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Southside Park: The city cuts the grass, gangs own the turf

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POSTED August 26, 2013 12:20 a.m.

Southside is unlike any other city park.

Actually, you can argue at times that it isn’t a city park.

The city cuts the grass but the turf belongs to the gangs.

If you doubt that go to the park that’s just a skip and a holler or two away from Manteca’s gleaming $7 million transit station.

Pull up to the curb to take your kids to use the playground equipment and the odds are at least a dozen or so eyes will be on you. Usually they come from a gathering around picnic tables. Some time they are on the far side of the park. Don’t feel like you’re being singled out. Those who live within easy walking distance — even right across the street from the park — feel unwelcome as well.

They do not use the park most of the time. When they do, it’s primarily when they don’t have to feel as if they have to grab their kids and flee on a moment’s notice. That’s when the gangs aren’t there.

Talk to some of the neighbors. Most won’t give you their name. But they all talk of marijuana, drug use, fights, and their fear of becoming a victim of gang violence at the park. Is Southside Park a cesspool? Not exactly. The fears are magnified. Even so it doesn’t take away from the fact their perspective is based in reality. They do not have a high comfort level using their own neighborhood park.

If what happens at Southside Park happened virtually anywhere else in Manteca folks would be a hundred deep at City Council meetings demanding something be done.

The Southside neighborhood is comprised primarily of the working poor, hardworking immigrants — legal and otherwise — the elderly, and those with limited English language skills. That has created a perfect condition for gangs to get the upper hand.

Actually, it is not as bad as it once was. Manteca Police six years ago in a concerted effort with other agencies such as building inspectors, heath department, and outside law enforcement made sweeps through the neighborhood. They teamed up with community groups including several churches that had no direct ties to the neighborhood and started to turn things round.

Drive-by shooting that occurred every other day became rarer and rarer.

The city held a National Night Out community party at Southside. It brought people from throughout Manteca as well as the neighborhood together.

Part of what put the effort into motion was a young working single mom who came to a council meeting shortly after the city spent $120,000 on playground and picnic table improvements at Southside Park. She complained that the city improvements stood unused because she and others were afraid to either take or let their children play at Southside Park that sits just three blocks from downtown.

The city heard her.

All of that effort, though, went to the wayside because the city for a variety of reasons opted not to do the tough job of establishing a permanent community beachhead in Southside. There was talk at the time of buying the old Carpenter’s Hall that backed up to the park and turning it into a community center where nonprofit groups could set up everything from recreation  programs to tutoring efforts to counter the influence of gangs.

Instead, it was considered too time consuming and too expensive.

Manteca Police do a Herculean job of serving and protecting not just Southside but the city as a whole. But they can’t do it alone.

A neighborhood community center with ongoing programs is just one solution that was brought up six years ago and then dropped. The other was surveillance cameras.

When the skate park first opened there was a rash of uncivilized behavior involving young thugs pulling knives. The city — in its bid to get rid of a political hot potato — located the skate park in one of the most inaccessible spots in Manteca. So they installed one surveillance camera that is monitored at the police dispatch center. The problems went down to almost nothing virtually overnight.

The city had secured federal funds to install surveillance cameras at Southside and nearby Library Park.

The idea was that police could see things in real time at the dispatch center or as they are responding to a 9-1-1 call at Southside Park involving criminal activity. And since it was obvious the city can’t afford to have someone monitor live feeds 24/7, what the cameras captured could be retrieved after a crime occurs to go after the responsible party. In the long run, that would reduce criminal activity by getting the criminals off the streets.

The city, though, in their research found the state regards the recording of images in such a manner as public documents. As such, they had to be kept in storage for at least a year. The cost of computer storage and management prompted them to pull the plug on the cameras. No one on the council suggested ignoring the state and moving ahead and take a calculated risk ticking off Sacramento was worth the improvement in neighborhood safety. They simply dropped the surveillance project and used the federal funds for something else.

Meanwhile, the city secured $7 million in federal funds to build a transit station complete with a state-of-the-art community room to rent out. The project also includes almost three dozen security cameras.

Four blocks away in the poorest part of Manteca the city hasn’t figured a way to get one surveillance camera installed or even bothered to seriously pursue options such as a neighborhood community center so law-abiding families don’t have to fear using a city park.

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