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.

Every window and door in her house is protected with steel bars. A six-foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire marks her property perimeter. A pit bull patrols the yard.

"It didn't always used to be this way," she says.

"This was the country," she says flashing back to 1947, when she and her late husband -- 18-year-old newlyweds -- began building their home out of true two-by-six studs and solid 1-by-12s for sheathing.

Cody Williams
Cody Williams
Wendelyn Nichols-Julien is helping Barrios Unidos residents reclaim their neighborhood.
Paolo Vescia
Wendelyn Nichols-Julien is helping Barrios Unidos residents reclaim their neighborhood.

"There was irrigated farmland behind us, and this was beautiful desert," she says, pointing toward the freeway.

"My kids used to ride horses all the way down to the Salt River. They used to play in the river and go fishing," Brock says. "This was a lovely neighborhood when I settled here."

But that was five decades ago, when neighbors used to award ribbons for the most beautiful streets lined with citrus and pecan trees, interspersed with vegetable and flower gardens. That was before residents somehow lost irrigation rights and the city filled in irrigation ditches -- transforming an urban oasis into hard-packed, lifeless lots.

And it was before the area was redlined by lenders such as HUD and the city. Private lenders have followed the governments' lead, Brock says.

Realtors, she says, have told her the only way she could sell her property is to carry the mortgage herself, because lenders won't issue a new loan. The most cash she could get out of her property from a down payment is about $10,000 -- hardly enough to make a move worthwhile, she says.

Furthermore, carrying a 30-year mortgage is futile.

"As old as I am, I'll be dead before they pay off the property," Brock says. "So, I'll just stay here."

But she's not going to stay idly.

Brock has joined the Fight Back program, which has earmarked $80,000 to purchase additional city services such as more streetlights and additional parks and recreation services such as the rained-out Fiestas Patrias.

More important, Fight Back has brought residents together on a regular basis to discuss issues facing the community. The Fight Back members have formed committees to deal with blight, youth activities and crime.

Brock is skeptical that Fight Back will have any lasting effect, but she's involved nonetheless, participating in neighborhood cleanups and fueling a feisty debate during committee meetings.

The bottom line, she says, is the city and airport destroyed the community through its policies.

"We didn't lower the value of the property," she says. "They did, the city and the airport."

The Fight Back Youth Committee members gather around a table inside a meeting room at the Barrios Unidos Park on September 22 and vent their frustrations. They are parents in a community controlled by kids.

"I live in the neighborhood and I'm having trouble with one of my teenage sons," says Sylvia.

People are shooting heroin in the alley behind her house on East Cocopah and "unfortunately, that's where my son is going," she says.

Sylvia says she's twice pulled her son out of a neighborhood crackhouse, earning her a reputation among the addicts as being "crazy."

"I want him to start thinking on his own," she says.

Unlike those who turn a blind eye to their children's activities, Sylvia is willing to crack the whip.

"You can put him in jail," she says.

Gloria Moreno says she's worried about the degradation of community parks. She says from her window she can see addicts taking drugs and having sex inside the jungle gym.

"Little ones play there when there are needles in the sand. That's very dangerous. My concern is for the children," she says.

Alex Munguia, one of the few males to attend the Fight Back meetings, has grown up in the neighborhood and works in the evenings at the Barrios Unidos Park. He has regular contact with youth, many of whom already are convicts who are earning community service hours by working at the park.

"We have to make them look to the future," Munguia says.

That's a tough sell when many of the adults in the community have descended into a vortex of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence.

Richard Martinez, a mental health specialist with Southwest Human Development, also works with Munguia at the park. While Munguia takes a streetwise approach to dealing with the kids, Martinez says he tries to provide youth with structure in their daily lives by being consistent and fair.

"We are sending a different message to these kids," Martinez says. "We give them what they want -- respect."

Ester Esquival, chairman of the Youth Committee, has watched the youth spin out of control for too long and is willing to take a stand.

"If we don't commit, nothing is going to happen," she says.

The adults want to do something tangible. But what?

Taking direct action against drug dealers and gangs is dangerous.

"You stand in front of a house with a sign saying 'crackhouse' and they will shoot you," says Munguia, whose family has felt the sting of gangs and violence.

Meanwhile, determining what kids expect isn't easy. Neighborhood teens give vague answers -- or none at all -- when asked what they wanted.

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