streets buzz with life. It''s easy to forget that in February, three teens were shot nearby, on Green Street. Another, sitting in a car on Natividad Road, was shot and killed.
This is Census Tract 7, an area in East Salinas comprised of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods in Monterey County. And the most violent.
Twenty people have been murdered in Census Tract 7 in the last 10 years. Youth violence and gang-related crimes occur more in these neighborhoods than anywhere else in the city. While police statistics show that crime has decreased a bit in recent years, the police admit there is a gang war being fought on these streets.
Census Tract 7 is one of the most heavily populated areas in the United States. There are fewer housing units in the tract right now than there were 10 years ago, and about 3,000 more people. More than one-third of the households--mostly one- or two-bedroom apartments--have seven or more people living in them.
As the tiny apartments keep overcrowding with people, more and more kids spill onto these violent streets.
A bridge over Highway 101 connects the Eastside to the rest of Salinas.
"So many kids don''t even know there is another side over that bridge," Sanchez says. "People say, ''well, they can just get out of East Salinas.'' No they can''t."
Sanchez, one of two councilmen representing East Salinas and Census Tract 7 on the City Council, continues to navigate through the concrete maze, looking for the park that he is sure is around here somewhere. He passes by numerous liquor stores, and a strip mall that includes an abandoned police substation. He drives through neighborhoods teeming with abandoned cars propped up on cinderblocks, colored with blue and red graffiti. A spray-painted window in an apartment complex reads "No Christmas Here."
Without my guide--a Councilman who''s a regular at East Salinas clean ups, garbage pickups, and neighborhood meetings--I might have missed the tiny, newly planted flowers, or the repaired street lights on Elkington and Kilbreth Avenues. Sanchez proudly points out each humble sign of renewal.
"So many apartments," Sanchez says. "Look, that''s the kids'' playground--barbed wire and cement." He points to a fence that lines a narrow alleyway between apartment buildings.
Finally he gives up. He can''t find the tiny pocket park after all. He stops at a dead-end street to admire the view--Natividad Park and creek on one side, and a golf course, bordered by shiny, hulking new homes.
Sanchez stares out at the rolling hills. Finally, some open space. But the divide seems greater than the chain-link fence and gully that separates the blighted neighborhood and the pastoral landscape.
"It''s got to be so goddamn depressing," Sanchez says. "You live in the ghetto but you can see out.
"But you know what? It''s gonna change. People want it to change," he adds, listing off the community involvement--parent patrols at the schools, neighborhood associations, Salinas United Business Association, a new Eastside business group. "There''s hope. There are so many things that are happening now. It''s gonna take time. But it will happen. This area will look better."
"It is just poor planning," he says. "I want to blame previous city councils. And now the city has to deal with it."
Eastside Salinas'' destiny was set by people who didn''t live there, and didn''t care what happened there.
Until 1989, Salinas City Councilmembers were elected "at-large." There were no separate districts--as there are now--in which candidates are chosen to represent their neighborhoods. In each election, the top vote-getters citywide ran the city. As a result, all of Salinas''s elected officials were white, and most were middle-to upper-class homeowners.
East Salinas--then called the Alisal--wasn''t even a part of the city until 1963. After the city annexed the Alisal, "it was still treated like the stepchild," says Brian Contreras, executive director of Second Chance Youth Program, a counseling and gang outreach organization. "They put their blinders on."
The white power structure that ran Salinas ignored what happened to the Eastside. The city needed housing to shelters its workers, so hundreds of cramped, high-density apartment units were built.
Elected officials didn''t build parks or buy open space; they didn''t keep up the libraries. It was a convenient place to house the city''s poor, Latino farmworkers, segregated from the rest of town by an Interstate, a railroad and agricultural fields.
Now, 40 years later, the Latino leadership of Salinas continues to pay for the past sins of their white forefathers.
Between 1933 and 1940, Oklahoma farmers--Dust Bowl victims--settled in the Alisal, hoping to make a go of it in Monterey County.
