Fear has spread through a Columbus Avenue neighborhood in west Medford that has been rocked by a rivalry between Sureņos and Norteņos gang members.

Fear has spread through a Columbus Avenue neighborhood in west Medford that has been rocked by a rivalry between Sureņos and Norteņos gang members.

Some residents say they are preparing to move out of the neighborhood, while others worry for the safety of their families.

"It's like the wild West out here," said Jeremy Leavitt, a 32-year-old father of three who lives near Union Park.

His 29-year-old wife, Lori, concurred.

"I'm sick and tired of it," she said. "I didn't know it was that bad when I moved here."

Three drive-by shootings and two stabbings this year have set the neighborhood on edge.

The neighborhood has seen its share of tragedies in recent years, from Jordan Criado murdering his family of five on 10th Street in 2011 to a teen being shot and killed after threatening police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2012.

There also has been a series of arsons in the city in the past year, four of which occurred in the identified area.

Police describe the recent violence as occasional flare-ups of "wannabe" gang activity and say they are not ready to declare the area overrun by gangs.

The Sureņos and Norteņos originated as Hispanic prison gangs in California, with members generally coming from Southern and Northern California, respectively. Police say Medford-area gang members have loose ties, if any, with the California gangs.

If not reined in, however, some fear the situation could grow out of control locally.

"There are some things that we need to control, and if we don't, there will be that four-alarm fire," said Dr. Lee Ayers, the chairwoman of Southern Oregon University's Criminology and Criminal Justice Department.

Ayers, who leads the Jackson County Gang Task Force, said the neighborhood was under stress before the recession and has continued to decline in recent years, with about one-third of the residents living below the poverty level.

"It's a socially disorganized area with a lot of transitional neighborhoods," Ayers said.

Union Park, formerly called "Needle Park" by area residents, is now widely referred to as just "Drug Park." A nearby area close to a market on Columbus has a reputation among locals as a place for drug deals.

The neighborhood's instability makes it difficult for schools, churches and other outreach organizations to work with residents who are feeling alienated and distrustful, Ayers said.

She said she commends Medford police efforts to reach out to schools while increasing patrols to quickly respond to criminal behavior.

Ayers said the community, from police to youth outreach workers, is stepping up more and more to tackle the problems. But the issues remain numerous in a neighborhood that has a high rate of poverty and unemployment.

In Census Tract 2.02, which includes the area where the drive-by shootings occurred, rental properties make up almost 70 percent of the housing stock, compared with the average in the greater Medford area of 40 percent.

The Census Bureau calculates that 32 percent of the population in the area is below the poverty level, double the 16 percent for the greater Medford area.

More than 40 percent of those younger than 18 live below the poverty level versus 21 percent in the Medford area as a whole. Hispanics in the area face an unemployment rate of 31 percent. The overall jobless rate for Jackson County in April was 9.6 percent.

Census Tract 2.02 roughly falls inside West Second Street to the north, Dakota Avenue to the south, Columbus Avenue to the west and South Oakdale Avenue to the east. The Census Tract has a population of 3,702, representing less than 5 percent of the total population of the city.

According to crime statistics from Medford police, the neighborhood saw an above-average number of robberies, fugitives, arsons and runaway juveniles. However, they say, the overall number of cases handled by police in the neighborhood isn't higher than average.

Streets that Medford police have identified with gang activity include West Main Street, South Columbus Avenue, West Eighth Street, West Prune Street and Plum Street.

Police have made arrests in all but one of the drive-by shootings, said Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau, and gang-related activity in the neighborhood tends to ebb and flow as police make arrests.

"I think things are going to get back to normal," Budreau said. "This is not a pattern that will continue."

Medford police have conducted ongoing enforcement actions in Union Park over the years to crack down on criminal activity.

Budreau said he wouldn't characterize the park as a place where drug use is prevalent, though he acknowledges the park is within a neighborhood that has its share of high-profile crimes.

Since it is a small park with many entrances, it's also difficult for the police to catch people who are involved in criminal activity, he said.

"I wouldn't say there's a lot of open drug use — maybe more at night," he said.

An officer is typically able to respond to a call within minutes or even seconds because the area is heavily patrolled, Budreau said.

During a recent stabbing on May 29, a patrol car was two blocks from the call, he said.

"Honestly, there is hardly ever a time when a cop is too far from that area of town," Budreau said.

Phil Ortega, a safe schools coordinator in Eagle Point who is on the Gang Task Force, said that with some exceptions serious, proactive gang-prevention has not been a priority in Jackson County.

Ortega said many steps could be taken to discourage gang activity and improve neighborhoods.

"If you are driving down Columbus, how many of those houses are really being cared for?" he said. "There should be an effort to make them more presentable, to show more pride in where people live."

In addition, more efforts need to be made to reach out to families struggling financially, he said.

Children who grow up in impoverished families are more likely to get involved in illegal drug sales, he noted.

"One of the biggest things when they start making the money the wrong way is they start liking the money more than anything," Ortega said. "They get hooked on the money."

Reaching out to children who are flirting with gangs can be difficult, but Ortega has plans for a program that would reach out to deal with one of the more visible aspects of gang activity — graffiti.

"We call them taggers," Ortega said. "But what they said to me is, 'No, Mr. Ortega, we're graffiti artists.' "

Ortega, who already is involved in graffiti cleanup through a couple of local programs, said he will seek a grant to fund an art program that would reach out to the taggers. He said the program would use mentors who would work with at-risk children, or those who already have run afoul of the law.

The graffiti program alone won't solve the gang problem, but combined with other proactive efforts it could help lessen the impact, he said.

Residents of the neighborhood have their own theories about what's necessary to clean up the area.

Marshall Glocking has lived in his house near Union Park for 13 years and said he plans to stay there until the day he dies.

"I need to be part of this village," said the 53-year-old, who has adopted six special-needs children. "Community involvement — that's going to make the difference."

Glocking, who is a campus monitor at nearby Washington Elementary, said many of the children who get into trouble are lacking a father figure.

"All the kids who have problems are from divided homes," he said. "Boys will be boys, but they don't know how to be men."

Glocking said he thinks the county needs a strong program to provide older mentors for these children and to take a more proactive approach to adopting children.

He said the city of Medford doesn't have the budget to deal with all the broken families, though he credits police with fairly quick response times when a problem pops up. Police don't have the resources to follow the "crack parade" of drug dealers in the area, Glocking said.

A few doors from Glocking's house, a young mother, who asked not to be identified, said she was moving out because of the recent violence. Another mother, who didn't want to be identified, said the increasing violence makes her fearful to let her daughter go outdoors by herself. Maegan McCleary, a 27-year-old neighbor, said she's noticed an increase in criminal behavior over the past year. She thinks Medford police should focus on serious offenders rather than spending time on marijuana-related crimes. "They're just letting other stuff slide," said McCleary, who said she is a medical marijuana patient. Many residents, such as the Leavitts, say they would like a more visible police presence, while acknowledging that the police are doing as much as they can. If the situation doesn't get better, Jeremy Leavitt said he'll have to move his family away from the neighborhood. "You want to feel safer and be able to go outside without hearing gunshots," Leavitt said. Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.
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