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.

"We are investigating whether these policies have had a discriminatory effect on historically black and Hispanic neighborhoods," says Eddie Sissons, executive director for the Arizona Justice Institute.

Sky Harbor Airport has taken some steps to alleviate the noise impact on the community. With the assistance of a $72 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport is offering to soundproof 2,400 homes located beneath the flight path in Tempe and Phoenix.

Airport officials have identified 637 homes in the Barrios Unidos neighborhood that are eligible for soundproofing. The improvements generally include double-paned windows, steel doors and additional attic insulation. The upgrades typically cost around $25,000, which in Barrios Unidos is generally equal to half the value of the average home.

Parks and recreation worker Alex Munguia is dogged about instilling hope in Barrios Unidos youth.
Paolo Vescia
Parks and recreation worker Alex Munguia is dogged about instilling hope in Barrios Unidos youth.
Herrera Elementary and Middle School principal Evelyn Sanchez talks to students.
Paolo Vescia
Herrera Elementary and Middle School principal Evelyn Sanchez talks to students.

So far, 146 homeowners have accepted the airport's offer. In exchange for the free soundproofing, residents must agree to relinquish all future claims against the airport for noise-related damages.

Barrio Unidos' response rate to the soundproofing program is 23 percent; in Tempe, it's 75 percent. Many Barrios Unidos residents are leery about signing away future rights to seek damages, Sissons says.

So there is piecemeal upgrade of housing stock in a neighborhood that needs a complete overhaul.

What Americans view as decay, however, looks inviting to opportunist immigrants from Mexico, many of whom have risked their money and their lives to illegally cross the border.

Illegal Mexican immigrants are trading $5-a-day jobs in Mexico for $6 an hour and more for jobs as laborers in the Valley's restaurant, hotel, landscaping and construction firms.

Many are landing in Barrios Unidos, where a collapsing wood frame house with a roof and plumbing looks great compared to the cardboard and tarpaper huts they left in Mexico.

The presence of the illegal immigrants creates resentment among many Latinos who feel trapped in Barrios Unidos. They watch newly arrived immigrants take two jobs, stay out of trouble, teach their children English and soon disappear into middle-class neighborhoods.

Wendelyn Nichols-Julien, community development coordinator for Barrios Unidos, says immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are generally "a great asset" to the community.

"They are willing to do anything to make things better," she says.

Many of the immigrant families are "extremely concerned about their children's education" and willingly take jobs U.S. citizens won't, she says.

Their presence in the neighborhood, however, does create problems. Slumlords sometimes charge exorbitant rents -- $500 and more for shacks -- that illegal immigrants are happy to take. To meet expenses, they will jam families into cramped, substandard housing, she says.

Illegal immigrants also are less likely to get involved in community activities or with school programs because they fear they will be detected and deported.

The influx of illegal immigrants has fundamentally changed the composition and character of the community and weakened community involvement.

"It's not like it used to be," says Angelo Orozco, who grew up in the neighborhood and has served for 23 years as a maintenance worker at the Wesley Community Center.

For decades, the community was characterized by a strong network of families, he says. It wasn't unusual to find great-grandparents living around the corner from their great-grandchildren. Extended families, Orozco says, were the glue that kept the community together.

That's changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

"There aren't as many multigenerational families living here anymore," says Orozco. "The community is not as strong as it used to be."

What's left of Helen Brock's front yard resembles gasoline alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A stone's throw away and 20 feet above her sturdy house, cars and trucks roar down the elevated Maricopa Freeway just east of the Seventh Street exit. Shredded tires, orphaned mufflers, crushed mirrors and other interstate debris lie on the steep bank that separates her property from the freeway.

It's a dangerous place to live. A piece of highway flotsam once cut the face of Brock's 3-year-old grandchild as she played outside.

Occasionally, a stray tire will bounce over the guardrail -- there is no wall to shield her house from detritus or sound -- and tumble menacingly down the hill, crashing into whatever happens to be in the way.

"There ain't no such thing as watering and relaxing in your yard," she says.

A grove of eucalyptus trees once helped shelter her home from the freeway crossfire, which sometimes includes gunfire exchanged by irate motorists.

But the state Department of Transportation chopped the trees down last winter. Brock suspects they were cut because they were blocking drivers' view of a billboard that looms above her property.

The assault on her peace and tranquillity doesn't stop with the freeway.

Jets thunder over her home, providing a turbine staccato to the whine of freeway traffic and groans from tractor trailers gunning their engines.

"The airplanes are shaking plaster from my ceiling," the seventysomething Brock says in a Texas drawl.

Nighttime brings another dangerous element. Street gangs wander the neighborhood, sometimes spraying her house and the auto repair business her son operates next door with gunfire, other times with paint. The violence tapered off with the arrests of the leaders of the Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas gang.

"Our buildings haven't been painted in three or four months," Brock says with optimism.

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