COSTA MESA — The teen-agers will be the first to admit it: Pride just doesn't come easily when you live on Shalimar Drive.
In this residential neighborhood on the industrial side of town, drug dealers unabashedly peddle their wares as children look on. Gang members swagger in the streets. Fights among rival gang members break out regularly, and gunshots punctuate the night.
"All we would see around here are problems: gangs, drugs. Every day," said Nadia Flores, whose quiet way makes her seem older than her 14 years. "We didn't know there could be other things in our lives, in our neighborhood. Good things."
Then came the Shalimar Teen Center. Even before it opened in February, the kids in the area knew it was going to be a special place. Their place. That's because they designed and developed it themselves, from the vintage burnt-orange couch--"OK, so it's pretty ugly," conceded one youth, "but, hey, it was free"--to the selection of magazines on the coffee table.
The three-bedroom apartment that houses the center was donated by St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church of Newport Beach, which budgeted about $25,000 to fund the center, its equipment and furnishings. To help raise the teen-agers' self-esteem, organizers--which include St. Andrew's, Women of Vision and the Orange County Congregation Community Organization--allowed them to create the center's layout and programs.
For the two dozen youths who use it Monday through Thursday, the center is a quiet place where they can come after school, hang out, study and shut the door on the gang members. Nothing fancy. Just the comforts of home that many don't have in their homes.
"Finally, we have something here to be proud of," said Cristina Espinoza, a 14-year-old with an ever-present smile. "And the best part is that we had a part in it."
But just outside the door, the potential for violence remains.
The neighborhood is anchored by Shalimar Drive, a two-block-long street, and includes James Court and Wallace Avenue. About 50 four-unit apartment buildings line those streets, and nearly 1,000 people live in the area.
At a recent neighborhood meeting at St. Joachim Church, parents and their children expressed fears about the increasing gang and drug activities. The problems were barely tolerable before, said those at the meeting. But because of two recent gang-related attacks, they are more fearful than ever.
On May 16, two teen-agers were wounded in a drive-by shooting while they were working on a car on Shalimar Drive, according to police. The next day, in what investigators believe was retaliation for the shooting, one car plowed into another and in an ensuing fight, a young man was clubbed with a hammer.
"Shalimar has required quite a bit of attention by the Police Department over several years," said Lt. Alan Kent, who supervises the policing of the city's west side. Kent cited drug sales, gangs and building code violations as the prevalent problems. There are no crime statistics available for the Shalimar neighborhood, police said.
"It's one of our target areas for selective enforcement to try to improve some of the conditions," Kent said.
To address the growing concerns, police, parents and community leaders earlier this year formed the Shalimar Task Force. Area teen-agers also participate.
"I guess that's why [the teen center] means so much to us," said Cristina one afternoon, settling into a fuzzy orange armchair in the color-coordinated living room. "Once we're in here, we don't feel like we're in danger. We don't feel like fear is controlling us. And we have other things to focus on."
Such as making better grades. With the help of volunteer tutors, many of the youths have brought home glowing report cards.
And getting jobs. "A lot of us have been earning good money," said Nadia, who now works after school at St. Andrew's day-care center.
Nadia and others have also seen their cultural horizons expanded.
"We went to a ballet last week," she said as she recalled a performance by the Royal Danish Ballet. "It wasn't great, but we had never been to a ballet before."
"What we have learned as more and more kids are using the center is that when you live on Shalimar every day of your life, you don't have goals, you don't have vision, you don't really believe that your life could be any different from what is offered on Shalimar," said Candy Gibeaut, a volunteer who runs the Shalimar Learning Center for grade-school children next door.