Life on Witmer Street between 3rd and 6th streets might not be paradise, but Maria Guillen appreciates how much better things are now.
That's because she remembers how bad things used to be.
"There were a lot of horrible problems before," she said. Guillen, a mother of three who has lived on Witmer Street for 17 years and is an apartment building manger, named a few: drive-by shootings, murders, assaults, drug deals, graffiti.
But in some ways, fear was the most crippling problem because it bred inaction and despair. Moreover, its source was not confined to gangs. "Before, people were scared of the cholos and the police too," Guillen said.
But about 18 months ago a team of urban gladiators gathered on Witmer Street to do battle with fear and crime.
Two of those who helped residents turn the tide were Lance Reynolds, who was working in the neighborhood for a developer at the time, and Gary Swan, a citizen volunteer with the Police Department and former apartment manager, a man familiar with the street scene as well as the city bureaucracy.
Swan and Reynolds organized meetings with Witmer Street property owners and managers and persuaded several to improve security by putting in lights, installing locks, painting out graffiti and screening prospective tenants.
Uncooperative owners who failed to clean up their buildings faced the prospect of a lawsuit in small-claims court based on anti-graffiti and public-nuisance ordinances, Reynolds said.
After gaining the trust of some residents, Swan served as their liaison with the police, prompting them to file crime reports, identify troublemakers and work with police officers, especially Amanda Serrano and Webster Wong.
Swan also invited Miriam Negri, an environmental planner and architect, to take some "before" photos of graffiti-scarred buildings, and Negri soon became friends with Guillen.
"The thing that drew us together is that we're both mothers and we really care about our kids," said Negri, who organized art classes for neighborhood children. "If we don't all fight for a better city it's not going to happen."
"Maria's a real little fighter," Negri said. "For her, this is all about her children."
Guillen urged her neighbors to report crimes they witnessed or knew about. "I told them, 'We have to work together' and 'Don't worry, if you talk to the police they can help you,' "she said.
One result: Four of the street's worst troublemakers ended up in jail, Guillen said. Recently, organizers from the city Housing Department's Neighborhood Recovery Program, which marshals city services to combat drugs, decay and housing code violations in targeted neighborhoods, have been talking with residents and landlords about how the system can work for them.
Reynolds set up a new company, Long Range Development, which will incorporate the organizing and legal tactics learned on Witmer Street in the management of new or rehabilitated housing throughout the city. He is also working on a book and video to document the Witmer Street effort.
Guillen, who also holds down a second job at a local hotel, said she won't ever give up on her neighborhood: "I want my children to be proud of me and to succeed."