South Merced: Time to get past the past?

abutt@mercedsunstar.comMay 19, 2012 

It's crime-ridden. There is no sense of community. Parents don't care about their children. All the kids who come from there are gang members.

The place has a "bad rap" -- it's a rough area.

Those are some of the stereotypes about South Merced, a neighborhood many describe as being bounded by Highway 99 to the north and east, West Avenue to the west and Mission Avenue to the south.

However, the neighborhood is just like any other in Merced.

Parents hope for the best for their children, business owners are trying to eke out a living in a competitive market and still other residents reminisce about a South Merced that once was.

With all its social and economic issues, South Merced and its 3,504 residents have been the focus of recent public efforts by city officials and activists who want to solve the neighborhood's woes.

The residents

A mix of blacks, Latinos, Chinese and Hmong immigrants have put down roots for decades in South Merced.

Each group brought its unique culture and sense of togetherness to the area.

From the 1870s to the 1950s, the neighborhood saw an influx of Chinese immigrants who settled near West 14th Street between K and M streets, turning it into the city's Chinatown, said Sarah Lim, Merced County Courthouse Museum director.

The Chinese people came to build the railroads. By 1920, the first generation of Chinese immigrants had died, and then Highway 99's construction in the 1950s wiped out that section of town, according to Lim. Many former residents moved to the Bay Area.

In the 1920s, while a second generation of Chinese-Americans pursued higher education and moved to Los Angeles or the other parts of California, the first group of blacks came to settle around what is now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way along Childs Avenue and around Tyler Road near Mission Avenue. They continued to settle in the area until the 1940s, she said.

"They found jobs to pick cotton, mostly farm laborers," said Lim.

About two decades later, Mexican farm laborers settled in South Merced to work in the fields.

The first group of Hmong refugees came in the 1970s after they had fought with the CIA during the Vietnam War, Lim said. They continued to settle in the city until the 1990s.

Almetres Huddleston remembers growing up in a South Merced that had no streetlights, and McNamara Park was undeveloped with trees that had no leaves.

Huddleston, who moved in 1947 from Oklahoma, came to Merced to live with a brother who already had a restaurant, bar, beauty shop and meeting hall up and running.

A sense of community, which was prevalent when Huddleston was growing up, isn't as evident in the neighborhood now, she said.

"The community is not as close knit as it was," she said. That's because many of the older residents died and their children left.

In the 1960s and 1970s, families began to move away.

Back then, the neighborhood had copious potholes and people usually left their garbage cluttered in alleyways.

"It's better now than it was then, because the city didn't furnish a lot of the necessities over here, like street-lights, curbs and gutters, garbage pick up. Things like that. It was kind of like it wasn't a priority," recalled Huddle-ston, 80.

Despite some improvements, she said, there are still roads in the area that need attention. "Things are neglected," Huddleston said.

But even though some problems persist to this day, Huddleston still insists that it's not a bad place.

"There are a lot of good people everywhere," she said.

These days, South Merced is known for having a "bad rap," according to some neighborhood residents.

"They say people over here will cut you and shoot you. When I pick up the paper, I see most of the crime is on the other side of town. It's all over," Huddleston said.

The business owner

Gus Nasr co-owns one of the oldest businesses in Merced with his brother-in-law, the Merced Food Center on MLK, which opened in 1937, he said.

Nasr agreed that crime happens everywhere in the city and isn't confined to South Merced.

Apart from an attempted robbery at his store a few years ago, Nasr said, the neighborhood has remained quiet and friendly, just like it was 22 years ago when he moved there from Kuwait.

The amount of competition in the area has increased, however, which has hurt his business. Smaller shops have opened up in the area, and he's estimated he's seen a 25 percent to 30 percent loss in revenue annually at his grocery store, which specializes in ethnic foods and fresh meat.

"Any competition is not good for us," said Nasr, 53, a Jordanian. He said he and his brother-in-law are working hard to serve the community and remain vital to the neighborhood.

He said the high unemployment rate is a problem for everyone in Merced, not just South Merced residents.

"People are tough with their budgets. Any place right now in Merced is terrible, as far as the situation," he said of the fallout from the deep economic downturn. Nasr added that he doesn't blame people for moving away in the hope of finding better opportunities elsewhere.

But, he said, he hopes that efforts to revitalize South Merced will produce positive results in the neighborhood. "Hopefully the big guys can fix this problem," he said of the high unemployment rate and the negative image it creates of the city.

The teacher

Maya Davis, a fourth-grade teacher at Gracey Elementary School, said the school and neighborhood have a sense of "community" about it.

"I think the people in South Merced, (like) the parents, know each other. Whether it's an apartment complex or a neighborhood they've been in for a while, they also know each other's children," the 33-year-old said.

She said working in South Merced showed her that the kids really wanted to learn.

"Whether their parents can help them in that or not, their parents still want something better for them," said Davis, who has worked at the school for six years.

She recalled that one UC Merced student, who had been her student when she was teaching at Cruick-shank Middle School, invited her to the college's graduation last year. The girl went on to an accelerated master's degree program at UCLA, Davis recalled.

"Just to know the effect I've had on one person is a big difference. That's kind of what keeps me going," Davis said.

The former gang member

That same idea of wanting to help and give back to the community is what made Sam Rangel form the Distinguished Outreach Services in 2004.

A gang intervention specialist who has spent the majority of his 39 years living in South Merced, Rangel became a gang member at a young age. He recalled how his entire family was involved in gangs.

Rangel got out of gangs at 25 after developing a drug addiction, because he wanted a better life for himself.

"Being in gangs is a lot like being addicted to drugs," Rangel said.

The organization, which he co-founded with Rachelle Abril, provides education and outreach to South Merced residents. It also aims to help them deal with a wide variety of problems, from making home improvements to resolving child care issues.

The organization is funded by Building Healthy Communities, as part of a 10-year initiative to improve the quality of life in some of the most underserved communities in California.

Rangel's work involves going door to door in South Merced and asking people what they need. He then tracks down nonprofits and other organizations around town to help, and brings everyone together in a community block party to discuss how to solve those problems, he said.

Rangel sees "strength" in South Merced. There is a solid foundation in the community, he said, but it needs to be reinforced and built upon with more programs and services.

"I think of people who have endured and have been surrounded by everything that could keep them down, but somehow managed to keep their community afloat," Rangel said. "I don't look at South Merced as weak."

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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