Net Loss

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And the decline in city youth programs didn't stop there. The recession of the early 1980s led the city to reduce pool hours, leave some pools closed, and shrink additional recreational programs.

The lack of programs couldn't have come at a worse time for many south and west Phoenix neighborhoods, which had growing numbers of young people.

Although juvenile crime climbed steadily citywide, experts say it's difficult to draw a direct relationship between lack of programs and the rise in juvenile crime.

"There are so many other factors that go into that mix," says Mike McCort.

Still, says Michael Whiting, a 28-year veteran of the parks department, those lost dollars may have "contributed to the problems we saw in communities where the kids didn't have those opportunities."

Throughout the 1980s, the handful of Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and recreation centers at city parks were about the only after-school alternatives to the street.

Cities throughout the Valley suffered from the same lack of programs. Sports leagues were available in season. But programs on school campuses were limited to summer months. During the winter, they existed mostly at schools and in areas where parents could afford them.

"Part of the problem, and it continues to be a problem," says Robert Donofrio, superintendent of the Murphy School District in west Phoenix, "is even if schools had wanted to run a lot of programs, there just wasn't a whole hell of a lot of money to do it with."

Donofrio and other school officials say the state Legislature's failure to adequately fund schools over the past 15 years made it difficult for most schools to initiate their own after-hours programs.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, gangs and wanna-bes were leaving their graffiti calling cards on walls all over Phoenix.

In the Green Gables neighborhood of central Phoenix, Alma Williams remembers seeing a big red scrawl that said "Be a Crip. Kill a Blood," and wondering what in the world was going on. She and her neighbors formed the Green Gables Neighborhood Association, to find out and begin fighting back. Williams says one obvious problem was the lack of programs for the growing number of young children in her neighborhood.

Across town, in the Westwood neighborhood near I-17 and Camelback Road, Donna Neill and her neighbors began seeing similar scrawls. With help from the police, they traced it to apartment complexes in the area.

"Most of them were owned by slumlords," says Neill, who has since become a well-known community organizer for her work in the neighborhood. "There was no landscaping, no basketball courts; there was absolutely nothing for the kids living there to do, and no place for them to do it."

Demographic data showed the area to be one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Phoenix. But it had no parks. The nearest YMCA -- 17th Avenue and Missouri -- and Boys and Girls Club -- 23rd Avenue and Missouri -- were too distant for the under-10 crowd to reach on foot.

Neill and her cohorts convinced the city to close a local street on Saturdays from October through May. Around 1993, with help from the city's parks department, they set up an outdoor recreation center, offering food, drinks and games.

More than 100 children -- ages 6 to 17 -- usually showed up, she says.

For the first two years, Neill and neighbors applied for grants and solicited donations from businesses to pay for the program, which they called Kid Street.

In 1995, the city parks department agreed to run the program, investing $76,000 into it since then. Neill says the program always tried to do something during the summer. This past summer, a $25,000 grant from the Stardust Foundation enabled the program to run every day from June through early August.

Neill and her neighbors continue to lobby the city to build a park in the area.

The efforts of Neill's neighborhood to solve the problem are more aggressive than those of most other neighborhoods. Yet they typify community-based attempts to do what government was slow to do in dealing with gang crime and blight.

Four years ago, Neill founded NAILEM (Neighborhood Activists Interlinked Empowerment Movement) to unite community organizations in anti-gang and anti-blight efforts.

"It was pretty obvious early on that we can't rely on just the police, the city, the schools or the community to solve this," Neill says. "What's needed are programs that combine all those things and get them working in the same direction."

The missing ingredient in the anti-gang struggle, Neill says, is organization. "We're just not going about it in an organized way. Just look at gangs. They're organized. They don't facilitate or study or report or debate about it. They don't have workshops about it. They know what they have to do and they get in and do it."

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Patti Epler
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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.