One of Margarita Chavez’s favorite rituals is to take in the sights and smells as she walks around her south Sacramento neighborhood.
There are Indian families who’ve turned their garages into kitchens, filling the outside air with the scents of jasmine rice and curry. On other blocks, Chavez can smell carnitas on a grill or flour tortillas in an oven.
She runs into neighbors who are immigrants from Tonga, Fiji and Mexico. Many more of her neighbors are Hmong or white or black. It is a very Sacramento experience – a walk around the world in one of the nation’s most diverse cities.
There are other walks that Chavez takes that aren’t as pleasant. Those are in the middle of the night to find places where outsiders have come into her neighborhood and dumped couches, wires, glass and mattresses on the sidewalks. She carries her flashlight with her, thinking all the time as she goes: “If you see something, say something.”
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That slogan is the foundation for what Chavez and a small group of her neighbors recently did. After years of disorganization, they have re-formed the Detroit Community Association to advocate for a secluded neighborhood with only one way in and one way out off Meadowview Road.
“We want to improve our quality of life, and one person can’t do it by themselves,” said the new association’s president, Larry Lee. “It takes a whole neighborhood to make ourselves better.”
Lee, the son of Hmong immigrants, grew up in the neighborhood. He is 27, a Sac State grad and an analyst in the city’s public works departments. Lots of the kids he grew up with took different, less noble paths.
Lee, Chavez and others call their neighborhood Detroit Community. They don’t like identifying the area by its main street, Detroit Boulevard, because they say south Sacramento gangs sling that street name around as a moniker of their turf.
And while most of the problems in their neighborhood have to do with blight, it has had its moments of violence. A man was shot dead in the street at 11:30 a.m. one day in February 2013. Eight months before that, a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed after a fight.
The new community association can try to reverse the blight and violence. It was formed with the urging and help of councilmen Larry Carr and Rick Jennings, and held its first meeting this month. It joins a list of more than 100 community groups in a city with a strong legacy of neighborhood advocacy.
The neighborhood group will meet at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School at the center of the neighborhood. They’ll probably host community events at the school; a church group has already started meeting on the campus and its members have taken to walking the neighborhood in small groups, stopping in front of every home to pray. More than 300 kids attend Susan B. Anthony, many of them in a Hmong immersion program designed to teach students in both English and Hmong.
“We can serve as a partner,” said Bao Moua, the school’s new interim principal. “Our kids are walking home on these streets.”
Chavez will continue her walks. She calls Lee “the brains of the operation,” but she is clearly its heart. She’s lived in the Detroit Community for 18 years and, even after all that time, is still trying to convince her neighbors from around the world that their neighborhood’s health is a collective effort.
“You’ve got to say something when you see something,” she said. “Because the next time, it may be you who needs someone’s help.”