Group hopes neighbor-driven push delivers brighter results for Modesto airport neighborhood

Last of two parts.

On a recent Thursday evening, Ana Agredano's son went outside to take out the garbage, then came running back in, saying he had heard gunshots. Agredano thought he was mistaken. But the 5-year-old was correct. A police officer was shooting at a man who had rammed his pickup into the patrol car.

Agredano has lived in the airport neighborhood for 10 years. She loves the people there, especially the other mothers she volunteers with at Orville Wright School.

But she follows certain rules to protect herself and her family. When her son, Bryan, and his 8-year-old sister, Melanie, play outside, it's behind a locked gate. They've heard gunshots too often.

In this neighborhood, when moms such as Ana walk their children to school, they share street space with rough-looking men in black hoodies pedaling slowly on dirt bikes. Sometimes a leashless pit bull will be trotting alongside.

On the school marquee, next to the announcement about the upcoming open house, the Police Department's gang hot line number is posted.

Agredano takes her husband with her almost everywhere, even to Bryan's baseball games. She doesn't leave the house after dark.

She's tired of feeling that way. That's one of the reasons she joined a new group of residents working with community organizers to improve the neighborhood. "I wanted to be part of that change, to do something positive," she said in Spanish.

Helping her make that change is Janet Nunez, the Healthy Start coordinator at Orville Wright.

They're forming a collaborative that they hope will unite residents, government, nonprofits and other resources, and direct them toward improving the area.

Nunez says people such as Ana Agredano are "hidden leaders" who could help lift the airport neighborhood.

Brings back memories

Nunez, 27, sees a little of herself in the kids who attend Orville Wright. The child of immigrant parents with little education, Nunez grew up in Riverbank and graduated from California State University, Stanislaus. She says she succeeded because she was raised in a safe environment.

"I feel that the kids in the airport have the right to have those same positive memories," Nunez said.

Some students at Orville Wright have never been to the movies or Applebee's, she said. What inspires Nunez is that they're OK with it. "They don't ask for much," Nunez said. "But I want them to know they deserve more."

Nunez and her fellow organizers started reaching out to the community in the fall. First they held a soccer tournament at George A. Rogers Park. Then at Christmas they held a traditional Mexican posada, or Nativity scene. The events help neighbors -- some of whom spend most of their day behind locked gates -- get to know each other.

In February, the group invited government and nonprofit leaders to talk about forming an airport neighborhood collaborative. Sheriff Adam Christianson and Stanislaus County Supervisor Dick Monteith were among the attendees. The meeting revealed a disconnect between government officials and people on the ground in the airport neighborhood.

Officials said they couldn't help the neighborhood unless residents organized themselves. A resident said he was ready to work with city and county officials, but he didn't know who to call.

A member of CommonWealth Modesto, a group of young professionals that works to solve community problems, suggested forming an e-mail list so the group could communicate without meeting in person. But many airport families don't have computers or Internet access.

Some are in the country illegally, which makes them reluctant to get involved in government, Nunez said.

At the February meeting, Mike Moradian, who organized La Loma residents into a powerful neighborhood group, suggested finding out what residents' priorities are. "If they're worried about crime, then we probably shouldn't be planting trees," he said.

Nunez responded that officials have visited the neighborhood before to survey residents on their wants and needs. Residents attended meetings, listed their priorities, but nothing ever changed, she said.

"They feel like the leaders they tried to trust before let them down," Nunez told the group.

Neighbors in charge

That's why this new improvement effort has to come from the ground up, with residents driving the agenda, said Nunez and her co-organizers. She said outsiders sometimes assume that residents are apathetic.

To her, the opposite is true. Parents at Orville Wright give Nunez their cell phone numbers so they can stay on top of what's happening at the school.

Since the February meeting, Nunez and other organizers have been meeting with residents to have "charlas comunitarias," or community chats.

Seven people showed up at the first one, in March.

At the next, in April, 40 came.

Organizer Karlha Arias, of the Tuolumne River Trust, says that turnout speaks volumes.

"The outside community doesn't understand that they live in a war zone," Arias said. "It's powerful to think that 40 residents came out to our last meeting despite that."

The problems residents say they want to solve include blight, lack of streetlights, lack of supermarkets and sidewalks, and loose dogs. They're interested in having a community center or a recreation center for young people.

This isn't the first time someone has had a vision of empowered residents building a safe, clean airport neighborhood full of thriving children.

But organizers say this time is different. There are new tools at their disposal.

One is a beefed-up political voice.

In Modesto's first district election in the fall, voters chose Joe Muratore to represent District 4, which includes the La Loma and airport neighborhoods.

Nunez and other organizers credit him with showing up at a collaborative meeting, instead of asking them to schedule an appointment with him. They say he's showed follow-through, urging city staff to do monthly sweeps for loose dogs.

The group is getting a boost from CommonWealth, which has taken on community development in the airport and elsewhere as one of its goals.

While some of CommonWealth's ideas may seem a little tone deaf -- one member suggested that the airport neighborhood rename itself the "River District" -- the group's members have successfully organized other neighborhoods. They also have the ear of decision-makers at City Hall.

New boost from city

Another asset on the group's side is Hugo Ramirez, a new city employee charged with supervising a revitalization strategy for the airport neighborhood. Born and raised in Modesto, Ramirez has a background in community organizing.

The City Council approved the neighborhood revitalization strategy in 2006, but little progress has been made.

Ramirez says that's changed. Now the city is "putting its money where its mouth is" and making concrete investments in the airport neighborhood.

"Public policy takes time and it takes planning," Ramirez said. "Now, there's a lot of movement from the city and county, from nonprofits, from community organizations. We've just reached that critical mass, and that's really exciting."

Ramirez may be right about the changes on the horizon, but Ana Agredano and her family won't be there to see them. They are moving to Waterford because Agredano thinks it's a safer place to raise her children.

Her 8-year-old daughter has been crying because she doesn't want to leave her friends. But her 5-year-old son told her he's glad to move, because there's "too many bad people."

"He doesn't want to be here because of all the things he's seen and heard," she said.

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