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.