The tree-lined streets of Modesto's La Loma area have an aura of peace and serenity.
But the area has endured the same kinds of problems prevailing in the rest of the city: home break-ins, thefts from vehicles, Dumpster diving, tagging and vandalism.
Many of the Neighborhood Watch programs simply fizzled as residents sold and moved and new folks came in.
Things have changed, however, within the past year, largely because of the efforts of La Loma resident Michael Moradian, who resurrected the La Loma Neighborhood Association to make the area a safer, better place.
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The association easily could be the model for other neighborhoods throughout the city, said Bronda Smith, a crime prevention officer for the Modesto Police Department.
"They're just so totally organized and open to anything and everything," she said. "Neighborhood Watch, park and alley cleanup, replanting plants, you name it."
Residential burglaries in the area have dropped 14 percent; theft from vehicles, 20 percent; and car theft, 5 percent, Smith said, largely because its residents have stepped up neighborhood watches. They also discuss security measures — not leaving items in cars, locking vehicles, remembering to lock all doors, and windows and set alarms, and emphasizing the value of watching out for each other at every opportunity.
The neighborhood stretches between Burney Street and El Vista Avenue, and between Scenic Drive and Yosemite Boulevard. It encompasses roughly 2,400 homes.
In just a year, Moradian has enlisted about 300 residents who are making an impression on the community. It is not, Moradian stresses, a homeowners association. They pay no fees or dues.
"It's totally voluntary," he said.
In June, residents donated their time and talents to re-landscape the roundabout on La Loma Avenue, capping the day with a barbecue.
They've reorganized and re-energized the Neighborhood Watch programs, and have begun to replace the old, rusted Neighborhood Watch signs with new ones.
They walk the neighborhood, talking with residents and getting to know people and faces.
"There have been lots of changes here (in Modesto) in the last 18 or 19 years," said Brian Gini, a La Loma resident who is involved in Neighborhood Watch. "I want it to feel safe. I want to know my kids can walk through the neighborhood."
Knowing the people who live there, Gini said, is a way to rekindle the feeling of the tightknit community that once existed.
Last Tuesday, on National Night Out, they divided the area into 19 micro-neighborhoods, each hosting a street party. Moradian said nearly 1,000 residents attended, including children.
"Just getting people talking," he said.
At each, they asked for residents to sign up to voluntarily fund private, 24-7 security patrols scheduled to begin Nov. 1.
"I figure we need about600 residents and 75 to 100 commercial (participants) to sustain it," Moradian said.
The association has worked closely with the Police Department and believes the private patrol will augment the city's policing efforts. The patrols will create a visible show of security, and security officers will summon the police when they come upon someone acting suspiciously in the area.
"They have lots of things more important than a guy walking down the street looking funny," said Moradian, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1994.
Moradian, Gini said, has been tireless in his pursuit of building the association. Ralph Morgan, a longtime community activist and La Loma resident who died in 2004, inspired Moradian to give back to the community similarly. The La Loma Association is that effort.
Its previous version clashed with Vern Deatherage of the Modesto Gospel Mission, just across Yosemite Boulevard, blaming the homeless for crime and other problems in the La Loma area. The mission offers housing and other services to the homeless.
When Moradian took over, he approached Deatherage to ease the tension.
"I was a little leery when he called and said who he was," Deatherage said. "He came over and we had a great time together. He said he was trying to have a better relationship. I wanted to educate people. Homeless people weren't always the ones going through the garbage and causing problems. I felt more comfortable than I ever had before. The meeting was good."
"I want to work with the mission, not fight them," Moradian said. "We want to help people who need help. At the same time, we're going to hold people accountable when they leave (hypodermic) needles in the parks and cause problems."
Moradian also contacted school officials and business owners, asking them to become involved. The association sends fliers and e-mails to residents and businesses, informing them of events, security issues and encouraging participation. A meeting in June drew200 people, quite a feat, officer Smith said.
"It's hard to get people to go to a meeting," she said. "I actually believe the La Loma Neighborhood Association is leaps and bounds ahead in their thinking, outlook and the response they get. What they have done is that they have accepted ownership of their neighborhood. They've decided to make it the best neighborhood they can."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.