Life on ‘the Jack’: Can Mack Road residents reclaim their neighborhood?

On a recent weekend, the Powells set up a tent in the backyard of their south Sacramento home to host a campout for their youngest son’s 10th birthday. Once the sun went down, Joel Powell Jr. gathered the boy and his friends in the tent, told scary stories and, before it got too late, ushered them back inside the house.

He said he could feel the children’s uneasiness out there, exposed, in the backyard. Their Mack Road neighborhood in the city’s far southern end has seen a lot of violence of late. Sleeping under the stars had lost its appeal.

“Those are the things we have to think about,” said Joel’s wife, Shavonne, 33. “We don’t want anybody jumping over our fence when we have someone else’s kids at our house.”

This is life on Mack Road. Children are on lockdown after nightfall. The sound of gunfire no longer elicits much reaction in family rooms. Concerns about fleeing criminals – and stray bullets and booming police helicopters – dampen young boys’ birthday parties.

For years it has been this way: a neighborhood all but ceded to thugs by fearful residents, and largely avoided by people from other parts of Sacramento. But can it be changed? Can people take back a community? A growing partnership of local activists, families, business owners, religious leaders and police say they’re willing at least to try. Together, they are promising a better Mack Road.

“It took a long time for Mack Road to get messed up and it isn’t going to change overnight,” said Sacramento Police Officer Ron Chesterman, known as “Mr. Mack Road” for the work he’s doing there. “I don’t feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. We will win this.”

Last weekend’s “ReImagine Mack Road” event heralded some of this change, as 5,000 volunteers from across the region gathered to give the corridor fresh paint, new landscaping and a little love. And at the end of May, as schools shut down for summer, a new program will roll out, designed to reduce violence by building a sense of community.

Modeled after a successful program by the same name in Los Angeles, Summer Night Lights will host block parties on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, luring residents with athletic events, dance lessons, free food and music. Police will attend to get to know the residents they serve – and will be barred from making arrests on site.

The program is unfolding largely because of the efforts of two people, neither of whom actually lives in the neighborhood: Jenna Abbott, executive director of the Mack Road Partnership, a coalition of area businesses; and DeAngelo Mack, program coordinator for the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program, a hospital-based effort to stem youth violence. In less than two months, they raised $200,000 to fund the program through the first summer, and persuaded critical partners, including Sacramento police and City Council members Bonnie Pannell and Darrell Fong, to lend support.

They acknowledge it’s an ambitious undertaking. But Abbott and Mack say the time has come to do something about Mack Road.

“The feeling seems to be that ... (the violence is) horrible, really horrible, but as long as it stays there, then we just don’t go there, and everything will be fine,” said Abbott. “What it takes is a group of people who are willing to say, ‘No, we are done with that. We’re going to find a way to make this happen.’

“The opportunity to shine a positive light on something happening in south Sacramento is very attractive,” she added. “South Sacramento doesn’t get to lead unless it’s in terms of violence. We’re very good at leading in crime stats.”

Life on ‘the Jack’

Mack Road stretches a little more than a mile in south Sacramento, from Highway 99 to the railroad tracks that mark its transition into Meadowview Road. On either side, interspersed with an unremarkable landscape of fast food and gas stations, sit several strip malls with businesses that reflect the area’s diversity – an Asian seafood market, a Filipino restaurant, a Mexican bakery – and the empty storefronts and vacant lots that hint at the area’s struggle.

Farther west is a corridor of dense apartment complexes encompassing hundreds of units. A few advertise cheap rates with balloons. All are surrounded by wrought-iron fencing.

The Evergreen Shopping Center, at Mack Road and Center Parkway, in many ways marks the epicenter of the neighborhood’s crime problems. A steady stream of people come and go at all hours, often after stopping for liquor. Despite a security guard on site, and police surveillance cameras towering over the lot, open-air drug deals are common.

In casual conversation, young people familiar with Mack Road often call it “the Jack,” in reference to a gang member shot to death at the shopping center in 2006. Another common nickname: “South Sac Iraq.”

Over the years, police maps reflecting density of crime repeatedly highlight Mack Road as a trouble zone. In the first three months of this year, Sacramento police took 292 crime reports in the area surrounding Mack Road between Highway 99 and Franklin Boulevard. That’s more than three a day for a stretch of road just 1.2 miles long – and represents only a fraction of the calls for service that originate there.

During the same period, the corridor was the scene of 12 shootings, all but one resulting in injury. Seven people were killed in gunfire in the vicinity in the last five years. An average of 14 more were shot each of those years and survived.

Police say the reigning gangs on Mack Road are responsible for much of the crime, along with drug deals, robberies and fights. Some apartment managers and business owners enable the gangs by not properly screening tenants or ousting troublemakers, according to police. Other gangsters don’t live in the area but know it as a place to find safe haven.

The influence those gang members hold over residents is reflected in the lack of help police get when investigating crimes in the area. Police have arrested two suspects in connection with a recent violent feud between Mack Road and Oak Park gangs. Five remain at large, despite their names and mugshots being widely circulated.

One of those suspects, Donald Oliver, a local rapper with a large following, has filmed several of his YouTube videos on Mack Road.

