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Block party a symbol of change for people on Edwards Avenue

Edwards Avenue held a block party Tuesday night, its residents celebrating a new way of life and bidding good riddance to dangerous drugs and crime.

Officially titled the "Edwards Avenue Nightmare Before Halloween Block Party," the 90-minute event in the Church of Christ parking lot at Yosemite Park Way and Edwards Avenue was hosted by the Merced County Sheriff's Department and Merced Police Department.

Of course that meant hot dogs, chips and punch for the block-long neighborhood's youngsters and their parents, along with McGruff the Crime Dog, a Merced County Fire Department truck with lights flashing and siren blaring, fingerprinting, replica fireman's hats and a Halloween costume contest.

But the bigger meaning was the short street that was the scene of a deadly confrontation between a police sergeant and a drug suspect on Aug. 30, 2006 is more tranquil now, thanks to Neighborhood Watch, the Safe Streets Act and vigilant residents fed up with drug trafficking on their central Merced street.

"A neighborhood goes bad gradually and it's gotta get well gradually. It (neighborhood) is better now, quieter. You take it back one house at a time," Don Borders, perhaps Edwards Avenue's longest tenant and the block's first Neighborhood Watch captain.

Edwards bought his two-bedroom house on Edwards, a dead-end street, in 1974. Up until recently he noticed there was frequent car and foot traffic back and forth to houses where illegal drugs were used and sold.

Allison Villegas is president of the block's Neighborhood Watch group now. There are about 20 people who meet the first Tuesday of the month from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Church of Christ to discuss the neighborhood's safety.

"How nice is this? It's a big difference in the neighborhood. This is a culmination of what happens when a neighborhood gets together. Change can happen," Villegas said.

The church and an apartment complex are in the Merced city limits. The street has 14 homes and three multi-family dwellings, approximately 26 living units. In a triplex at the dead end of the street, drug suspect Dean Tully Wright, 36, died that August afternoon in a hail of gunfire and Merced Police Department Sgt. Curt Gorman was slightly wounded when a bullet hit his bulletproof vest.

"This is a big turnaround from a year ago. I don't think our officers are coming here anything like they were. There's a feeling of being safe here," Lt. Matt Williams said.

Borders said his dogs no longer bark in the middle of the night and wake him up from hearing intruders. He said some of the drug users on the block were "just brazen" and he found his car and house egged.

"They get by with it because good people allow it. It's ongoing; you can't let up," Borders said.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said he is happy the sheriff's office can be part of the neighborhood celebration.

Borders' next-door neighbor, Luis Valencia, has lived on the block 14 years. He said everybody is watching out for each other now and things are much better in his neighborhood.

Michael Villegas said Wednesday night's block party was a good icebreaker. The increased awareness and neighbors working together are what it's all about, he added.

Monty Tomlinson, Sal Salcido and Albino Salcedo all live in the Celeste area, on Highway 140 just east of the Bradley Overhead. They attended the Edwards block party for two reasons, to see about setting up a Neighborhood Watch group in their area and gather support for their protest of plans for a proposed homeless shelter near Highway 140 and Easy Street just east of Merced.

Tomlinson said 99.9 percent of the people in his area have signed a petition to stop construction of the homeless shelter.

"We got our area cleaned up and want to keep it that way. Between 1995 and 2000 there was a lot of drug business and we finally got rid of it," Tomlinson said.

Salcedo said if the homeless shelter is built, it will make his area the "gateway to the dump" rather than the official slogan of "Gateway to Yosemite."

Kelly Roseman, a city code enforcement specialist, said the Edwards neighborhood is greatly improved now. The duplex that was the scene of the shooting has been redone and families have moved in there. A chain-link fence now separates the BNSF Railway tracks from Edwards Avenue, said her husband, Sgt. Paul Roseman of the sheriff's department.

Sergeant Roseman said the block party was a good idea and the Neighborhood Watch concept is starting to spread to the Kibby Road and Celeste areas. He said deputies Brian Miller and Joe Cardenas, school resource officers in Winton and Delhi respectively, conduct periodic cookouts in neighborhoods so officers and residents can get acquainted.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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