The watch: Life and death in one of Sacramento’s most forgotten neighborhoods

One of many makeshift memorials that marks the site of a murder in 'the Fruitridge Finger.' Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala.

Sunlight glares on azaleas circled by a thin, white crown of wire. It marks the spot where Phillip Porraz was shot in the face after stepping out his front door.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna pauses to scan the memorial. It’s June 1, and Serna is walking down 44th Street, touring a neighborhood that saw four murders in three months last summer, all within less than a mile of each other.

Now, temperatures are rising again. The turf is on edge. Two men were gunned down a few weeks ago on nearby Fruitridge Road. Serna strolls in that direction as he wanders through the north nail of “the Fruitridge Finger,” a baffling jurisdictional no man’s land of unincorporated county jutting high into the city’s south borders.

On every map it resembles a fat, deformed human digit. The “Finger” is a convergence of two supervisorial districts and two City Council districts, all woven into a bizarre patchwork of county sheriff’s territory butting against Sacramento police beats. Everyone owns a piece of it and yet no one seems to control it.

If the Fruitridge Finger was only a kink in political districting, or only a place where 27 percent of families live in poverty, or only a stronghold for the Oak Park Norteños, leaders could easily chart the desperation on its corners. But the Finger is more. It’s a community where black infants and children die at twice the rate of any other ethnicity. It’s a territory that recently had almost 1,000 Child Protective Services investigations in a year. Its high-fenced, blighted avenues witnessed 12 murders in 2016 alone.

These streets—barren of real grocery stores, strewn with piles of garbage against chain-link, rife with empty-eyed addicts, spotted with homeless camps and women climbing into strangers’ vehicles—are embedded with lasting, perpetual trauma. They’re streets that eliminate newborn babies and pimply teenagers with equal efficiency.

It’s a neighborhood Serna constantly returns to.

“It’s pretty bad when the best-looking house on a street is our emergency homeless shelter,” the supervisor mutters, climbing into his truck. He sends an alert to county code enforcement about a mound of junk spilling into the lane. Serna doesn’t stop reporting the trash, and he doesn’t call this part of town the Finger. Instead he uses its original name, the Fruitridge Pocket, a moniker dating back to a time before urban decay, business flight and the drug war took their pounds of flesh.

These days, what makes the Finger such a popular term with critics is a Rorschach symbolism they see in the shape of its bureaucratic lines.

“Some people would say that everyone is pointing the finger at each other about who’s responsible,” notes City Councilman Eric Guerra, whose District 6 scrapes the top of the Finger. “Meanwhile, they think the people who are actually getting the finger are those who live in and around the area.”

Yet Serna’s insistence on calling this space the Pocket isn’t about branding; it’s a signal he’s not giving up on its halcyon days or a hope of better times. That commitment means a lot to the 22 nonprofit groups holed up in the neighborhood’s abandoned elementary school. Known as the Fruit Ridge Community Collaborative, it’s the Finger’s Alamo. The men and women behind its walls are waging a daily and mostly invisible struggle, trying to counter decades of disinvestment and the social tragedy that’s followed.

Now, as some locals push for the city to annex the entire Finger into its borders, Serna says his focus is on helping the unsung members of the Collaborative to make this community whole again. But no matter what you call it, can it be saved?

Lost and future faces

Two children watch paramedics scramble into a house on 44th Street, a common sight in ‘the Finger.’ Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala.

June 22—the hottest day of the year so far in Sacramento. Richard Nelson leans back against a sink in the corner of a former classroom. His tall frame is towering against a shield of window blinds. Nelson watches his friend of 50 years, retired college president Dr. Eric Gravenberg, speak to a group of high school students. Nelson and Gravenberg are the founders of Hawk Institute, a mentoring program for at-risk teens. The initiative came into being seven years ago after a murder inside the Finger brought suffering straight into their own lives.

Gravenberg’s nickname with the young faces is “Dr. G.” Sheltered inside an air-conditioned room of the Collaborative, he walks them through a wide array of job-seeking skills. Every set of eyes is locked on him.

