EL MODENA — Although they do it glaring at one another, members of the Pearl Street and Varrio Modena Locos gangs file into the El Modena Community Center once a month to air their differences in summit meetings that often become tense but never violent.
A year ago, differences between the bitter rivals would have been settled with fists or gunfire. But since June--when the center was declared neutral turf by the two gangs--discussion has replaced drive-bys.
The cooperation between the two gangs surprised many residents in this small community. Randall Contreras, 34, a former member of VML who volunteers at the center, said it was just a matter of finding a place both sides could call home.
"It's this center, it's the focal point," Contreras said. "This was the vehicle we used to get these rivals to meet. We didn't get them together necessarily, but we got them to work out a truce."
The center, a brightly painted building that has remained immune to graffiti that once blighted the area, opened in February and has quickly become a local magnet.
The often fearsome looking members of either gang can use the facility's basketball court, weight room and pool table without fear of turf disputes. Young adults attend free language classes, and more than 50 senior citizens meet here daily for hot meals and warm conversation.
The center's director, Ernesto Vallejos, said the facility has become far more than a building to the residents of the often-troubled community.
"When they get old and need food, this is where they can come for comfort," Vallejos said. "When the young man who runs away from home thinks the whole world is against him, he can come here for comfort. This place is where it all comes together."
Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Randy Hoag, who has patrolled El Modena for two years, said the gang violence that once beset the neighborhood has evaporated in the months since Pearl Street and VML forged their peace.
"Violent incidents are definitely down, and I think the center certainly had a pretty good play in that," Hoag said. "Crime has dropped quite a bit, and we certainly think we played a role in that too, but the center had a strong impact."
Alex (Smiley) Rivas, 18, one of the Pearl Street gang's unofficial leaders, summed up the street situation: "Everybody's just kicking back; things have cooled down a lot," he said.
"Everybody knows it's better to be here, playing pool or whatever, than it is to be out on the street where you get in trouble," Rivas said. "Sometimes, you know, you're not looking for trouble or anything, but if you're just hanging out on the street, it can find you. Being here's a lot better, believe me."
The staff had more than street rivalries to overcome when it opened the center's doors in February. The building had been in limited use as a community center providing social services to the poor, but it had shut down last November amid allegations of mismanagement.
Previous on-site managers were accused of stealing center property and of misappropriating funds intended for the community, prompting the Orange County Board of Supervisors to evict them from the county-owned facility, according to Dhongchai Pusavat, county housing and redevelopment director.
"The people that were there destroyed the center, and they blamed us here at the county. So to many people, I was the big, bad wolf," said Pusavat, who now is warmly greeted by El Modena residents pleased by the center's resurrection. "That was a very dark time for me. My hands were tied."
The center stood "as empty as a desert" until Pusavat assembled a new staff and broadened the center's mission, Vallejos said. Besides a fresh coat of paint, Pusavat managed to get a pool table for the center from the county Probation Department's warehouse for unused items.
While the pool table and a donated weight set were enough to entice neighborhood teens into the center, Vallejos said the rest of the community was still wary of the staff's intentions.
"The neighborhood people had a real bad experience with the center before, so we had to build trust and earn their respect," Vallejos said. "I think we have done that."
Part of the reason for that trust is the earnest and dedicated attitudes of the volunteers who work at the center, Vallejos said. Local people like Christina Canul and John Marques performed tasks as varied as clerical duties, helping youngsters study for driver's license tests and serving warm soup to needy day laborers.
"This place is a beautiful thing, and when there are so many examples of things going wrong all around us, it makes it even more beautiful," said Marques, who has built a strong rapport with the teen boys, reaching the sensitive sides initially hidden by their swagger. "I've only been here three months, but when I drive in here it feels like I'm driving into my home.
"The way people have responded to what we're doing, well, I just love to be here," Marques said.
Lifting weights while his boisterous comrades caroused and played pool, bare-chested Pearl Street member Sergio Ocampo, 20, lauded the center's impact. He said Vallejos and his staff reach out to the often-troubled youth, help them find jobs and provide a pressure-free environment away from the streets.
"It's cool because it's a place where we're treated like people and we can be together and have fun," Ocampo said, brushing sweat off his tattooed arms. "It's a place to go where we don't have to look over our shoulders. And we don't have to worry anymore about which friend's funeral we'll be going to next."