Gang-related violence has exploded in Lodi since mid-May.
But the shootings, stabbings, brandishings and assaults have not been randomly spread throughout town.
Gang-related incidents aren't cropping up on Lodi's west side, its northern edge or its southern fringe.
The bloodshed has been concentrated in one section of Lodi, an older part of town once home to a host of German families, now inhabited largely by new immigrants. It is a 50-block area, roughly, of vintage bungalows, ramshackle alleys and front doors affixed with security screens. It is home to many younger families, couples, merchants — and it is now a battleground for the Norteños and Sureños.
According to police reports, more than 20 gang-related incidents, ranging from reported gunshots to attempted homicide, have taken place here in recent weeks.
This section of town is roughly Lodi Avenue south to Maple Street, framed by Stockton Street on the west and Cherokee Lane on the east.
Why do gangs infect this area? What can be done about it? There are more questions than answers. Some say the older housing stock, pressurized by the addition of apartments and alley houses, is a factor. It is also true that gang activity tends to rise in the summer. Investigations drag on, police say, because residents are fearful for their safety and won't come forward with information.
Others say the cutbacks in public safety and a renewed turf war have spurred activity amongst the gangs.
Police are searching for answers. As they do, they are stepping up their efforts to counter gangs. They also ask residents to report tips anonymously to Lodi Area Crime Stoppers or to a police dispatcher.
Still, the gang activity continues.
"We're putting a lot of people in jail, but it's not slowing down," said Sgt. William Alexander of the Lodi Police Department.
The most violent section in Lodi contains a plethora of high-density housing and narrow alleys. Most homes feature steel security doors, "beware of dog" signs or chain-link fences around yards. Graffiti mostly pertaining to Norteños dot sidewalks, fences and the sides of garages. Other homes are marked with touch-up paint jobs that blot out the graffiti. The area is dominated by the Norteños, but that doesn't prevent Sureños from intruding, Alexander said. Historically, Lodi Avenue has been the dividing line between Norteños and Sureños, with Norteños congregating to the south and Sureños to the north, police said.
Lodi historian Ralph Lea said that when German immigrants originally built in the area, the homes were small but featured large gardens where residents would grow crops and raise chickens. As the city grew, the residents were allowed to sell their land, paving the way for the construction of apartments with few parking spaces, Lea said.
"The city hated to see all that space going to waste, so it allowed for the alley houses," Lea said. "It was a heavy mistake."
Rigoberto Flores has lived on Lodi's Eastside for 33 years. The resident of an alley house near the 400 block of Hilborn Street said the compacted living spaces make the gangs more territorial and aggressive.
"You paint over the graffiti and it comes right back," he said.
Eastside resident and Lodi City Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said it's possible the living conditions play a role in the situation.
"It's possible that in highly populated rental areas, people don't take ownership of their communities," Mounce said. "It's easier for them to move when there is a problem."
Flores said the Norteños and Sureños have become more aggressive with one an other during the past several years, and he is now starting to fear for his safety.
"I stay inside when the sun goes down," he said.
He quickly added that the poor economy further ignites the situation.
"When there are no jobs, people get more desperate," Flores said.
Mounce echoed Flores.
"If I had children, I don't know if I'd live here," she said.
While Mounce acknowledged a spike in violent crimes on the Eastside, she was quick to defend the area as a whole.
"Even though there are problems, it's still an excellent place to live overall. While one corner of the street has trouble, the other has a delightful family."
Simply put, the reason the area has seen such an outpouring of gang activity is because a high concentration of gang members live in the area, Alexander said. Adding to the pressure in the area is a large population of juveniles who are joining up with the gangs, he said.
The geography of the narrow alleys and compacted residences enable gang activity to take place, Alexander said.
"There is a lot of easy access for people, and a lot of ways to get in and out of the area," he said.
Also, the roles that revenge and retaliation play in the situation can't be overlooked, he said.
"No one can be the last person to do something," Alexander said. "There is always a payback."
While the police department has stepped up patrols of the area, the force also focuses on community outreach. Officer Heather Metcalf of the Lodi Police Department participates in the Gang Resistance and Education Training program with area elementary and junior high schools.
The initiative, commonly referred to as the GREAT program, aims to educate children about anger management and how to say "no" when asked to participate in gang activities. While the federally funded program does provide gang education, gangs specific to the region are not specifically discussed, Metcalf said.
"They don't want to glorify gangs, so we talk about gangs as a whole," she said. "The lessons we talk about are more about making good choices, and that the way to make good choices is to set goals."
The target audience for the GREAT program is junior high students, Metcalf said.
"The transformation seems to occur in junior high," she said. "That's why we try to be proactive with those kids on the fence."
An educator's perspective
Maria Cervantes is the principal of Heritage Elementary School. The school, located on South Garfield Street, sits on the fringe of the area currently seeing a high volume of gang-related assaults and shootings. What concerns Cervantes most is the large number of juveniles participating in street crimes, she said.
One of the reasons the situation is becoming worse, Cervantes said, is the lack of options for children in the area.
"My concern over the years has been that there is little to offer youths on Eastside in the ways of gang alternatives," she said. "The community either does not offer or denies activity for them. The Boys & Girls Club is the only place for people under the age of 18 that is affordable."
Several years ago Cervantes and volunteers participated in the Junior Giants program, which serves at-risk youth by promoting participation in organized baseball. The program was a success, Cervantes said, and similar programs should be embraced by volunteers in the community.
Economics also play a significant role in the explosion of gang activity, she said. Nearly 100 percent of her roughly 500 students at Heritage are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, a federal program that provides free or low-cost lunches to students.
"Over there is the highest poverty level in Lodi," she said. "Many of them are single-income families, and the parent works from early in the morning until the evening just to get by. They aren't home to make sure the kids have supervision, because they are trying to scrape by."
Creating programs to serve at-risk youths is something that would not only benefit the juveniles themselves — it's also something that would bode well for taxpayers, Cervantes said.
"When you see something wrong, you should address it there and then," she said. "You can either invest in prevention or pay for the aftermath."
Why gangs thrive
Although the primary colors, faces and names of gangs change from Detroit to Los Angeles to Baltimore to Lodi, the reasons people join them are the same, said Jose Gomez, youth outreach coordinator for Operation Peacekeeper, a Stockton-based outreach program.
"Every ghetto is the same," Gomez said. "Kids will join for fear of their safety if they don't or because of intimidation. Others join because it is a generational thing and family members are involved."
Parents, education and community involvement all play a role in reducing the number of youths who join up with street gangs, he said. Gomez is in favor of elementary school students receiving education on who the local gangs are and what their graffiti looks like. The parents would benefit from the education as well, he said.
"They need to be able to recognize if their kid is writing or drawing signs in their books or on their shoes or backpack," he said. "My heart goes out to parents, but so many of them are in denial. It's hard for them to accept, and they blame everyone else."
Watching a child's grades is one of the most effective ways to monitor their behavior, Gomez said. While students may struggle in certain subjects, it still takes work to flunk a class. Teachers will look to contact parents or pull students aside if he or she begins to slip in all subjects, but parents must understand the severity of the situation, he said.
"If you're a gangster, it isn't cool if you are doing schoolwork," Gomez said. "Gangsters take pride in that, and it's a big red flag for us. It shows that their heart and commitment are somewhere else."
To Gomez, there is not much difference between terrorist networks overseas and violent gangs in the community.
"They aren't blowing up buildings with planes, but they are taking communities hostage," he said. "When a community is afraid to speak or stand up, (gangs) get emboldened; they get more power. They get the feeling they own the place because the community just surrenders to them."