“I know that what we teach you is in competition with a lot of other things in your life,” Gravenberg admits in a calm, even voice. “There’s family issues; there’s so much pressure.” He nods a little, his pitch dropping. “It’s deep. I can see it when you walk in the room.”

Nelson can see it, too. For him, building this nonprofit has meant catching the clues that a teen is living with four siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. He knows the telltale signs of a kid struggling to find clean clothes. He notices when the high schoolers eat only half of the meals they’re provided, squirreling the rest home for waiting, hungry mouths. These youngsters are the future of the Finger and its surrounding avenues.

Nelson’s had a decades-long view of how they were born into their situations. In 1972, he was the manager of Oak Park’s Bank of America. It was a time when Fruit Ridge Elementary was still packed with kids and people mainly called the neighborhood the Pocket. And then rock-cocaine tumbled through the streets like a poisonous wave. Lawmakers’ response to the epidemic tore the social fabric even more. South Oak Park, the corners of Fruitridge and lanes of Elder Creek were hit with what Nelson remembers as a hard downturn.

“When you look at the drug infiltration throughout America, that whole episode took out all of these fathers, who became either incarcerated or addicted,” Nelson recalls. “There’s no father. There’s no grandfather. There’s no uncles. … You’ve got the blind leading the blind.”

In 1986, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Nelson director of small business for the California Department of Commerce. As a finance expert, Nelson knows what yearslong disinvestment does to neighborhoods like the Finger. Spiking incarceration rates lead to high unemployment. Household incomes drop. Vacant buildings get flipped into cheap, transitory rentals. Violence starts escalating. Businesses leave. Public improvement projects get steered to other areas. Cornerstone merchants get displaced by legions of liquor stores. The spiral goes on and on.

Nelson may have understood how community collapse works, but no parent would have imagined what life around the Finger had in store for his own family.

On December 15, 2010, Nelson’s 30-year-old daughter Monique was bringing her baby to get his picture taken at a strip mall on Stockton Boulevard. It was the kind of Tuesday afternoon when $5 haircuts for kids often had Fly Cuts barbershop filled with toddlers. Monique was leaning over her 2-year-old in his car seat when a group of men began facing off nearby. According to court testimony, their feud boiled down to a $40 robbery, some missing marijuana and a lost gold mouth grill. Seconds later, pistols, a TEC-9 and an AK-47 were spitting bullets through the air.

Monique threw her body over her baby to protect him. It was the last instinct she would ever have.

“Out of that pain, Eric and I got together and said, ’You know, this just doesn’t make any sense,’” Nelson remembers. “We decided there was a whole bunch of conversations that needed to be had, particularly with black males.”

A few years later, Nelson and Gravenberg were standing in front of not just young black men from South Sacramento, but also Latinos, Asian-Americans and every other kind of kid from the neighborhood. The program they’ve designed for Hawk Institute emphasizes financial literacy, academic achievement and critical thinking. It’s become a key partner with the city of Sacramento’s anti-gang task force.

“We put a big emphasis on fatherhood,” Nelson says. “We talk about how, even when relationships end, you don’t walk away from your kids. That’s the only way we’re going to start changing that dynamic.”

The temperatures keep lifting outside as Gravenberg shepherds the teens’ imaginations through creating a small-business plan. He’s also helping them apply for Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s new Thousand Strong Initiative, which could give each youngster a paid internship. The participants are laughing and offering upbeat lines of encouragement to each other. Nelson and Gravenberg hope they’ll hold onto those feelings, because they can’t stay in this room forever.

Two hours later, the thermometer’s red line makes a blood-bump up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. A homeless man with two small children trudges though Jack Davis Park, stopping by the memorial to Porraz, who was killed by a bullet to the face last September. His voice is drying to a whisper as he looks around for water. A stranger comes onto the grass from a liquor store on 14th Avenue. Naked but for his grimy pair of shorts, the stranger starts dancing around: He flashes teeth-grinding face tics—tremors running through his fingers as he picks at his cheeks. On the park’s handball court, a woman is tying off a rubber tourniquet on a young man’s arm. They’re ready for the needle. Neither looks up when a car rolls by.