County planners took advantage of the migration and started building. Although the area remained unincorporated, "Little Oklahoma" took on its own identity.
The area''s developers didn''t bother with the kinds of standards that would have been required if the Alisal were part of the city. They built inadequate roads without street curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The water and sewer systems weren''t up to code.
"The city is always playing catch up," says Mayor Anna Caballero. "Always. It''s historical."
In 1963, the city annexed the run-down, bucolic community, which was made up primarily of small, single family homes on large lots--most planted with gardens and many with farm animals running in the backyards. Chickens roamed the rural streets.
"Narrow roads with dirt shoulders, streets like, well, just about every street was not completely paved," says Art Garcia, now a code enforcement officer who worked as a patrol cop in East Salinas starting in 1964. "It would be nothing to see a donkey running loose."
By the mid-1960s, however, the racial makeup of the Eastside started to change. In the ''30s and ''40s, it had housed farmworkers from Oklahoma, trying to find a better life out West. Now, it housed farmworkers from Mexico, trying to find a better life up North.
"Back then, they justified it," says state Assemblyman Simon Salinas. "We need low-income housing, so they built these high densities. Whether it was malevolent or benign, we ended up with problems."
The urbanization of East Salinas didn''t happen overnight. By the late ''70s, however, bulldozers had torn down the country homes, and high-density apartment units took their place.
Planner Dave Swanson, who started working for the city in 1977, says the development was a mixed blessing.
"The positive thing was that we got a lot more housing units," Swanson says. "The negative thing was the design of those units--high density apartments with no open space. In the long run, it really took a toll on the neighborhood because they''re just not good places to raise families."
By the late 1980s, Salinas had adjusted its zoning code, and did set standards for densities and open space. But by then, the rows of apartments that line the streets of Census Tract 7 had already been built.
Caballero, who sat on the Salinas Planning Commission in the ''80s, watched the rapid urbanization of the Eastside.
"Houses were replaced by apartments with no open space, no parks, all concrete slabs," she says. "All the electeds were from South Salinas. No Latinos sat on the council.
"Also, it was this investment machine, building apartments, collecting rent, and initially it didn''t look too bad. But no body took a look at the cumulative impact of everybody building apartments with no open space, with no greenery. After a while, things started to deteriorate."
Folks in the Neighborhood: On a sunny afternoon, the
streets in Census Tract 7 come to life. School kids and
laborers walk home, and moms push baby strollers
along the sidewalks. The pleasant buzz can be deceptive.
Youth- and gang-related crimes occur more in these
streets than anywhere else in the county.
Around this same time, some Latino heroes began to emerge in Salinas. They were the first to graduate from college in their families. Some, like Caballero, a UCLA law school grad, went on to earn legal or medical degrees. In 1979, Caballero went to work as a staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas.
She and her allies were political outsiders in a city where the leadership didn''t look like them, and they wanted to shake things up.
In 1980, Supervisor Fernando Armenta was a United Farmworkers union organizer and a recent grad with a Masters degree in social work. He wanted to change the makeup of the Alisal School District.
"We had no people-of-color, and more specifically, we had no Mexican-Americans on that school board," he says. "We started asking, ''how do we hold this educational system accountable to the people they should be serving?''"
So he and other now-prominent Latinos--including state Assemblyman Simon Salinas, who was at that time a bilingual elementary school teacher--decided to go door to door and register as many East Salinas residents as possible.
"We found the majority of the people we registered were Latino," Armenta says. "We started to think, ''if we could get enough votes, why couldn''t we run some of our own candidates?''"
In 1981, three Latinos ran for seats on the Alisal School Board. "It''s wasn''t really a disciplined effort towards winning the election," Armenta says. "We didn''t know nothing about fundraising. Our idea was having a car wash."
Two Latino candidates won.
"It was a big political success for Mexican-Americans," Armenta says. It also brought up more questions. "Why weren''t there any Mexican-Americans on the City Council? Why was all the high-density housing occurring in East Salinas? Why didn''t we have good parks like everyone else? Why didn''t we have neighborhood centers?"
