One year ago, a group of Southeast San Diego residents, many of them senior citizens in wheelchairs or leaning on canes, stood eye-to-eye with neighborhood hoodlums and drug dealers and told them they would simply have to find another place to do business.
That ultimatum has since transformed their once-rowdy street into a relatively crime-free oasis in one of San Diego's toughest neighborhoods.
"It is the most courageous gesture I've seen," said San Diego Police Officer Ali Hassan, who runs the department's police-community relations office. "They did what we alone were unable to do."
Without guns or badges, the residents along the 300 and 400 blocks of Milbrae Street have helped significantly reduce the number of loiterers and drug dealers who used to park two and three cars deep, partying every day until sunrise.
The residents have become a legend of sorts in the Southeast community, and police say their efforts form one of the most successful community watch groups in the city.
Today, the residents along Milbrae are out on any given day sitting on their porches or tending to well-manicured lawns, a stark contrast to just a year ago when many of them said they were afraid to venture from their homes. They wave hello as police cars cruise up and down the street at regular intervals.
"I know they can't camp out here all day, every day," Belee Gilbert, a Milbrae Street resident, said about the police. "I'm just thankful for what they can do."
For Gilbert and his wife, Clara, the stretch of Milbrae Street is beginning to resemble the quiet neighborhood they knew when they bought their home in 1955.
"When I first moved in here it was so quiet you'd get lonesome in the daytime," Gilbert said. "We were more afraid of the police than we were of criminals."
Gilbert, other residents and even the police admit that mutual suspicion existed between officers and the community 20 years ago. But slowly the horrors of street crime replaced residents' fear of police brutality, spawning a cooperative relationship with the police.
By the late 1970s, a series of card houses had opened along Ocean View Boulevard, attracting a steady stream of traffic down quiet residential streets. Before long, Milbrae was glutted with cars, loiterers and open drug dealing.
In 1984, when residents delivered their ultimatum, the violent crime rate in the area was about four times that of the city average, police statistics show. The rate of violent crimes--murders, rapes, assaults, armed robberies--was 27.32 per 1,000 people, compared to the citywide rate of 6.11.
"The neighborhood became an exchange point for dope pushers and junkies from all over town," said community activist Debbie Daniels.
Daniels recalled a time when her 3-year-old daughter walked into the family's house, located right off Milbrae, carrying a hypodermic syringe and needle she had found in the garden. The syringe was filled with drugs.
Daniels and police say they believe a drug dealer used her garden as a delivery point for the syringe.
Drug dealers and their customers "were coming in from all over the city and disgracing our neighborhood," said 69-year-old Francena Collier, who also lives on Milbrae.
"They'd get to partying and stay out there until the sun came up, and then they would go home to their own neighborhoods," she said.
But by 2 p.m., the party would start all over again, complete with loud music, drugs and booze. The unwelcome guests would trickle into the neighborhood, sitting on the retaining walls along the front lawns on Milbrae Street, nursing their recent purchases from a nearby liquor store.
Collier said she felt like a prisoner in her own neighborhood.
She made sure her family traveled in groups to make them less vulnerable to attack. She trimmed her shrubs to eliminate the popular hiding place for drug dealers fleeing from police. In less than a year, her home was broken into twice and her car was stolen from her front yard.
Collier's neighbors tell similar stories--sitting up until dawn, afraid to fall asleep while dope pushers and gang members gathered freely in front yards. Children weren't allowed to play outside after 2 p.m. for fear they would become friendly with the street gangs who frequented the Milbrae corridor.
The cycle continued for years until the residents, fed up and frustrated, formed their neighborhood watch group and closed the party down for good.
"It got to where you just couldn't take it any more," said Texana Flowers, a Milbrae Street resident.
Led by Daniels and a group of senior citizens, residents from Milbrae and 37th streets marched through the neighborhood last summer with police officers and City Councilman William Jones to chase the loiterers back to their own neighborhoods.
Residents who had spent years cowering in their living rooms started talking tough. The loiterers who crowded their streets started to listen.
Neighbors started venturing out into their yards and onto their porches.