A few blocks south, a new murder tribute has gone up. Kenneth “Cheech” Armstrong Jr. is hovering over a makeshift bundle of candles at the corner of 42nd Street and 23rd Avenue, where Jovance Lewis died against his chest. Huffing against the heat in a sweat-drenched shirt, Armstrong keeps muttering how he was almost killed in the same instant.

On June 16, Armstrong, Lewis and two other men were standing under the eave of the corner liquor store when two 15-year-old males approached. Armstrong doesn’t talk about the words that were exchanged between Lewis and these boys. He just stands, swaying on his ankles, whispering that the teens pulled out guns.

“I was on the ground while they were shooting,” Armstrong chokes through his arid vocal chords.

Armstrong’s friend Anthony was hit in the foot. A neighborhood man called B-Town was drilled in the knee. Lewis took a bullet to the head. Moments later, a neighborhood musician known as June happened on the mess of blood and gore. June stands near the death candles, bumps of water studding on his bare chest.

“We’re in the sheriff’s area here,” June notes, “but it was actually a Sacramento police car that first raced by.”

Sheriff’s officials confirm June’s observation that a police cruiser was closer to the “187” murder call than their own units. They also confirm the arrest of two 15-year-olds.

June saw the Finger’s jurisdictional jumble on full display through the crime tape and evening light. But Armstrong isn’t meditating on which badges chased down the alleged killers. His bleary eyes keep drifting between goodbye messages scrawled on the liquor store wall and a dirty dog-shaped stuffed animal craning through the candles.

“He died in my arms,” Armstrong croaks. “I was holding him. I kept saying, ’Get up, come on, wake up, man.’”

Cradle to grave

A student at Hawk Institute explains to his classmates what the program has meant to his life. Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala.

Shannon Read walks by a pillar of sable tiles crossing art-deco windows from 1938. It’s June 29, and Read’s about to see if her co-workers in the Fruitridge Community Collaborative know about the latest murder. It happened last night.

The bullet holes weren’t even patched where Lewis was gunned down when a 19-year-old boy was killed eight blocks away at 14th Avenue and 40th Street. Authorities noted that, with the help of a girl who’d also been shot, the teenager managed to stagger northbound from the tip of the Finger. He died closer to 12th Avenue and thus officially became a homicide stat for city police detectives rather than county sheriff’s investigators.

There’s no way for Read to ignore how close the slayings have been to the Collaborative. Each happened when the facility was closed, but it’s what the bloodshed does to the neighborhood that worries her. As executive director for the Center for Community Health and Well-Being, Read’s job is to push back against communal despair. The killings create waves of it.

But so too do the deaths that Read is tasked with ending—the ones that rarely make the news. According to county health officials, the Stockton Boulevard and Fruitridge Road neighborhood comprises one of seven zones in the region where African American infants and children die at twice the rate of other ethnicities.

It was Serna who first started demanding answers around those numbing statistics. He formed a special commission to investigate what was filling the tiny coffins. Four years of research have identified some key factors: prenatal conditions, child abuse and neglect, and sleep-related deaths. And, of course, homicides.

Pregnancy and sleep-related fatalities are what Read’s team works to prevent. They’re partners in the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a coalition of elected officials, health care providers and faith organizations. The mission is to alter outcomes, but there’s no shortage of challenges: County health records indicate that, in and around the Finger, premature births for African-American babies are double those of any other racial group. The same holds true for low birth-weight rates. More than a quarter of pregnant black women here don’t seek prenatal care until after the first trimester, the data state. Access to basic nutrition is also a serious obstacle. For women living in neighborhoods of the upper Finger, the only places within walking distance for groceries are liquor stores and fast-food chains. For those without wheels, healthy food of any kind isn’t an option.

Read emphasizes that understanding these factors is about more than analyzing stat sheets; it’s about understanding the neighborhood as an organism.

“No two pregnancies are the same,” Read says, “but generally speaking, we’re talking about stress as a major factor [in the infant death rates]. There is huge discussion around the social determinism of health right now. If you’re pregnant and you don’t have a roof over your head, if you’re struggling to put food on the table, if you’re working and trying to raise kids, that’s all chronic stress that these women are facing, which really takes a toll.”