Salinas Latinos decided to take their battle to the next level. As a union leader, Armenta knew grassroots organizing could work. So he and others decided to try it out at the City Council level.
In 1987, Armenta and Simon Salinas, along with voting-rights attorney Joaquin Avila, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Salinas, challenging at-large elections in favor of creating voting districts to better represent the Latino Alisal voters. They succeeded.
In June of ''89, Simon Salinas became the first Latino to sit on the Salinas City Council. (After two terms on the Council, he would move on to be the first Latino elected in 100 years to the Board of Supervisors). In 1991, Salinas voters also elected Armenta and Caballero.
A year later, Sherwood Elementary School principal Ernesto Gonzalez won a seat, and for the first time in history, Latinos made up the majority of the Salinas City Council.
Simon Salinas says when he was elected to represent East Salinas in 1989, his constituents'' priorities were primarily physical. They wanted him to improve the neighborhood''s design.
His district was solid concrete, with no parks and few traffic lights. "It was just--let''s get some signal lights out here," he says. "Let''s get some street lights fixed."
He was also instrumental in building the Cesar Chavez and Laurel "tot lots."
"Parents said ''we need playground equipment for the children, and a lawn,''" he recalls.
And they also wanted roads leading out of East Salinas. Not only did the Alisal house the city''s most crowded neighborhoods, its streets were also the most congested.
In the early ''90s, there were only two roads leading out of East Salinas: Sanborn and Laurel. Even today, physical barriers like Highway 101, the railroad tracks and agricultural fields, separate the Eastside from the rest of town.
"We pushed outlets for the Eastside," Salinas remembers. "We opened Las Casitas, we pushed Freedom Boulevard and Constitution. At least you''ve got some breathing space. Now we''ve extended the roads, and we''ve restricted congested subdivisions, but we still need to do more with the densities that exist out there. And we need new ways to bring some investment into those communities."
Retail Economics:More than 80 percent of the population in Census Tract 7 is Latino, and upwards of 35 percent live below the federal poverty line. "A lot of it is just people trying to make a buck," says Art Garcia, a code enforcement officer.
Now that the City had the political will and might to change the Eastside, things started happening.
In 1993, the Latino-majority council approved plans to build the Williams Ranch subdivision in East Salinas. They also required developers to put money aside for libraries, street improvements and parks--of which the Eastside had none. Soon after, the city bought Natividad Creek Park, 64 acres of open space, the largest park in the county, with park fees.
Caballero says it isn''t finished yet.
"It''s supposed to have a rec center, but the park fund ran out of money," she says. "When the new homes are built, they''ll pay into the fund and Natividad will be finished."
During the ''90s, the new council also lobbied Washington, DC, and won $3 million to beef-up the police department''s Violence Suppression Unit.
The department also implemented several "Community Oriented Policing" programs, including a Police Activities League, or PAL, which organizes visits to the beach and camping trips to Big Sur for East Salinas youth.
Following a nasty outbreak of gang violence in the mid-''90s, several violence-prevention groups and programs started up in East Salinas, including Partners for Peace and Second Chance. An East Salinas Healthy Start center opened up--a one-stop shop for parenting and English classes with on-site childcare, employment assistance, support groups, and Medi-Cal and insurance advocacy. Many of the new organizations received city, state and federal funding.
A 1997 court-ordered gang injunction, a controversial partnership between the Salinas City Attorney and the Salinas Police Department, prevented gang members from congregating on the streets.
Since 1997, the city has spent more than $4 million on capital improvements in and around Census Tract 7. During this same time, another $2.6 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money has been spread among area nonprofits.
An $8 million, three-year Safe Schools/Healthy Students federal grant, intended to promote school safety and prevent drug use and violence, paid for school-based probation and police officers, parent education, after-school programs, on-campus counseling and gang and substance abuse prevention. But that funding will end in May.
And while Salinas had hoped to reapply for another five-year federal Weed and Seed grant for Census Tract 7, and move the program to Census Tract 5, a nearby neighborhood whose poor, violent conditions mirror those in Census Tract 7, the city won''t receive federal funds for either.
