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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | COUNTY REPORT / A Neighborhood
Fights Back

Residents Clean Up a Mean Street

Activism: The arrest of eight suspects in Billy Zara's beating death is the latest chapter in the Avenue area's six-year battle against gangs, crime and blight.

March 19, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — It was a night in September, and Billy Zara lay lifeless on the pavement outside his apartment in the west Ventura neighborhood known as the Avenue.

He had been beaten by eight members and associates of a gang that had terrorized the neighborhood for decades, police said.

Even before the fatal beating, residents had been fighting back against the social pathologies that afflicted this working-class neighborhood of small bungalows and the industrial remains of an oil business that abandoned the area in the '80s.

They had scored some major successes. The city installed brighter street lighting and aggressively enforced building code violations. New businesses were beginning to move in.

Now, police and prosecutors were determined to give them one more dramatic victory. The arrest of the eight suspects marked the largest single bust of its kind in county history. And residents who had been fighting to rebuild their neighborhood began to feel safer.

"We got a bad rap," said Mike Del Dosso, a longtime resident who used to steer clear of drug dealers and vagrants when he took his nightly walks. "And at one time that was deserved. But that's changed."

City officials say the change is evident in crime statistics. Once the third-ranking area of the city in terms of calls for service, it dropped to sixth out of 159 reporting districts last year.

"Crime has gone down immensely in five years," said Rochelle Margolin, an associate with the city's economic development department. "The perception of the rest of the city is that it's a crime-ridden area. And that's not true."

Today, residents say, you can see once unthinkable signs of recovery: children walking to and from school, the windows of once-vacant storefronts flickering to life, families strolling at night past graffiti-free buildings. Much remains to be done, but activists think they at last have a shot at reviving one of the city's oldest and most neglected neighborhoods.

Most residents of the area, which stretches two miles along both sides of Ventura Avenue, credit a drive-by shooting six years ago for the neighborhood's rebirth. The shooting left bullet holes in the windows of several occupied homes at the corner of West Harrison Avenue and Olive Street. It was one thing for criminals to shoot and kill each other, but this tore at the fabric of the community itself.

"It was a wake-up call to our community that if we didn't come out of our homes we were in a world of hurt," said Sharon Troll, one of a group of neighborhood activists who banded together after the shooting.

*

They formed the Westside Community Council in 1994 to work for change. Three years later, the community council rallied city officials to pursue a $1.5-million federal grant to fund a gang suppression program.

The grant pays for eight Ventura police officers, two county probation officers, a deputy district attorney and programs at the Ventura Unified School District and the Boys & Girls Club.

The community council has also instituted its own safety patrol. On weekend nights, volunteers drive through the neighborhood, armed only with police scanners and walkie-talkies.

They look for trouble, but they don't get out of their cars or confront anyone. Instead, they call police. Or they just drive by several times. Sometimes, their presence is enough to disperse a group of loitering kids, said Del Dosso, one of the drivers.

Besides serving as eyes and ears for overburdened police, the citizens patrol has unexpectedly become a conduit for residents reluctant to contact police themselves. These residents now know they can stop in at the community council's North Olive Street office, a small storefront in a strip mall, and chat with Troll or another volunteer.

"People are just reluctant to call the police," Del Dosso said. "It's not fear. They just don't want to get involved."

But most of the time these days "you don't come across crime when you're on patrol," said Del Dosso, a 26-year Avenue resident. "Most nights, we're bored."

Nowhere is the ongoing revival of the neighborhood more evident than at the Westpark Community Center at the end of West Harrison Avenue. A half mile from where Zara was killed, it was still gang turf.

"They roved around," said Ventura City Councilman Brian Brennan, a former Avenue resident. "I think they always thought the whole area was theirs."

When Amy Crittenden took over three years ago as director of the community center and started calling police on loitering gang members, she found her name in graffiti on the bathroom walls. In the crude language of the streets, that was a clear threat. When her car was vandalized, she worried more.

"I'm not going to lie," said the 33-year-old woman. "I was watching my back."

*

Today, the spray-painted monikers that advertised the center as gang territory are gone. Now, breathless 10-year-olds dominate the handball courts. Now, eight security cameras guard the building and a panic alarm connects Crittenden directly to the police.

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