Taking back Columbus Avenue

Residents rally to clean up one of Chico’s most troubled streets

Photo By Tom Angel

Columbus Avenue looks like any other campus neighborhood in Chico—a few tiny, modest houses sandwiched between larger stucco apartment complexes set back off the sidewalk. Garbage lines the gutters—candy wrappers, wax paper cups, empty cigarette packs—while a few stray shopping carts lie on their sides up and down the avenue. A ratty floral-print couch with missing cushions sits down the street from a couple of dust-coated vehicles with thick cobwebs splayed over their flattened tires.

Columbus Avenue runs parallel to Nord Avenue just behind the Safeway shopping center, right next to the railroad tracks off West Sacramento Avenue. The cul-de-sac spans the length of about two city blocks, less than a quarter-mile from the Chico State University campus. But very few, if any, college students live on Columbus anymore.

Those who lived in the area in the early 1990s remember when the street was occupied by nothing but students. However, when university enrollment dropped in the mid-'90s, so did occupancy. Property owners began renting out apartments to anyone they could find—many of them low-income families.

As rents decreased, so did the upkeep of the apartments. Many of the property owners lived out of town and put the complexes into the hands of site managers who did little to remedy the situation.

The neighborhood began to decay, and Columbus Avenue became synonymous with drugs, violent crime and even gang activity—earning a reputation from locals as one of the most dangerous streets in Chico. When enrollment began to climb again over the next five years, students flocked to newer apartments instead of the shabby complexes on Columbus.

It wasn’t until just a few years ago that Columbus residents, police and property owners began taking serious steps to restore the neighborhood to a safer, cleaner living environment. Unfortunately, the process has been stifled by budget cuts within the Police Department and the loss of a few of Columbus Avenue’s major advocates.

Residents and police agree that there is still work to be done. But those same people are emphatic when they say the neighborhood has come a long way.

Columbus Avenue is part of the “Rancheria neighborhood,” the area north of campus bordered by Fourth Avenue on the north, Warner Street on the east, West Sacramento Avenue on the south and Nord Avenue on the east—an area with a troubled past.

In 1996, Chico’s police chief at the time, Mike Dunbaugh, told the CN&R that problems in the area were increasing because university enrollment was on the decline.

Enrollment was 13,919 that year, quite a bit less than the 16,641 peak enrollment the university enjoyed in 1990.

“With fewer students competing for the best housing, rents have fallen for less desirable properties, and this has brought in a less desirable sort of tenant,” Dunbaugh explained.

Some property owners did anything they could to draw the student population back to their complexes.

In a letter written to the city’s Community Development Department in 1997, Reed Francis, of Francis Properties in San Francisco, explained that he had no choice but to fill his 20-unit complex at 1000 Columbus Ave. with “welfare, low income and basically anyone brave enough to live in the area.”

He went on to explain that, in place of students, families were filling the units and that there wasn’t enough space to accommodate the some 42 children living on site.

According to reports filed with the Building and Planning Department, Francis Properties was cited for trying to convert six of its four-bedroom units into one- and two-bedroom units without approval from the city. Francis contended that the decline in enrollment made it difficult to fill his four-bedroom units with students.

SOFA KING COLUMBUS <br>Abandoned furniture and vehicles offer a reminder that Columbus Avenue is still in the process of being turned around.

Photo By Tom Angel

“With the demise of Pioneer Week and the like, CSU Chico is no longer perceived to be a ‘fun school’ and thus no longer a preferred destination of as many young gregarious students from the Bay Area and L.A.,” Francis wrote.

Francis Properties was subsequently forced to convert the apartments back to their original state.

But it wasn’t just “undesirable tenants” who were the problem. Absentee property owners were often oblivious to what was going on in their own apartments. And on-site managers were sometimes as much a part of the problem as the tenants.

Files on some of the Columbus Avenue properties in the City of Chico’s planning offices show numerous reports of substandard living conditions dating back to the mid-1990s.

In 1999, the city’s Building Code Enforcement unit had received reports of sewage leaks, broken plumbing and exposed wiring in one of the complexes. Reports also showed that residents in the same building had gone without running water for weeks and that Code Enforcement’s efforts to contact site managers had gone unanswered.

It became a vicious cycle in which tenants weren’t paying rent and property managers weren’t fixing the problems.

Imogean Harlan moved into an apartment at 1000 Columbus Ave. in November 2002, in the complex owned by Francis Properties. She says it wasn’t necessarily by choice.

Like many of the residents in the neighborhood, Harlan was receiving rental assistance under Section 8, a federal housing-assistance program for low-income families and individuals.

By then, many of the apartments that lined Columbus Avenue had deteriorated into nearly uninhabitable shanties and become a haven for drug activity and violence.

“It was horrible having to be subject to that and not being able to move away from it,” Harlan said.

Harlan is a good-natured woman with long, straight blond hair and full lips painted with red lipstick. She’s a woman who calls it like she sees it. She’s also received a tremendous amount of credit for cleaning up her apartment complex and encouraging others in the neighborhood to do the same.

Harlan said it wasn’t long after moving into the neighborhood that she witnessed drug deals and violence right in front of her apartment.

“I could walk out my front door, and there would literally be someone there offering to sell me crack,” Harlan said.

She said there were physical altercations every day and that police would show up in the neighborhood three times a day.

“I’ve seen literal riots where there have been people getting cracked over the head with pop bottles,” Harlan said.

She approached City Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis, whom Harlan had met two years earlier after losing all five of her children to Child Protective Services and serving four months in jail for child endangerment and intent to manufacture methamphetamine.

SILENT NIGHT <br>Chico Police Sgt. Jennifer Gonzales chats with Shawn McNiel, program director at Stairways Recovery, on a mellow Tuesday night. Stairways was established last year and now occupies a number of apartments at 1000 Columbus Ave.

Photo By Tom Angel

It was a difficult time for Harlan, who said she went above and beyond to turn her life around—never missing appointments with CPS and entering a drug-rehab program under her own volition.

Jarvis, who in addition to serving on the City Council was also working as managing attorney at Legal Services of Northern California, recognized her efforts and offered Harlan a job as a filing clerk in her office.

“I realized that I had someone who would advocate for me,” Harlan says of Jarvis. “She really believed in me.”

After being told about Columbus Avenue by Harlan, Jarvis decided to check out the neighborhood for herself. Harlan said it was only a matter of minutes before Jarvis witnessed a drug deal in the apartment’s parking lot as she sat in her car.

Harlan contacted Francis Properties and offered to become the site manager for the apartment complex and, with the help of Jarvis, received more police assistance and formed the Columbus Avenue Task Force. She evicted more than half of the people in the complex. It was around the same time that Action Properties took over the adjacent complex and did the same.

In November 2003 Harlan turned the apartment complex into a clean and sober living environment for those dealing with substance abuse issues called The Harlan House.

It was a major step, but the violence continued.

In December 2003, 26-year-old Octavian Lee Joseph was shot five times in the torso in the parking lot of The Harlan House. Joseph survived the ordeal, which residents blamed on a drug deal gone bad—likely the reason no arrests were ever made.

“All it did was make me want to make a difference that much more,” said Harlan, whose husband and children looked over Joseph until the ambulance arrived.

Harlan had residents participate in the Ident-A-Child Program, where photographs and fingerprints are taken and transposed to identification forms for parents, and she started a Neighborhood Watch Program in 2004 by collecting 150 signatures from Columbus residents.

With the help of local landscapers and volunteers from Chico State, