A core group of gang members once terrorized the neighborhood, a city cop said.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A year or so ago, Joe Collins' walks with his dog Scooby had to detour around the drug activity on Ayers Street.
If they went at all.
A 75-year-old man and his elderly pooch were no match for the Ayers Street Playas. It was safer to stay inside and avoid the gang known for drugs and violence in a section of the city once called La La Land.
It's different now.
"There used to be 50 people in this field, some of them running after cars to sell their drugs," Collins said, bending down to scratch Scooby's head. "They'd fight over whose sale it was -- can you believe it?"
Collins now cuts the grass in the field that once served as an open-air drug market across from his house. He and Scooby can cut through it on their walks.
Ed Garcia nodded in agreement as his neighbor talked. He recalled the blatant drug activity, the fights, the rolling gunbattles on his street.
Garcia, 34, pointed to the vacant house at the corner of Shehy, a hulking eyesore.
"I'd see five to 10 guys at the corner," Garcia said. "The cops would come, and the guys would hide the drugs under the house."
How change began
The change in the East Side neighborhood began with the indictment in March 2001 of 14 members of the Playas, a Bloods-affiliated gang. The city police department gang unit worked nearly a year to build the case.
"Make sure you put down how we appreciate everything the narcotics officers did to clean this street up," Collins added.
After the indictment, the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department set up round-the-clock patrols. Sheriff Randall A. Wellington also sends out, as needed, inmates from the county jail to paint over vacant buildings defaced by gang graffiti.
Vice Squad Detective Sgt. Scott White said the calls for police -- especially gunfire calls -- are way down. The calls now, White said, are "very routine" -- stolen cars, loud music, domestics and traffic stops.
"It's nice to see the kids playing on the streets again and older people outside on their porches," said Patrolman Michael Walker, who works the East Side beat. "Whole blocks were scared. A core group of gangbangers terrified the neighbors."
A joint effort
Walker said the success has been a collective effort, everyone doing their part to eradicate the problem.
"It's nice now. Nice and quiet," Garcia said. Laughing, he said maybe some of the gang members not yet in prison had to find real jobs.
Just being able to look down Ayers and not see it choked with cars brings a smile to Collins' face. He knows there are still drug houses on the street, but nothing like before.
Julio Agront, 33, agreed. The steady traffic on Ayers reminded him of a drive-through.
"There was always a lot of commotion," Agront said. "It's pretty quiet now -- even on the weekends. That's a very big difference."
After a year on the East Side beat, Deputy Jeffrey Bradley's infectious grin is known by many of the residents, especially the children. Bradley makes friends the old-fashioned way -- with candy. He waves, he points, he shouts greetings. He gets out of his cruiser and walks.
Rosa Flores used two thumbs up to express her appreciation of Bradley's presence. The store in her Shehy neighborhood was often the scene of shootouts and other trouble.
It's good now, Flores said through an interpreter.
"The people here have been very receptive to us," Bradley said. "Even the criminals aren't as afraid of drive-bys anymore."
Keeping in touch
Bradley criss-crosses the streets, takes complaints and monitors the Youngstown Police Department radio frequency.
"We have a good rapport with YPD. We're not trying to do their job," Bradley said. "I can count on them, and they can count on me."
Bradley described what he does as community policing.
Patrolman Dave Wilson, whose beat covers the East Side, said a partnership exists between city police and the sheriff's department. It's not unusual to see a city cruiser pull up behind one from the sheriff's department or vice versa.
For city police, the first priority is answering calls, Wilson said.
In between, there's time to gather intelligence for the gang or drug task forces and put a dent in a drug dealer's business.
"We're only as good as the people want us to be," Wilson said.
Relying on residents
Police, he said, can't be everywhere and rely on those who live in the neighborhoods to come forward and share information about criminal activity.
Wilson gives his pager number to nearly everyone he meets. People are still a bit leery to talk to a uniformed officer out in the open, he said.
Wilson's day typically includes having junk cars towed and citing homeowners for trash in their yards. He works closely with other city departments.
It's all part of Police Chief Robert E. Bush Jr.'s zero-tolerance plan. The plan targets everything from loitering to littering.
"We're concerned about it all," Wilson said. "If you take care of the small stuff, the big stuff won't happen. I think we're making a difference out here."
Still needs work
As he drives through the East Side, Wilson points to the smattering of vacant crumbling houses on each street, some partially burned out, still waiting for the wrecking ball. He said he'd like to see them torn down and jail inmates used to do the cleanup.
"Who wants to see junk or a burned-out house with rats and graffiti?" Wilson asked.
A once stately pale-green 102-year-old mansion on Shehy, at the corner of Pearl Street, typifies the blight. The curved front porch roof collapsed, just under an intricately shaped tower room, into the front yard.
Windows on each floor are smashed, revealing discarded furniture inside. Weeds and high grass surround the vacant house.
The back yard is littered with tires, clothes, toys, a mattress and other cast-offs. Someone used black spray paint to write "Stay out, please" on the outside back wall, and more writing appears inside.
"That was such a beautiful house. It had a lot of cherry wood, but someone came in a truck and took it at night," said Rafael Ayala, who lives behind the house on Pearl. "I hope they tear it down. I got three kids -- it's unsafe."
Ayala said he has to put out poison because of the rats near the debris.