Modesto's National Night Out: Fun for some but fear keeps others inside

Hundreds of neighborhood parties brought Modesto residents together Tuesday for an evening of fun, food and empowerment as part of National Night Out.

The annual effort is designed to reduce crime and strengthen communities in the San Joaquin Valley and across the nation as residents gather for block parties, ice cream socials, and visits from police and representatives of other public safety agencies.

But there were other neighborhoods in the city that remained quiet, with residents not trusting each other and filled with dread of the crime and violence that haunts their streets.

The Bee visited four neighborhoods and spoke with residents about crime and their neighborhoods.

Louisa Avanti, 63, stood in front of her southwest Modesto home Tuesday afternoon wondering why National Night Out wasn't coming to her neighborhood. She's lived on Modoc Avenue for about five years, and she said the area is filled with violence and crime.

"I wish we had a Neighborhood Watch group," Avanti said. "None of the neighbors here really want to get involved. And I don't blame them; they're just too afraid to come out."

In February, Avanti called 911 to report a shooting on her street that killed a teenage boy and seriously injured two teenage girls.

Avanti tended to the teens before authorities arrived. She said most of her neighbors stayed locked inside their houses, too afraid to come out.

Across the street sits a vacant home that's been gutted by fire and is used as a hangout for gangs and drug addicts, residents said. Modoc sits within a gang injunction zone, where some gang members have a curfew, can't wear gang colors and must follow other restrictions.

Pamela Love, 62, said she has lived on Modoc Avenue for 34 years and never has heard of anyone starting a Neighborhood Watch group or planning a National Night Out event.

"I have two or three neighbors that I talk to, and some of them I don't even know," Love said. "It's terrible; the gang stuff. It's the violence."

When asked if her neighbors could work together to reduce crime, she said "not really because a lot of them don't get along with each other."

There was a lot more hope in west Modesto's Marshall Park on Tuesday evening. The park is in the heart of the Weed and Seed area, a federally funded program designed to fight poverty and blight and to reduce crime.

Hundreds of people gathered at the park for the first National Night Out event there. Bands kept residents entertained as they munched on grilled hot dogs and chicken.

Martin Cornejo, 41, has lived in west Modesto for 10 years, yet this was the first time he attended a National Night Out event. He said he and neighbors have to change their attitude toward law enforcement.

"I think this is good, so we're not so isolated from one another," Cornejo said in Spanish. "Crime happens here, and the people just pretend like they don't see anything. We see things happen and we just stay quiet."

Some residents and their children visited information booths, learning about community services and public safety agencies.

Deputy Ross Bays spent part of the evening showing children the equipment he uses as a member of the Stanislaus County sheriff's Special Weapons and Tactics team.

Bays said he was happy to speak to children in a much different setting than when he is on patrol or serving a search warrant at a home.

"A lot of kids don't have any idea what this is," Bays said, pointing at the black, armored SWAT truck. "They think we're the Army."

Burgers and Ballpark franks sizzled on the grill in a shady section of Notre Dame and Trinity avenues. In this older neighborhood near Modesto Junior College, National Night Out is less about crime prevention and more about getting to know neighbors, said organizer Paul Neumann.

For the neighborhood's fifth Night Out, he and neighbor Gordon Preston blocked off the street with orange and white traffic barriers. Pres-ton posted an American flag at one end of the block for a festive touch. Inside a neat circle of folding chairs, a flowered cloth covered a table set with homemade salads and chocolate chip cookies. White wine chilled on ice while neighbors talked about a trip to Norway.

Neumann said the neighborhood, full of older, well-kept houses, doesn't see a lot of crime. There are some burglaries, but generally the area is calm and quiet.

"We were talking earlier (about crime), nobody seemed to have a complaint," said Joan Goldsmith. There have been problems with a barking dog recently, she said. Someone tried to break into her house when she and her husband were out of town once, but a burglar alarm scared them off, Goldsmith said. She said her neighbors and the police responded immediately.

Like many of her neighbors, she's lived in the area for decades. "This is a wonderful neighborhood, but it takes work," said Neumann, a former Modesto City Schools trustee. "You have to put together things like this." Four miles to the south, Marina Rocha, 35, sat with a friend and three children eating Popeyes takeout in Robertson Road Park on Pelton Avenue and Hammond Street in southwest Modesto. There was no National Night Out planned there, but Rocha said the neighborhood could use it.

Cruz DeAnda, who's lived on Pelton Avenue for 11 years, said her next-door neighbor used to arrange National Night Out celebrations. But the man moved away after his house was foreclosed. "He used to tell people to keep an eye out for each other," DeAnda said.

Rocha said she moved here from Ceres in January and already wants to leave. She said she's seen adult gang members ask a 9-year-old boy which gang he belongs to.

A few feet from where she and her two children sat eating chicken, a woman was found shot to death in April. A week before that, a hostile crowd confronted a lone police officer outside a party on Pelton Avenue. Some in the crowd threw punches at the officer, police said, and the officer was forced to draw his weapon to keep the crowd at bay.

Residents said they know most of their neighbors and talk to them -- especially after trouble happens. People trade information, but they don't share it with the police, said a 14-year-old girl who lives near Robertson Road Park. They're too afraid gang members will retaliate against them, she said.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378.