Adorned with a stylish sunburst embedded in the street and an array of lights above, the block of Elm Street east of the Downtown theater was supposed to be a haven for shoppers and diners.
Instead, merchants and residents say, it has become a magnet for hard-drinking vagrants and aggressive teens. Some spout profanity, vandalize businesses and use an adjacent alley as a lavatory. Several of the denizens lounge away their hours on Elm Street benches, scaring away shoppers and movie-goers, say business owners.
Now, business people and some Elm Street residents want something done.
Ronald Houck and his wife, Suzanne, said they would not have opened their Studio 20 gallery on Elm if they had known that people would continuously leave trash in front of the gallery, smash flowers or yell obscenities into the gallery while Ronald Houck is teaching a class or painting.
Suzanne Houck was joined by Diane Sutton, of Genesis Acupuncture, at the Lodi City Council on Wednesday night. The two represented merchants on Elm Street who were concerned about a spike in people loitering in front of their businesses.
City Manager Blair King responded by saying the city is working with the police to set up a meeting to discuss the problems.
Lodi Police Sgt. Fernando Martinez is the district commander for the area. He said police are aware of the problem and are working with merchants.
He said the city has to balance merchant rights with the rights of people to be on public sidewalks.
The police plan to do targeted enforcement in the area and have a zero-tolerance policy, handing out tickets for infractions such as littering or profanity that causes a public disturbance, Martinez said.
"If they realize that if they litter, they are going to get a ticket, or if they are disturbing the peace, they are going to get a ticket, hopefully that will be enough for them to move on," Martinez said.
A problem with enforcement is that police have to witness vandalism or another crime, or have a victim willing to sign a complaint, to write a misdemeanor ticket, he said.
"I understand the frustration of the merchants because they know or have an idea who did it or we know or have an idea who did it, but you have to be able to prove who did it," Martinez said.
Coincidentally, Stacey Ramsey, the owner of DSR Security Services, was also at the council meeting Wednesday night. He is volunteering four to eight hours of time to patrol Downtown.
He plans to have two security guards in the area for two hours twice a week. He said they plan to videotape people hanging around the area, and after monitoring it for two or three weeks, come up with an action plan.
One regular visitor to the benches on Elm Street said he and his friends aren't looking to cause trouble; but rather, they enjoy the environment and feel they are being singled out.
"We come here to play chess and cards, but since we aren't spending money, they see us as a problem," said David "Standridge" Edwards Sr.
Merchants have also complained about an adjacent alley being used as makeshift toilet. Edwards said the issue could be remedied if the city installed some public restrooms in the vacant space.
"A lot of guys here are older, and when they need to use the bathroom, they need to use it," he said. "(Businesses) won't let us use the bathrooms because we aren't paying customers."
'They are the local children from hell'
As a resident in the area, George Heimlich said he believes the teens are the main reason people are avoiding Elm Street, because they are causing a disturbance. He said the main reason people get nervous is because they are dressed as goths and sometimes have face paint.
"They are the local children from hell. … They need to go somewhere else because they scare normal America," Heimlich said.
Quotes"A lot of these kids have bad home lives, and I feel bad for them, but they can't be having their bad lives in front of our store."
— Suzanne Houck, owner of Studio 20
"Lodi is full of burglars and thieves, but the cops harass
— Lorenz Lebherz, a resident who lives on Sacramento Street
"If they installed some public restrooms in the alley across
from Saigon Grill and kept lights by them, they could cut down on
people using the alley as a bathroom and help make sure no one does
— David "Standridge" Edwards Sr., Lodi resident who makes regular use of the public benches
"We still get problems with the vagrants who hang out by our
warehouse across the street, but it was way worse in the 1980s and
1990s. It's always going to be an issue."
— Eddie Hassan, owner, Joe Hassan's clothing
"The loitering is increasing and the issue is coming to a head. Everyone knows it is there. Something has to happen. There is a lot of frustration." — Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership
"It's supposed to be our nicest street, and it's turned into a
— Clay Sayler, owner of Clay's Barber Shop
Ronald Houck said some of the teenagers have cat-called at his 10-year-old art class clients, and the homeless are always begging for money.
While he has kept a steady business, Saigon Grill manager Michael Chau said he believes all the ruckus is costing him customers.
"There are lots of customers who come in and tell me they have friends who won't come in here, which affects my business," he said.
Most of the merchants in the area agree that they would like to see the benches lining the street removed.
"They put them down here as an attraction. They want to make this a community thing. There's your community," Heimlich said while pointing to two men seated on a bench. "The mom and pops are going to the movies and heading home."
The Houcks recommended locating the benches outside the Salvation Army on Sacramento Street, where there currently are none.
One of the problems with the benches is that they were put in for the community to sit on, Martinez said, but there is no law against the homeless sitting on them, too, as long as they are not publicly intoxicated.
The police department is not in charge of where the benches are, but Martinez said that if the merchants lobby the city, one solution could be removing or moving the benches.
One Downtown advocate said she is against moving the benches because it's a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
"Elm Street was designed to be a center of entertainment," said Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership. "If you want to be a tourist destination, you need to have benches and places for people to sit there."
The street was designed so it could be easily closed to host events, she said. Taking the benches away would hinder Downtown's ability to be a welcoming tourist destination, because shoppers and visitors wouldn't have as many places to relax and enjoy the area.
The idea of hiring extra security patrols to monitor the area could be an option, Watts said, if local merchants were willing to pay for it.
Another option the merchants are in favor of is 24-hour web cameras in the area, so police would be able to monitor Downtown.
Byron Haneke, an owner of Jan's Sweet Treasures, said he has put up six strands of light that have been knocked down, and he also had planters destroyed, so he's given up on having either decorations in front of the his store.
Having been at the location 10 years, he appreciates how much the city has invested in the area, but wants more protection for not only the businesses, but also the city's property, like the benches, which have been scraped up and written on.
He said someone also tore out one of the decorative posts that match the colors of the street lights.
"How many millions did they put into this?" he said, talking about the city's improvements to Downtown. "Can we spend $2,000 to put cameras in and protect it?"
No matter what the solution, Suzanne Houck hopes the city can do something to solve the problem because keeping her business in that location depends on it.
"I don't think they intended this beautiful street to be this way," she said.