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Tina Cardenas has made it her personal mission to push for safer streets in her West Ninth Street neighborhood, a central Santa Rosa enclave that has struggled with waves of gang violence for more than 20 years.

But curtailing crime isn't easy when many residents fear retribution if they report gang activity. Previous neighborhood meetings about the problem have drawn just a handful of people.

So Cardenas was encouraged when about 30 residents, mainly Latino mothers with kids in tow, packed Lincoln Elementary school Thursday night for a community meeting on the issue.

One organizer called the turnout unprecedented.

The gathering — put together by the Santa Rosa Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force as a response to a recent surge in gang violence in the area — marked what many of those present said could be a pivotal point for the neighborhood in its fight against gangs. It's part of a sustained effort by the task force, law enforcement and local leaders to gain the trust of westside residents.

Law enforcement, in particular, sees that trust as perhaps the greatest bulwark against the growth of gang activity. The hope is to support neighborhoods so that they don't produce gang members in the first place, officials said.

"You can have the best seeds," said, Khaalid Muttaqi, who was hired last year to lead the city's gang task force. "But if you plant them on concrete, they will never produce good fruit."

The task force, launched by the City of Santa Rosa in 2003, is made up of dozens of leaders from law enforcement, city and county government and the community at large.

Before Thursday's meeting, the neighborhood appeared peaceful. Along West Ninth Street, men worked on cars in their driveways, young children rolled by on bikes, and mothers pushed strollers down the sidewalk. At Jacobs Park, a man in a cowboy hat sold snacks as a large group played volleyball. But what appeared a friendly community gathering spot can be dangerous at night, said Cardenas.

Inside the nearby Lincoln Elementary, residents gathered to talk about how the park, the school and the streets could be kept safer.

Resident Cynthia Sandobal, 19, who showed up with her mother, recalled playing outside on Simpson Place one day when she was about 9. "All of a sudden, there were screams, men with machetes running by," she said. "Since then, I never played outside." Sandobal, who now attends SRJC and still lives with her family on Simpson Place, said she was excited about the meeting.

"I hope parents inform themselves, talk to their kids, pay attention to them," she said.

The recent spike in violence included a Jan. 5 assault on four people who police said made a wrong turn into the neighborhood and were attacked by as many as 20 sure?s.

The assault followed other recent incidents, including a stabbing that sent a father and son to the hospital; reports of gunshots; and the intimidation of residents.

Police responded in a large sweep of the area, arresting five men and three teenage boys, all on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and gang enhancements.

While such crackdowns may be necessary in the short-term, the long-term goal is to reduce problems that require the heavy hand of law enforcement.

The push is one of many efforts over the years to stem gang violence in the neighborhood, particularly along a residential stretch of West Ninth Street, Rockwell Place and Simpson Place. The city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program is active in the area, with an outreach specialist, Rafael Rivero, coordinating events and educating residents.

A group of home owners, the Lincoln Manner Association, has long worked with police, businesses and service groups to erase graffiti, pick up trash and rebuild playgrounds. And after a spike of shootings in the mid-1990s, neighbors fed up by the violence teamed up with social services workers and local merchants to clean up the railroad tracks and watch for crimes. At the time,the city proclaimed the area reborn and violence subsided considerably. But in the mid-2000s, another spate of shootings sent fear through the community.

Following that, the police and community "took back the neighborhood," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Eric Goldschlag said. Since then, reported crime and calls for service in the area declined significantly as a result of neighborhood-oriented policing efforts and gang prevention programs being offered at local schools, Goldschlag said.

Despite those efforts, a sure? street gang maintained a presence in the area and was this winter responsible for a surge of violence. Police investigated the crimes, leading to a series of arrests Jan. 16.

"Even when we had the gang investigation going on," Goldschlag said, "we were working with the gang prevention task force. We want to continue to work with the community now that we did the gang sweep."

Police have long worked to build trust and engagement in the West Ninth neighborhood, Goldschlag said, but over the years many of the people they worked with have moved away. In addition, he said, "Some are fearful that if they call 911, we'll either not respond or ask for their residency status," he said. "We don't do that. We want them to call us; we all want to work on this together."

Sweeps like the one in January often cause gang activity to quiet down for a while, Muttaqi said, creating a window of opportunity to work with the community. "People start feeling safer," he said. "It gives us this opportunity to work on neighborhood-building."

At Thursday's meeting, Cardenas, a Simpson Place resident and mother of two young men, stood up and encouraged residents to be proactive. "If we see things going on at night, don't be afraid to address the police department," she urged the crowd. "By working together, we can reduce youth violence."

Karen Eaton, whose house had been burglarized recently, said she wanted to start a neighborhood watch and encouraged people to call her.

Detective Jon Crespan, who patrolled the area as an officer and now works on the department's gang crimes team, asked residents to reach out.

"This neighborhood is up against a culture of gang violence for over 25 years, but with cooperation from neighbors, hopefully we'll be able to slow that down," he said.

Todd Wenderoth, longtime president of the Lincoln Manner Association, which represents 429 homeowners, talked about the work the group has done over the years to prevent crime and beautify the neighborhood.

"In the past year, we've seen our work go downhill with the recent violence," he said. "I'm just ecstatic that the community, the city is coming forward. I'm tired of the stigma of West Ninth being a violent place."

Cardenas said she was encouraged all the "important people" who showed up to offer programs and services on Thursday. She is already thinking ahead to the next community meeting, which will likely take place one month from now, and hoping more neighbors will attend. Her neighborhood recruitment tool? Baking.

"With cupcakes," she said, "maybe people will come."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.)