It was approaching 8 p.m. when the bushes in front of a poorly lit apartment building on Aleric Street in Oxnard began to rustle. In a flash, the spotlight of a passing squad car froze a fleeing figure.
Oxnard Police Officer Jim Struck drew his breath in relief and amazement. "It's a kid," he gasped.
On a thoroughfare notorious for illegal activities from dumping garbage to buying sex and drugs, children have been less common after dark than dope dealers, prostitutes and pimps. In fact, residents say they never saw children in the neighborhood even during the day.
Now, after two months of increased police surveillance in South Oxnard, "parents feel it's safer," said Struck, who coordinates police beats there. So children now play outdoors after dark in the 131-acre Southwinds neighborhood that is bordered by the Ventura County Flood Control Channel on the west, Pleasant Valley Road on the north, Saviers Road on the east and Hueneme Road on the south.
City officials hope that measures adopted Tuesday by Oxnard's City Council will make the widely known prostitution and drug trafficking hub even more hospitable for residents.
Council Embraces Plan
City Council members unanimously adopted a plan to maintain increased police protection and stepped-up waste disposal and inspections for building code violations. The plan, drafted by a task force of officials from six city departments, also promises daily visits by a city refuse inspector, publicity about housing rehabilitation loans a1852055649Southwinds Park on Clara and Aleric streets.
City officials stress that the steps are only interim measures designed to stem the neighborhood's deterioration until Oxnard can launch an ambitious redevelopment plan that has been stymied for two years by a funding dispute with the county.
They also called for staff reports on increasing police foot patrols and beefing up building codes so that dilapidated apartments could not pass from one slumlord to another without being upgraded.
"You turn on the lights," Aleric Street landlord Dennis Waldman told City Council members, "and the cockroaches run away."
Eventually, Southwinds' Neighborhood Council hopes to change the name of the street altogether in an effort to thwart what Struck refers to as "the criminal element."
"People come from all over the county to Aleric Street," he explains. "What if they can't find it? What if they see kids playing on lawns, houses nicely painted and lawns well kept? They'll think they're in the wrong place and go elsewhere."
"The goal," he said, "is to make this a neighborhood just like any other."
And so it would appear to be. At first blush, Southwinds could be mistaken for any Southern California beach community. The shores of Ormond Beach lie less than a mile away. Cars jostle for precious street parking. Shallow lawns lead to boxy, stucco apartment buildings dating to the early 1960s.
On closer inspection, however, the neighborhood that city officials consider blighted becomes a study in dubious distinctions.
A 1983 report by the Oxnard Planning Commission called it "one of the least desirable areas of the city." It claims the highest population density in the city--49.3 people per acre, as well as the lowest number of single-family dwellings. For the last few years, police say, the neighborhood has been the most dangerous in the city.
"Block by block," said Oxnard Police Sgt. Jamie Skeeters, commander of a seven-member field tactical unit that has been patrolling the area four days a week, "we have more problems in that area than in any other area in the city."
Beer cans litter the lawns. Many of the cars turn out to be abandoned. Fraying blankets take the place of drapery on big picture windows. Steel grates cover doorways. And a foul odor emanates from beachfront sewage treatment and industrial plants.
In the alley that runs between Aleric Street and Hueneme Road, abandoned sofas and appliances lay next to brimming and haphazardly strewn dumpsters. Men drink beer in carports, stamping empty cans with their heels. And in the laundry room of an Aleric Street apartment building, human excrement lies in one corner and a popped balloon in another.
"Heroin packaging," Struck explained. "Hookers do tricks in here, and you usually find hypodermic needles and matches" from drug injections.
On Aleric Street, drugs are so readily available, said apartment manager James M. Cassidy, that "dealers stop in the middle of the street, whistle and wave." Mothers complain that their children are approached by prostitutes. Older people say they are afraid to walk to their cars. Homeowners fear for their investments.
Maureen Finlay was a single parent struggling to make ends meet when she managed to buy a four-bedroom tract home half of a block north of Aleric Street 16 years ago. The scrimping and saving, she figured, would pay off because she eventually would be able to move into smaller living quarters and live off the profit. Now she has her doubts.