Barrio Safari

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The city of Santa Ana's EPIC Commission, a group of local politicians and activists formed to prevent gang violence, offered a guided tour through what one official called "one of the worst neighborhoods" for crime in Santa Ana June 27.

At a natural break point during its three-hour meeting, politicians, some local youth, some older ex-gang members, pastors at local churches and four police officers—two in bulletproof vests, two in a cruiser—set off on an evening stroll through the neighborhood.

The streets we walk are located a few blocks to the west of where the meeting was held, the Boys and Girls Club on Highland Street between Flower and Shelton streets.

As we arrive at Shelton Street, I already feel intrusive just being a member of what looked like nothing so much as tourists on a ghetto safari, eyeballing residents' living rooms through open doors.

A man walking next to me says 95 percent of the residents here are illegal immigrants. Noticing the glares shooting our direction, I ask him if this is a dangerous street to walk down alone, or if the obvious tension is a direct result of our arriving with an armed escort. He says it's the spectacle and I would be safe here by myself—at least during the daytime.

One resident says it best as she sees our group: “Uh-uh. Hell no. This ain't normal.”

Loud Mexican music blasts from many of the homes' open front doors. Inside one home, a couple of men sit watching TV in dirty T-shirts. In another, a mother is preparing dinner. In another, no one is visible.

In some cases, men sit in groups on porches, playing cards and drinking beer. Many of the men glare menacingly at us. Children run around eating candy and some play soccer. Four or five kids run up to the officer at the head of the group. He's about 6 feet 5 inches tall, with a combed-back, jet-black Elvis coif and black sunglasses. He moves his hand over his pistol, presumably to deter grabby kids.

Some of the children are buying candy from a what are known as mobile “produce vans,” but, says Boys and Girls club director Robert Santana, they mostly sell junk food. He says the vans often price-gouge locals because there's no grocery store nearby. A cursory glance inside one of the vans shows a few heads of wilting iceberg lettuce, many sugary confections with labels in Spanish and all sorts of Mexican candy.

The candies, which are often brought from Mexico, consistently test high for lead. From stories I've written previously (and from the 2005 Pultizer-prize-finalist Register series), I know many Mexican candy companies often produce two batches, one lead-free batch at higher cost to be sold in the United States and one cheaper batch with lead to be sold in Mexico, where regulations are more relaxed. Unfortunately, many unregulated vendors such as the ones in the produce vans, can buy the candy for dirt cheap in Mexico and bring it here. The candy slowly poisons children and can cause brain damage over long periods.

Santana said another problem with the produce vans is that some sell BB guns that replicate real guns, which are all fun and games until a cop can't tell the difference.

Next we make our way to West Brook Street. Santana says this neighborhood is so bad that the city walled it off in both directions, creating an island where it is so dangerous and difficult to deter crime that most officers do not even come here under normal circumstances. The wall is an 8-foot-high wrought-iron fence with hooks at the top to make it difficult to climb. However, several of the iron fence posts have been torn out, creating holes large enough to squeeze through.

Someone obviously alerted the neighborhood to our presence as everyone is coming out of their homes for a look at this strange group. Adults keep a steady eye on us, but children just momentarily stop playing games to look, then forget we are there.

As we leave, the women head back inside get dinner ready, the men sit around in conversation, and the children play, laugh and sing in the street. Considering this was supposed to be one of the worst neighborhoods in Santa Ana, it strikes me that the one thing I didn't see on any of their faces was fear.

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