Ground Zero

With arrests and civil pressures, police have reduced the terror inflicted by Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas. But conditions that gave rise to the gang in the first place still fester.

Against overwhelming odds, a handful of residents is struggling to establish a community Fight Back program. These residents know that the sweeping economic, political and social changes needed to stanch gang intimidation will take years to achieve.

The City of Phoenix is pitching in with an $80,000 grant to fund the Fight Back program.

Yet over the years, the city has consistently -- one would hope unwittingly -- undercut the neighborhood's attempt to end the siege.

Barrios Unidos "Target Area."
Click HERE for a larger view of map.
New Times
Barrios Unidos "Target Area."
Click HERE for a larger view of map.
Helen Brock peers from behind a steel security gate at traffic on the Maricopa Freeway.
Paolo Vescia
Helen Brock peers from behind a steel security gate at traffic on the Maricopa Freeway.

The FedEx cargo jet that roars above is so close that its wheel lug nuts are visible to the hundreds of residents gathered on the Barrios Unidos Park soccer field.

Deafening waves of sound reverberate across the field, punishing the throng gathered to rally for one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Valley. The aircraft approaches from the west, directly into the bow waves of a powerful September thunderstorm sweeping in from the east.

Lightning bolts crash near the park as the jet passes 16th Street on its final approach to Sky Harbor International Airport.

Suddenly, the cargo plane fires its engines, aborting its landing just seconds before touchdown. As the cargo jet ascends toward the monsoon tempest to the east, rain begins to pelt the park.

Within seconds, gusting winds whip a torrential downpour across the field, propelling children across the grass in drenched delight. The hot, humid afternoon has given way at last to relief.

Residents, volunteers and employees from the city police, fire and parks departments toil to secure tents set up for the occasion. They cover up the food as well as prizes and trophies that were to be given to area kids that evening.

Musicians hastily cover their equipment in the portable band shells set up on the field.

The rain is relentless, finally forcing a somber and disappointing decision. The Fiestas Patrias Community Fair must be canceled.

It is a disappointment to those who had worked for months to stage a celebration of the neighborhood.

The Fiestas Patrias was among the first tangible steps organized by Fight Back organizers.

Yet a single rainstorm can't wash away determination or hope. As the rain transforms the field into a shallow lake, an organizer falls to his knees on a tabletop, clasps his hands together and prays.

For nearly two decades, residents of Barrios Unidos have lived under a cloud of doom. Surrounded by loud and dirty transportation corridors -- the airport to the east, the Maricopa Freeway to the south and the Southern Pacific Railroad yard to the north -- the area is destined to become a commerce and industrial park.

But no one knows when that will happen.

In the meantime, the residential neighborhood is steadily decaying. Residents have split into two factions -- those who want the city to condemn the area and relocate residents and those who want the city to rehabilitate the neighborhood.

The city, which has invested more than $1 billion in downtown redevelopment projects a mile to the northwest, has no plans now to condemn and purchase the neighborhood, which is composed of mostly working-class Latino families.

Instead, the city is providing token financial assistance while quietly condoning the redlining of Barrios Unidos by lenders. This makes it all but impossible for new homes to be built.

The federal department of Housing and Urban Development will not issue mortgages or allow the expenditure of Community Block Development Grants in the area because it is subjected to severe airport noise, says Phoenix HUD director Terry Goddard.

A former Phoenix mayor, Goddard says the city could apply for a waiver of the lending restrictions, but hasn't.

"The City of Phoenix is not anxious to do much in this area," Goddard says.

Rick Naimark, acting director of the city's Neighborhood Services Department, confirmed that the city has not applied for a waiver of the HUD lending restrictions.

Naimark says the city is following guidelines of the general plan for Barrios Unidos.

"Basically, over time the area Seventh Street to the east will convert to commercial and industrial uses," Naimark says.

While denying federal redevelopment money to the neighborhood, the city is condemning and buying decrepit homes from slumlords. The city levels the structures, leaving behind a patchwork of glass-strewn vacant lots that further depress property values.

Property owners in Barrios Unidos have missed out on the escalating values most Valley homeowners have enjoyed in the '90s. With little or no equity for a down payment on a new home elsewhere, many residents remain trapped.

Still, not everyone has given up. Some residents create beauty amid squalor, planting rose gardens that bloom amid the junkyards, garbage and crackheads lurking in the shadows. But these pockets of pride are rare.

The result is classic urban decay, directly beneath the flight path of one of America's busiest airports.

Barrios Unidos' plight has caught the attention of activists from the Arizona Justice Institute who are scrutinizing data to determine whether to file a class-action civil rights suit against the city and airport. The plaintiffs would allege that city policies have destroyed the neighborhood and devalued property without compensating residents -- a concept known as inverse condemnation.

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