The 12 university students had never stepped foot in Modesto's airport neighborhood. They anticipated a ghetto riddled with criminals and poor people.
What they found, however, was a caring community with lots of potential.
That potential gets stifled by a lack of resources, such as safe bus rides to school and grocery stores. Streets lack sidewalks, although houses have plenty of chain link fences.
"Your first impression is that the people who live there made (the neighborhood) that way," said Jennifer Helzer, geography professor at California State University, Stanislaus. "There are barriers to programs, barriers to access to resources, access to information."
Students in Helzer's urban geography class spent four months studying airport district neighborhoods. About 4,500 people -- according to 2000 census figures -- live in the area, south of Yosemite Boulevard and west of the airport.
Their project, titled "Empowering a Forgotten Community," was presented Monday to area activists, including representatives from Habitat for Humanity and Airport Neighbors United. Students detailed an "asset map" of the district showing public transportation bus stops, school bus routes, liquor stores and minimarkets that serve as grocery stores for many residents, churches and parks.
"The goal was to give you a map, so people can understand the needs more, so you can take a map to policy-makers, so you can show them in black and white," Helzer said. "It'll tell them more than a report can."
After researching the district's beginning as a destination for migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, CSU, Stanislaus, students looked at its economic, educational, physical and housing conditions.
A poverty-stricken segment of Modesto, the neighborhood gets most of its attention for crime. Resident Clarence "Buddy" Mason, 51, was shot and killed in the early hours of April 28 while walking his dog.
To collect the information, students toured the area and talked with residents. They broke into groups to study various issues.
On Monday, they talked about how using public transportation can make a simple trip to the grocery store a three-hour ordeal; crowded, standing-room-only school buses to Johansen High School cause some students to stop going to school; no sidewalks combine with industrial truck traffic to make pedestrian activity dangerous, students and residents agreed.
CSU, Stanislaus, senior Jayme Greer focused on the area's educational opportunities. She said she saw a community with many challenges, but one that comes together when necessary, especially for the children.
"(The project) opened my eyes to see there are good things going on in a poorly funded area," Greer said.
One of the biggest contributors to low quality of life is the neighborhood's division between city and county land. When residents need help, they aren't sure whom to call or they get passed around among city and county employees, said Mary Lynn Le-bow, a 37-year resident and coordinator of Airport Neighbors United, a nonprofit advocacy group. They feel forgotten, she said.
"What's missing is that city-county connection that gets things done," Lebow said.
Law enforcement -- the Modesto Police Department and the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department -- has done a commendable job bridging the gap between city and county, Lebow said.
A brighter future for the airport neighborhood means sidewalks, lighted streets, more parks and recreational activities, more public transportation, safer streets, money to rehabilitate old houses and more school buses.
Modesto's interim city manager, Jim Niskanen, said the students' findings are consistent with initiatives the city is trying to bring to the neighborhood.
"In every neighborhood, there are good and caring people," he said. "Once you find them -- they're considered the assets -- you use their talents and skills to better the community."
After recently completing a neighborhood park with basketball court and picnic shelter, Niskanen said city staff is working on improving trails at Tuol-umne River Regional Park.
Students are translating the map into Spanish, and Airport Neighbors United officials will deliver it to residents to get feedback. The information also will help officials apply for grants and appeal to politicians for assistance.
For more information on Airport Neighbors United, call 572-4535 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.