Read adds, “The trauma of living in a neighborhood that has constant violence, to the point it becomes commonplace, absolutely builds on that stress.”

Read’s view is based partly on the findings of experts like Dr. Flojaune G. Cofer, who works for the Davis-based Public Health Advocates. Having reviewed myriad data about the county, she argues the collective picture is clear: Unstable and trauma-prone neighborhoods directly affect the health of those living in them. The trajectory, Cofer says, is especially pronounced in utero. She summarizes the impact on pregnant women as “a stress that never goes away.”

Read and her team of advocates are on a mission to help mothers survive the stress. They assist women in getting early access to prenatal care. They make sure the expectant mothers have transportation to doctors and nutritious food to eat. They educate on sleep-related infant death and even provide cribs that are fitted for maximum safety. In cases when a mother’s drug addiction is the main threat to the baby she’s carrying, Read’s advocates find treatment intervention. They help navigate their mothers through everything from applying for Medi-Cal to searching for safe housing.

“It’s not about telling them, ’We’re here to fix you,’” Read says. “It’s about letting them know we’re here for support.”

A similar type of support is offered down the hallway, where therapist Leslie Lem and her team at Birth & Beyond are addressing another contributing factor in the early child deaths—neglect and abuse. County records indicate that Child Protective Services launched 984 investigations in the Stockton Boulevard-Fruitridge Road corridor in 2015. When those CPS probes trigger court intercession, Birth & Beyond provides the free parenting classes that are often mandated. It conducts the outreach program in English, Spanish, Hmong and sometimes Russian. The group’s work at the Fruitridge Community Collaborative has made it another partner in the Black Child Legacy Campaign.

Lem says the households that are struggling most in the neighborhood experience an anxiety and isolation that keeps cycles of child abuse passing from one set of parents to the next.

“It becomes generational for families living in certain conditions,” Lem notes. “We need to understand the historic impacts.”

The work Read’s and Lum’s organizations do inside the Fruitridge Community Collaborative is augmented by the host of other nonprofit groups settled on the grounds. They all work together in a space that’s emblematic of the Finger itself, a square parcel of city territory surrounded on all four sides by county land.

The odd property lines around this landmark elementary school haven’t been spotlighted much by local media, but then, rarely are any of the moments of progress that keep happening in its halls. Reporters come to this neighborhood looking for yellow tape and fresh body bags. And the more this phalanx of nonprofits remains absent in the media dialog, the more each one relies on its own individual network of county supervisors, City Council members and neighborhood associations to champion its goals. Having proponents is vital to keep the work going.

“When you’re a grant-funded nonprofit, people like to see quantitative outcomes: They want to see numbers and metrics,” Read observes. “We’re working with human beings, and there’s a human factor. Every single mom coming to us has different circumstances going on in her life. … We know that our outcomes might not be seen for generations from now, but that’s not an excuse for inaction.”

Annexing the anomaly

A firetruck races down 44th Street past the spot where Phillip Porraz was killed last year. Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala.

A series of echoing cracks roars over the fences of 45th Street. For once, it’s not bullets. On the eve of Fourth of July, Felipe Ramirez has the door open for a view onto the street. Snappers and Saturn missiles sound off in distant yards. His wife Christina is watching television near a sliding glass door looking out on her manicured garden. The couple has lived in the center of the Fruitridge Finger for 57 years.

A retired worker for Campbell Soup Co., Ramirez was active in civic life, serving as an advisory board member of Fruitridge Recreation and Parks Area when it built Jack Davis Park in the 1970s. Ramirez knows his neighborhood isn’t perfect. In February, his next-door neighbors were arrested for having a stockpile of 70 illegal guns, including assault rifles as well as chemical grenades. News stories like that don’t stop Ramirez from hanging out on his porch at night.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a safe neighborhood,” Ramirez says, shrugging. “I’m not afraid. … I know there was a killing here recently, but there’s killings in a lot of neighborhoods.”

There are plenty of residents who disagree. For more than a decade, The Sacramento Bee and SN&R have run occasional op-eds on the possible benefits to the city of annexing the Finger into its borders. Political representation in the area is currently split between Serna and District 2 Supervisor Patrick Kennedy at the county level, and between Guerra and District 5 Councilman Jay Schenirer at the city level.