The neighborhood will be lucky if it gets 40 percent of the funding Weed and Seed provided. On May 6, the council will decide.
It will take money--lots of it--to end the poverty, the crowded living conditions and the gangs. Money may not solve all of the problems that plague Census Tract 7, but it will help. Money buys food for people who have to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids. It funds workers who plant trees and pick trash off of the sidewalk, and do all the other beautification projects that rich neighborhoods take for granted. Money buys adequate living quarters so that a dozen adults don''t need to share a single-bedroom apartment. Money pays for city parks, library hours, karate and ballet lessons for kids. It funds weekend camping trips, or tickets to the ballgame, and it shows teenagers that there is a world beyond the Eastside.
This fiscal year alone, the city of Salinas will pump more than $4.4 million into this community to clean up these streets, pave roads, fix street lights and playground equipment, and staff patrol cops.
Since ''94, Weed and Seed, a U.S. Department of Justice initiative, has brought another $250,000 annually to Census Tract 7 to "weed" out gang activity and violent crime, and "seed" the area with social services, including prevention and intervention programs and neighborhood revitalization.
City coffers also fund after-school activities for kids and teens, programs like Barrios Unidos and Second Chance, neighborhood cleanups, counseling and employment opportunities.
Other nonprofit groups--like Mayor Anna Caballero''s Partners for Peace, and the Citizenship Project, a labor-led, immigrant rights organization--also concentrate their efforts on the Eastside of town.
In cash-poor Salinas, the bulk of the city''s financial resources will be spent here, in or around Census Tract 7, including $352,453 in Community Development Block Grant money, $600,000 for streetlight repairs and $2 million out of the city''s General Fund--$1.6 million of that to pay for the police department''s violence suppression unit.
The mayor calls it "new money to clean up old problems," and city leaders, who have been working for almost a decade to fix these old problems, say they are making progress.
But the money is running out. Salinas is facing a $7.5 million budget shortfall in ''03-''04, and a $10 million deficit in ''04-''05.
Grants previously funded by the federal government won''t be renewed. Money for cops and schools has been axed in the name of Homeland Security.
The state''s staring at a $34 billion budget deficit, and the county expects a $20 million shortfall. Cities will be made to feel their pain--and their empty pockets.
The prognosis for Salinas isn''t good. "Cuts will happen," Caballero says.
"Not only are grants running out, but we''re in the middle of a recession that has finally begun to be called a recession and we''re in a war. The federal government''s priorities have changed dramatically, the state has its share of grief, and it looks like the county is going to balance its budget on the backs of cities."
Sitting in her Partners for Peace office, Caballero says she feels the hits coming from both sides. As mayor, she says the city''s facing a $7.5 million deficit. As the executive director of a nonprofit, she feels the budget pinch of the private sector.
"We''re really scraping," she says, talking about Partners for Peace. "We will have to reduce services and work on more focused partnerships. What we''re trying to do is prevention work and there are huge gaps because there aren''t enough resources. We''re trying to work with policy makers and they''re looking at reductions. Don''t cut the easiest thing which is to scalp prevention."
"It looks grim," Sanchez adds. "Everybody and their mother is taking money from the city. From a policy standpoint these are going to be tough decisions to make. All the volunteer services, the neighborhood services, the programs for kids, I want to make those priorities. If we dismantle these programs we go back to square one. If we let the neighborhood go, it will take forever to build it back up. That''s what''s going to happen."
Perhaps because of Salinas'' short cash flow, everyone interviewed for this story agrees that the solution to Census Tract 7 requires more than simply pumping money into the neighborhood. Instead, area residents need to get involved in their community, be more active, and take pride in where they live.
But here, a big percentage of the population is made up of immigrants who speak little or no English and don''t understand how city government works. They follow the crops, and don''t necessarily live in East Salinas year round. Many are undocumented and don''t trust the police.
