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.

Most express a desire simply to have a safe place to "hang out" with their friends. Others would like easier access to movie theaters and amusement arcades. Many seem perplexed over adult worries of gangs, drugs and violence.

"It's the same everywhere," says the sister of one of the gang members arrested in March.

Asked what they would do if they had $1 million to spend to improve their community, a dozen teenage girls sit in dumfounded silence.

Wesley Community Center executive director Betty Mathis is facing criticism from residents.
Paolo Vescia
Wesley Community Center executive director Betty Mathis is facing criticism from residents.
A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.
Paolo Vescia
A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.

After repeated prodding by adults, one teenager finally suggests that the money could be used for scholarships.

When asked what they feared about their community, several of the girls cite violence.

"I was walking down the alley home from school and saw a woman who had been stabbed," one teen says.

Keeping violence reduction as a top priority, the Youth Committee focused on Crossroads, a program used by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections that teaches youth and adults how to cope with violence.

For six months, the committee worked with Dr. Douglas Brown, a clinical psychiatrist with the Maricopa County Health Center who created the Crossroads program, to customize a program for Barrios Unidos youth.

The program had the support of the entire Fight Back committee, and only needed approval from the City of Phoenix, which has final say over all expenditures from Fight Back's $80,000 budget.

Esquival says the Fight Back committee was willing to spend $10,000 to hire Dr. Brown to implement Crossroads.

"We are talking at any one time placing 15 young people in a rotation of groups that usually last about two and a half months," Brown says.

The program would also train adults who could continue to teach future classes at a much lower cost, while Brown would be available as a consultant.

Despite the high hopes the youth committee has for implementing the Crossroads program, the city's Neighborhood Services Department shot down the proposal.

Esquival got the bad news before the September 29 Youth Committee meeting, hours before Brown met with a dozen teenage girls to discuss their goals, fears and hopes for the future.

Esquival was livid about the city's rejection of the program, saying she suspects it was nixed because the Fight Back money would be used to buy services offered by the county.

Tim Bolling, who oversees the Fight Back program for the city's Neighborhood Services Department, says the proposal was rejected because it was a mental-health issue.

"The Neighborhood Services Department is not in the business of providing services for mental health," Bolling says. "We are in the business of improving neighborhoods. So, it just doesn't really comply with the mission of the neighborhood Fight Back program."

Esquival says the city's rejection of a program with strong support in the community will not be the end of the issue.

"We cannot as a neighborhood let this program fall through our hands," she says.

Bullet holes riddle the lights mounted on the west wall of the Wesley Community Center.

A hole made by a large-caliber slug pierces the steel door leading to the center's pantry.

A worker at the center points to three of the closest houses to the complex -- all less than 100 yards away -- that have been the source of drug activity and gunfire in the last year.

Rolling steel blinders protect all the doors to the center, which has served the community for nearly 50 years.

"That roller shield in that door has six bullet holes in it right now," Wesley maintenance man Angelo Orozco says during a tour of the facility.

The nonprofit center, funded primarily by the United Methodist Church and the United Way, is remembered by many adults as a centerpiece in their lives.

There are cherished memories of picnics, organized athletic events, a safe after-dark hangout.

But those memories have turned to bitterness; many residents complain about the operation of the center in recent years.

Some accuse Wesley's director, Betty Mathis, of being insensitive to Latinos and unreasonably restricting access to the center's gymnasium -- which was constructed by the city.

On a recent Saturday, the gymnasium is being used for church services instead of pickup basketball games.

The mostly white congregation comes from across the Valley to share inspirational stories about faith and God. Outside, some Girl Scout volunteers play with young children, most of whom don't live in Barrios Unidos.

When the church service ends, the worshipers pile into their late-model vehicles and drive away. The gym remains closed.

"On Saturdays years ago, we got 30 or 40 kids playing in the gym," Orozco says.

During a recent Fight Back meeting, residents voice their complaints over Mathis' management of the center.

"There is a cultural division between Wesley and the community," one resident says.

"It is not servicing the needs of the community," says another.

"It's a total waste to have that beautiful building and have our kids sitting on the corner," says a third.

Mathis is fully aware of the snipings in the community and says she's willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow Wesley to fully serve the community.

Much of the bitterness, she says, is a reflection of the evolution of community during the past 10 years.

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