The annexation push has gained new momentum, according to Guerra, who says residents inside the county often contact him about wanting better services, while his own city constituents near the boundary complain the Finger’s crime and blight are spilling into their neighborhoods.

Supporters of annexation point out that the city has a strong program supporting neighborhood associations, which the county lacks. They praise the city’s rental inspection program, aimed at stopping slumlords, which housing advocates say is more proactive than the county’s. When bars and similar businesses are scenes of frequent violence, city officials don’t hesitate to file an injunction against them. County officials acknowledge it’s rare for them to file such injunctions. One of the biggest topics of conversation with annexation supporters is code enforcement, their idea being that the city’s team is faster, stricter and more responsive.

Over the last four months, SN&R confirmed that it’s not uncommon to find large piles of trash building up on the county’s side of 14th Avenue, while the city’s side looks relatively clean. It’s something county critics point to as symbolic of a broader pattern.

Finally, the annexation question is tied to varying opinions about the differences between the Sacramento Police Department and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Katie Valenzuela Garcia, a board member of the South Oak Park Neighborhood Association, recalls how a mother of six hurried into her group’s meeting one night because a strange man had broken into the woman’s house on 47th Street. The mother said it had been three hours since she called 911 and a sheriff’s deputy still had not arrived.

“I would say that’s a pretty big emergency,” Garcia observes. “You know, ’Somebody is in my house.’”

Garcia believes the city should annex the Finger, but not just because of anecdotal stories of emergency response times.

“It would make it easier for residents to advocate for the change they want if it was all incorporated into the city structure,” Garcia says. “Just trying to help residents navigate the bureaucracy is hard enough without splitting it; and the city and county don’t always work well to coordinate with each other.”

Guerra is one elected official who openly supports annexation, though he knows getting buy-in from his fellow City Council members would mean convincing them that the potential benefits outweigh the service costs of taking over an impoverished community.

“If we improve the quality of life for the people living inside the Fruitridge Finger, it would improve the quality of life for everyone around it,” Guerra says. “Some of the city’s approach to tackling the issues that affect neighborhoods would be helpful.”

Yet, looking out at 45th Street, Ramirez remains firmly against annexation. He even told that to Mayor Steinberg a few months ago when Serna and the mayor were walking by his yard. Like many residents, Ramirez has heard that his local taxes and utility fees will go up if he becomes a resident of the city. Seeing “what a mess” downtown parking is has also convinced Ramirez the city is bad at urban planning.

More than anything, Ramirez says the neighborhood finally has a champion in its county supervisor.

That’s a point that nearly everyone who spoke to SN&R about this story agreed on. Since being elected, Serna not only helped spearhead the Black Child Legacy Campaign and found money to build the Fruitridge Community Collaborative, he had the county install 250 new streetlamps for safety and launched the neighborhood’s first National Night Out event in years. For many residents, Serna is the only elected official they see walking these streets.

Serna told SN&R that he would go along with annexation, but only if a majority of his constituents tell him that’s what they want. “Right now, no one’s really telling me that,” he says.

Certainly, he’s not hearing it from residents like the 84-year-old Ramirez, who enjoys inviting Serna into his dining room for the kind of friendly banter he says he used to enjoy with local sheriff’s deputies. That was 30 years ago, back when there was still a neighborhood watch program and the deputies knew the names of everyone on the block. It’s not like that anymore, though seeing Serna make the rounds rekindles the memories.

“It’s in his DNA,” Ramirez says. “He wants to do a good job, and he has.”

And so, the question of annexation remains divisive. And the infant death rates and CPS caseloads remain high. And the murder rate keeps climbing. And past Ramirez’s window, the poppers and sky lanterns keep flashing through this warm holiday night. People linger on the front porches, smelling the smoke and sulfur traces. An ambulance with lights flashing goes wailing far down Stockton Boulevard.

Ramirez and his wife aren’t going anywhere.

“I love this neighborhood,” he says. “This is where I want to die.”

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