"There is no way the city is ever going to be able to do everything that is needed in that part of the city," Sanchez says. "There''s no way we can put cops on every corner. So you''ve got to organize the community. You''ve got to empower the people."
Sanchez, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, approaches his job as a councilman the same way he does his union job. He sees a group of moms waiting for their kids to come home from school and he tells them about an upcoming neighborhood meeting. He attends homeowners association meetings and tells them to come to the next City Council meeting and tell the elected representatives to fix a broken streetlight near their condos. He goes door to door and tells parents about gang-awareness meetings at a nearby school.
"I don''t say I''m going to save you--hell no," he says. "You''ve got to do it yourself.
"I''ll tell you what it comes down to. It comes down to the community. You bring them together. You teach them they don''t have to live like this. You agitate them. You get them excited about it. And then you leave them alone."
"Kids shooting kids in the streets isn''t okay," he says, and the community musn''t stand for it. "The same goes for landlords, who allow a family of six to live in a tiny apartment with no heat, electricity or running water."
"I was poor," Sanchez says, "but I didn''t live like that."
There''s an empty police substation in the dead center of Census Tract 7, on North Sanborn and Del Monte, within walking distace of most of the violent crimes that occur in the area.
Although a police officer on every street corner in Census Tract 7 isn''t going to happen, many residents say a stronger police presence in the area would discourage crime. But because of personell shortages within the Salinas PD, only two beat officers are assigned to Census Tract 7 at any given shift.
Weed and Seed money pays for violence supression unit officers to work overtime in Census Tract 7, but that funding ends in September.
Police Chief Dan Ortega, who has seen gang violence in East Salinas drop during his short tenure, says the approach needs to be three-pronged: "A continuum of prevention, intervention and suppression."
"I''d love to have an Eastside service center," he admits. "We do have an office, but I just can''t staff it. We''re seven sworn staff positions short right now."
But he also says the problem is about more than cops putting away the bad guys.
"When you talk about gang violence, it''s fairly simplistic to say it''s a police problem," he continues. "It''s a societal problem. We''re in the business of suppression--and we do that quite well. In Census Tract 7, you see the high densities, the parents who aren''t always around. The truth of the matter is that police officers aren''t going to be able to counsel families about teen pregnancy and high school dropouts. We need more family involvement."
Ortega echoes Sanchez''s speech about empowerment.
"And when something does occur in broad daylight with 100 people standing around a body that''s just been shot and nobody says anything. Again, we need to educate the public. We''re conducting a citizen''s academy in Spanish. We''re doing it."
Contreras, a former gang member himself, concurs.
"You can put a police officer on every street corner, you can put a social worker on every street corner, but until the community decides they are not going to put up with it, nothing is going to change."
At a recent City Council meeting Dave Mora briefed the elected officials about the impending $7.5 million budget shortfall. At the same meeting, dozens of nonprofits asked the city for money.
"If there is another pot of money out there, please look at us," requested a Food Bank social worker, echoing the sentiments of all of her peers.
But there isn''t another pot of money. And the existing pot is shrinking.
"The bottom line is that we live in a working-class community with a lot of needs," Caballero said, before suggesting the council take $10,000 from Weed and Seed, and divide it between the two other groups.
"If we lose even $10,000 from Weed and Seed, we''re cutting four different programs," said city staffer Ken Davis.
"My district is in Census Tract 7," interrupted Sanchez. "That is the census tract with the highest densities, the highest unemployment, the most poverty and youth violence. It has all kinds of problems.
"I caution you, do not take money from a place where it is needed. Any money you take from this community is going to have an impact. We can''t take money away from these programs. What is our priority? If youth programs are our priority, then the solution is not to raid that."
But the reality is there''s not enough money to go around. And the poorest, most vulnerable pockets of the city will feel the pain the most.
"I just want to be really clear," Caballero said, "it''s never an easy decision. But if you go through the list," she continued, pointing out all of the programs and groups asking the city for money, "the majority of the people who benefit from these are going to be in your district, Sergio. That''s just the way it is."