For the Powells, daylight offers a friendlier neighborhood than depicted in those videos – one where children play and neighbors greet each other. At night, though, “it gets all bad,” said the couple’s oldest son, Jordan Reed, who is 12.

They typically hear gunfire once a week. A few years ago, police investigated a body found just across the street. Officers seemed disbelieving when they said they hadn’t heard anything suspicious.

“But we hear so much at night, with sirens, dogs and people riding their bikes – you kind of can’t tell what’s foul play and what’s just happening in the neighborhood,” Shavonne Powell said.

The Powells have tried to be creative. They put a basketball hoop up in the backyard, rather than the front. They keep their kids occupied with sports. Still, they acknowledge, their kids are akin to prisoners once the sun begins to set.

Myeshia Kelly, 36, is raising her three daughters in an apartment at Providence Place, a complex renamed after the city imposed an injunction that prompted major changes in the crime-ridden Countrywood Village apartments. She lamented the lack of safe outlets for young people in the area.

“You go to Elk Grove, they have outlets,” she said. “Tons of parks. Pools. Police. Skating rinks.”

Rob Brown, owner of Another Look salon on nearby Valley Hi Drive, echoed the need for outlets. As he buzzed a client’s hair, Brown talked about the young people who hang out in parking lots and on street corners and, without guidance, often land themselves in trouble.

“There’s nothing like a teenager with built-up energy and nothing to do,” he said.

‘Imagine being trapped’

On a recent night during their Mack Road area patrol, the crack of a gunshot caught the attention of officers Patrick Cox and Kelli Streich. Cox rolled down the window, listened for a moment and moved on.

A light rain fell, and their radio hardly crackled. But even on a slow night, the complicated relationships between law enforcement and community members in the area were apparent.

On a stop at the Evergreen Shopping Center, Streich shared a laugh with an older woman, who told the officers to “be safe.” A young parolee chatted amiably with the officers as they searched his trunk at a local extended-stay hotel.

But for every friendly interaction, there were several that were contentious. About a mile off Mack Road, the officers stopped to talk to a group of men parked in a no-parking zone, their music blaring. It was about 10 p.m.

The officers sorted through who was on probation and did searches accordingly. One of the men in the group was a 24-year-old who had been shot on Mack Road in March – the second time he had been hit by gunfire at the Aspen Park apartment complex. In the latest incident, he took bullets to the wrist, leg and head; a large scar traces his hairline.

Streich recalled riding with him in the ambulance that night: Despite his injuries, he had been alert and talking. Now, he told her he couldn’t recall anything about what happened, and didn’t know who shot him or why. He said he didn’t care that police have not made any arrests.

“I don’t care about nothing in life. I don’t care about life,” he said, then limped to a curb and sat down.

Another man in the group had his 4-year-old son with him. The child began to cry, and Streich tried to distract him, asking his name and age. The boy stopped sniffling and showed four fingers.

“This many?” said an animated Streich, holding up four fingers of her own. “How many is that?”

The boy’s father complained that she was trying to manipulate the child, so Streich ended the conversation.

Later, Streich lamented the friction. She said it is hard for cops to foster positive relationships with young people when their parents or older siblings discourage them. “You wonder why these kids hate us,” she said.

Recently transferred to Mack Road from Sacramento’s north end, Streich and Cox said they perceive more distrust of the police in their new beat. The north area has its challenges, but they said they felt they could develop relationships based on respect.

“You build a rapport with people,” Streich said, “and that doesn’t happen out here at all.”

Justin Risley, their lieutenant, said he wants to change that dynamic, and has been asking his officers to put themselves in the shoes of those they’re serving. None of his officers live near Mack Road, but he tells his staff, “Please police it like you do.”

“Can you imagine being trapped in these areas? We become so desensitized sometimes, because it just becomes work for us. You forget,” he said.

Something to build on

DeAngelo Mack was raised in a neighborhood like Mack Road. Growing up in Joliet, Ill. – the home of one prison with another not far away – many of his friends and relatives were involved in gangs or drug-dealing, and wound up in jail. He followed his older sister to Sacramento to escape that pipeline.

Mack, 34, has been an ordained minister working with youths for about a decade. In 2010, he was hired by WellSpace Health to continue that work with the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program, a joint venture with Kaiser Permanente that tries to steer young people out of gangs.

Now head of the program, Mack regularly heads to Kaiser’s south area hospital to visit with young people injured in violent crime. Hoping to make headway while they are vulnerable, Mack encourages them to envision a better future – and, for up to a year, helps them find services to realize it. The average age of his clients is 17 or 18; many come from Mack Road.

The job takes a toll. But with every new text message announcing another shooting victim, he returns to Kaiser South, a half-mile from the Mack Road corridor.

“The population I work with is so forgotten, and we’ve given up on them,” Mack said. “I really, truly do see the potential in almost every case I work with. These individuals, the families, there’s something there. There’s something that needs to be built upon.”

