Neighbors say Jacobs Park gang shooting doesn’t reflect character of Santa Rosa neighborhood

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Isabel Lopez’s art class started the day after the wild shooting.

Lopez is the founder of Raizes Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to arts, culture and environmental education. The group is hosting free summer community art classes at Lincoln Elementary, next to Jacobs Park in west Santa Rosa, the site of a gang-related burst of gunfire Wednesday that injured four people, including an 11-year-old child.

Lopez didn’t know if anyone would show up for Thursday’s class after the violence, less than 24 hours before. But the class was packed.

“We had grandmas that came with their grandkids, we had adults that came to do art, we had parents that didn’t have anything for their kids to do for the summer,” she said. “We actually discussed the shooting. ... It was like a collective therapy session, almost.”

The consensus among community members, Lopez said, was that the violence was an atypical event that should not been seen as representative of the park or the wider West Ninth neighborhood.

“It’s really sad that an incident like that sometimes paints the community in a negative light like they’re all criminals,” she said.

Lopez grew up on West Ninth Street, a few blocks from the park. She never understood how or why it got a reputation as a dangerous area.

“I never came across any gang members, there wasn’t anything. I didn’t really see that violence that people sometimes talk about in the news,” she said. “I hear like ‘Oh, there’s a lot of gang activity,’ and I’m like ‘what?’ ”

Jacobs Park, on West Ninth between Link Lane and Simpson Place, opened in 1967, said Kelley Magnuson, city recreation and parks interim director. It expanded in 1970, adding a playground and extending the grass behind the school.

The origins of the name, however, remain a mystery.

“We don’t know how or why it was named Jacobs Park,” Magnuson said in an email.

The park and its surroundings have seen violence before, including a stabbing in September. In 2006, a teen was shot through the neck during a nighttime drive-by shooting near the park. Two years later, there were two shootings near the park. Gunfire in 2013 struck two apartments across from the park, though no one was injured.

Of 26 calls for police service in the past three years, only the stabbing and Wednesday’s shooting involved violence, police said. The rest mainly involved quality-of-life violations, including public urination and people drinking alcohol in the park. In the nine-month period between the stabbing in the fall and the shooting, police were only called to the park once, for a report of a suspicious vehicle.

The neighborhood has a bad reputation stemming from gang activity as far back as the 1980s, but in recent years it’s been calm, West Ninth resident Omar Valencia said. He called the shooting “an isolated incident.”

“I like this neighborhood. Some people are afraid of it, and other people always say, ‘Oh my God, West Ninth.’ But it’s not what it used to be,” Valencia said.

Pam Elliott, who raised her six kids less than a block from the park, said she has never felt unsafe in the neighborhood. She has lived in the same house since 1989, and serves as a board member of the Lincoln Manor Association, representing 429 townhomes west of the park.

“It’s very family oriented, and if you’re looking for a starter home, it’s a great starter home,” she said.

Elliott, like other area residents, noted a spike in violence in the early 2000s, and she witnessed a shooting once during that period. But she said crime never disrupted daily life, and she felt secure enough to let her kids walk alone to Santa Rosa High School.

“It’s very infrequent, it really is,” she said of violence in the area.

Teresa Aguilar, a 13-year resident of the neighborhood, said she was disappointed the shooting has led the Black Oaks Soccer Club to sever ties with the park.

Other than one occasion in which a burglar took a suitcase from her home while she slept about a decade ago, she had not encountered crime or problems while living there, she said.

The midweek gunfire would not deter her from bringing her son and grandchildren to the park, she said as she stood keeping a watchful eye on a group of kids.

“If the kids are here, it gives us a good look for our area,” Aguilar said. “This is our community. We need to be united. We can’t be scared.”

Until Wednesday, the park played host to the Black Oaks, a youth soccer club that held practices at Jacobs Park every weekday for about two hours and weekend games. After an 11-year-old soccer player with the club was shot along with a 46-year-old coach, the soccer club has no plans for returning, its president Francisco Vallejo said.

He is suspending practices and games for about 150 kids who practice there until a new field is found.

“(The shooting has) traumatized some of these kids,” Vallejo said. “Right now, we’re not coming back to Jacobs Park.”

The day after the shooting, the park was mostly empty, with only a few people out for an evening walk in place of the hundred-plus soccer players and spectators that normally gather on weeknights. But the Puerta Villa apartment complex across the street buzzed with activity, as dozens of children played basketball and climbed the playground equipment in the common area. Smaller groups of adults sat and chatted in the evening light.

Norma Hernandez, who has lived in Puerta Villa for over 20 years, said she often runs in the park for exercise and never has seen any crime or violence. People would occasionally break car windows at night on West Ninth, she said, but since security cameras were installed several years ago that doesn’t happen anymore. If gang members are seen in the area, she said, they’re not from the neighborhood around Jacobs Park.

“They come from other parts of town,” she said. “People think it’s really ugly, in the sense that there’s a lot of gangs or a lot of violence ... (but) here in this area, no,” she said.

In the case of Wednesday’s shooting, at least, Hernandez is correct: police arrested a 17-year-old suspect Thursday who they say fired the gun. His city of residence is Rohnert Park.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets

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