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.

"Wesley was the center of activity for the barrio with all of its roller-skating places, tree houses and barbecues," she says. "That was a different time, and almost a different place."

Eroding property values, cheap rentals and a massive influx of undocumented workers have impacted how Wesley operates, she says.

Many longtime residents have shunned the illegal immigrants, she says. Wesley, however, continues to provide services to the immigrants. As a result, many Latinos with deep roots in the community stopped using the center, she says.

A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.
A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.
The neighborhood is not far from Bank One Ballpark.
Paolo Vescia
The neighborhood is not far from Bank One Ballpark.

"Wesley got caught in the early '90s as being seen as the only people we served were immigrants," she says.

The center's budget dried up and was within 30 days of closing when she arrived in 1994, she says.

Since then, Mathis says, the center has opened a licensed preschool and she has secured $150,000 in funds with the goal of opening a Boys and Girls Club on the site. She needs another $75,000 to pay for support staff and utilities before a contract with the Boys and Girls Club can be signed.

Opening a Boys and Girls Club center on the site would help address a major failure of the community center, she says.

"Our thrust, the main focus of where we should be now in this neighborhood, is with the children and the youth," Mathis says. "We are not."

Much of the work with neglected youth has fallen into the lap of Felicia "Kita" Mijares, a former Wesley employee who left the center on unpleasant terms.

Mijares says she has spent much of the past seven years working with children -- one kid at a time. Her approach is straightforward, simple and, she says, effective.

"You need to occupy their time. You need to give them something to do. They have too much free time," she says at the end of a recent Fight Back meeting.

"They don't just want to go home, because, what's at home?" she asks. "There's nothing at home. Parents are on drugs . . . if they have parents."

While Wesley refuses to let school dropouts and known gang members utilize the gym, Mijares takes a different approach.

"Say they are in gangs, at least if you got all the gang in one spot, you got more control over it," she says.

"They are in gangs because they need something to do," she says. "I can get a group of kids and say, 'Let's go do.' They don't care what they do. Let's go do. Let's go do, and feel good about it. Give them a tee shirt, give them food, they love to eat."

Wendelyn R. Nichols-Julien is in the hot seat as the Barrios Unidos community development coordinator. While her job is funded by the nonprofit Neighborhood Partners Incorporated, she is technically an employee of Wesley Community Center.

On the job less than six months, the 23-year-old mother of two walks a fine line between advocate and facilitator: She helps focus discussions, raises issues that have been overlooked, recommends certain actions and mediates disputes such as the one brewing between the community, which she serves, and Wesley, which cuts her check.

"I'm the person in the neighborhood many people try to get ahold of," she says.

The wife of Latino television journalist Rolando Nichols, Nichols-Julien is relying heavily on the Fight Back program to provide a vehicle for change. The weekly Fight Back meetings bring residents together for the first time to discuss neighborhood issues on a regular basis.

"The Fight Back program has been great," she says. "It has opened a new relationship with the city that has been a very positive one."

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Fight Back meetings so far is increased communication between the community and police.

Officers regularly attend the Fight Back meetings and are encouraging residents to provide information about suspected drug houses and illegal gang activity.

Police tell residents they're in the best position to rid the neighborhood of criminal street gangs.

"The success of the [gang enforcement] program doesn't rest on the police department," says Sergeant Terry Donagan. "The success of the program rests on the community."

Fight Back vice chairman Rick Cortez has asked committee members to provide a list of suspected drug houses to him, which he will forward to police. Information from residents already has led to the bust of a major drug-dealing operation that netted 20 rocks of crack cocaine, two weapons and eight arrests.

"Give us addresses with specific problems, and we will check it out," Donagan promises. "Give me 30 days. There isn't a drug house we can't take out."

Police have also made a major stride in improving relations with the community by declining to accept $24,000 of the $80,000 Fight Back budget that was earmarked for police overtime related to the gang investigation and subsequent arrests.

Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima says that money should remain with Fight Back to fund other community-supported initiatives.

"Most of those funds are still available for your use," Klima told the committee. He encouraged the committee to consider using some of the money to support Block Watch programs.

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