Jenna Abbott took a very different route to Mack Road. Forty-nine and Canadian by birth, Abbott lives in Sacramento’s tony Gold River community. She has spent most of her career working with large financial institutions. Before joining the Mack Road Partnership – an improvement district funded by area businesses – Abbott worked for a national trade association supporting the window coverings industry.

She joined the partnership in May 2012 because it offered an intriguing economic challenge: helping local business thrive in a low-income area. She was aware of the area’s violent reputation: “I knew what the average person who lives in the suburbs knows: Don’t go there.”

Still, she said, those first months were a rude awakening. From her office, then tucked in the back of the Evergreen center, she encountered an unfamiliar, intimidating world. She stayed on, she said, even when another job opportunity came along, because of the people.

“I had so many people saying, ‘We’re not bad people down here. This is not a bad place. We just haven’t had anyone to advocate for us,’ ” Abbott said. “That is my role. It’s the people that made me care about (the area) When you see people who are passionate about the community, you can’t help but want to be part of that.”

She surmised early on that to help local businesses, she needed to broaden her scope. In fall of 2012, Abbott and Mack ran into each other at a violence prevention training in Sacramento. The two had crossed paths before, but their friendship blossomed during the seminar. It was there they learned about Summer Night Lights, a program credited with reducing violence in some L.A.-area neighborhoods since its inception in 2008. In 2012 alone, according to organizers, gang-related violent crime dropped by a third in those areas, and gang-related homicides by almost half.

To bring Summer Night Lights to Mack Road, Abbott and Mack knew they needed help. They recruited several allies, including police Capt. Neil Schneider. The team went to Los Angeles last fall to see Summer Night Lights in action. They loved what they saw.

The events were like block parties, Abbott said, with a warm, inviting feel. They watched teens playing basketball and young women mentoring younger girls while doing their hair and nails. A DJ spun records. Food sizzled on grills. Uniformed officers had a strong presence, but appeared part of the community, Abbott said. They played ping-pong and basketball, shook hands with residents and held young children in their arms.

And there was no enforcement. The theory is that officers are there to build bonds, not cases – so no routine arrests or questioning on site.

Schneider was sold, and persuaded Chief Sam Somers Jr. to commit $30,000 to Summer Night Lights.

“We do so much heavy-handed enforcement on Mack Road, because it needs to be done,” said Schneider, who oversees investigations citywide. “It’s a great chance to be seen in a different light.”

The idea is to offer something for all ages: Sports, food, emcee battles and dancing lessons. Tutoring and healthy cooking demonstrations. Cultural dances, Zumba and yoga. Perhaps a quilting club.

Each night’s session will run from 7 p.m. to midnight on the property of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, on Center Parkway just south of Mack Road. The pastor, Jon Loescher, and his congregation have donated their grassy fields, parking lot and a dilapidated home on the property that is being transformed into a community center.

Organizers say the goal is to “camouflage” their violence reduction efforts with community building. It’s a difficult task in an area where many residents rent and move frequently.

“Looking at Mack Road and Valley Hi, a sense of community has never really been there,” Mack said. “There’s no identity here, and what Summer Night Lights does is it brings an identity to a community and it makes everybody feel a part.”

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Abbott added, “but dang, it’s looking an awful lot better than anything else we have going on.”

‘I could die tomorrow’

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Aaron Ross and his wife, Loretta Riley-Ross, stopped in at their church, the South Sacramento Christian Center, with their teenage son. They were in the process of moving their family out of the Mack Road area.

They hadn’t heard about Summer Night Lights, and had markedly different reactions when told about the program.

Riley-Ross wondered whether there were better ways to spend $200,000 if the goal is to help young people stay out of trouble: food in the fridge, money for bills, housing.

“These kids are doing what they need to survive,” she said.

Her husband had a simpler take: “Any effort is good,” he said, “ as long as you had it in your heart to do the right thing.”

Their 15-year-old son said he isn’t part of a gang, but knows plenty about them. It’s knowledge he picked up by the time he was in Samuel Jackman Middle School, where fights and shootings were regular topics of conversation. His parents asked that he not be identified by name, for fear he would be harassed by gangs.

He knows well the story of a boy his age, J.J. Ward, who was gunned down in the middle of the day outside the Raley’s on Mack Road.

“I’m 15 now. I could die. I could die tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “People my age have died.”

“How does that make you feel?” his father asked.

“I got to stay on my p’s and q’s.”

Asked what might keep young people away from gangs, the boy didn’t hesitate: “Jobs.”

Summer Night Lights will hire nearly two dozen teenagers from the area to help run the events, mediate disputes and serve as “ambassadors.” But organizers said they believe the greatest impact the program can have is encouraging community pride.

“I really see this as a movement,” said Steve Streeter, a former probation officer and veteran youth outreach worker who has been hired to coordinate Summer Night Lights. “This is something greater than a program. We’re going to be creating leaders in the community.”

The Powells like what they’ve heard about Summer Night Lights, and can see the potential on Mack Road. Shavonne loves the diversity, the staff and families at Charles Mack Elementary, the shopping outlets.

But for this family, it feels just a little too late. Shavonne said the turning point came on a March weekend that saw 18 people shot across Sacramento, four of them on Mack Road. When the school year ends, they will leave.