FAIRFIELD — In a northwest nook of Parkway Gardens, four men gathered in a common area between condos.
Most of the residents were staying inside on the calm, sunny – yet chilly – Thursday morning around 11:30 a.m. In that corner of the complex, however, the men stood around as loud rap music blared from an open window, echoing off the surrounding units.
Their attention soon focused on Harriet Stricklen, the on-site manager, making her rounds. As she approached, two of the men slinked out of view while another slowly moseyed toward the door of his residence before disappearing inside.
Stricklen was soon standing where the men had been a minute before.
The beat of the music remained in the courtyard. The men didn’t.
“See how they scatter,” Stricklen said as she approached. “I get a kick out of it.”
That’s exactly the presence Stricklen has been working toward since her firm took over the 15-acre, 240-unit complex in 2010. The one driveway in and out of Parkway Gardens sits at the corner of East Pacific and Dover avenues.
With little power to remove the tenants – who primarily rent from absentee owners – being in their face and keeping an eye out are among the few tactics she has.
That only works so much. In March, two men were killed in the Parkway Gardens parking lot during a drug deal gone bad. Men from the south Bay Area were soon named as suspects. Stricklen said outsiders who know the reputation will often come to the area to commit crimes.
She said her company, AMG Management, has an branch that deals with departments of corrections. Stricklen came from that background in Florida and seems to have taken the challenge personally. For someone with no attachment to the area, her drive to change the atmosphere of the complex goes beyond her duties as a manager.
“We weren’t intimidated by that culture,” she said about noticing gang members when she arrived. “Parkway was a vulnerable spot. Parkway is in a spotlight of the city. We have to keep this momentum going.”
One of the major roadblocks is that 70 percent of the units are rented out by owners, many of whom are not in the area. She said many of those owners don’t care how tenants make the money, as long as they get paid.
Stricklen said some owners also can get intimidated by the residents, which results in no warnings and in some case nonpayment. She referenced one owner who has a tenant who hasn’t paid in months, but the owner is afraid of what will happen if an eviction is started. She said there’s a fine line in being a manager and getting involved with foreclosures and other real estate actions.
Owners are encouraged to let Stricklen and her company do background checks, but not everyone takes advantage of that option.
Steve Olry, a board member of Parkway’s homeowners association, said things are different compared to the past 15 years he’s lived there. He gave Stricklen credit for coming in and not being afraid of the criminal element. In fact, after seeing her in action, he wondered why Stricklen took the gig.
“My attitude was why would you want to come here,” Olry said to Stricklen. “You’re the first person willing to deal with this and not be heavy handed.”
“I don’t get the complaints of loitering I used to,” Olry said. “I think the pattern has began to change.”
Stricklen and Olry have been getting some help lately as the city of Fairfield has identified the complex as one of the low-income, high-crime areas that needs help improving safety. Starting with community meetings that put residents and police face to face, several areas have been targeted for community policing.
The city also used around $25,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants to install cameras around the complex. The public safety grants only allow the money to be used on public property, thus the city is limited to what it can do within the fences.
City Manager Sean Quinn said when he and staff set out to improve the neighborhoods, they knew simply adding extra enforcement wouldn’t be enough. They then turned to neighborhood policing tactics that were once funded by the redevelopment agency, slightly tweaking the approach.
Quinn said the response from everyone involved has been encouraging and he is happy to see relationships being forged.
“We have the unique ability to do that,” Quinn said. “I firmly believe we have to work in these neighborhoods. I give the police chief, management and officers a lot of credit. They have bought into it and are out there doing it. It gives the people out there hope.”
Fairfield Police Chief Walt Tibbet said it quickly became obvious that traditional techniques wouldn’t stop the trouble in problem areas.
“You patch the hole and wait for the next one. Then you ask ‘How come we keep getting holes?,’ ” Tibbet said. “We started to say we can’t do what we’ve always done. You’re seeing it now.”
One of those changes was to start asking what the problem was at community meetings, coming up with solutions and following through by checking back in with residents at future meetings.
“I think it’s our obligation to go into places where they don’t have trust in us and build it back up,” Tibbet said. “If we don’t have the same relationship at 2 in the afternoon as at 2 in the morning when they call during a crisis, it won’t be as effective.”
Assisting that effort are folks like Stricklen, Tibbet said. He said the relationships start with those entrenched in the areas who can help lead the charge. He said it took the double homicide to get people together and talking again and Stricklen was there to facilitate.
“Parkway is a single illustration of a much broader problem. People that are struggling. They feel disenfranchised and feel they don’t have a voice,” he said. “It’s the Harriets of the world that have great courage and integrity.”
When Councilman John Mraz first heard about a movie night at Parkway Gardens, he wanted to get involved. The monthly event brings some residents together as a screen is set up and families can gather around in the open.
His first thought was to provide the DVD for the showing and to bring along some snacks for the children after hearing that many were going without. The second time around, he brought some substantial food, rather than just snacks.
“I didn’t realize how hungry these kids were. They ate it all. They ate until there was nothing left,” he said. “I guess I just wasn’t educated enough on how bad off some these kids were.”
After realizing the needs of the children there, Mraz helped organize some fundraising that brought presents to many youngsters in the complex.
His next plan is to work with the Police Activities League to create some kind of academic incentive program for children in Parkway Gardens and other neighborhoods the city is working with. Although it is still in the planning stages, he would hope a coalition would be set up to reward a group of children with the best grades with a gift card to buy goods they need.
“I’ve been ignorant to what’s going on. I had my eyes opened up,” Mraz said. “If I’m going to do anything, giving them a sandwich and a movie isn’t going to change their life. I want to get them interested in school.”
Reach Danny Bernardini at 427-6935 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dbernardinidr.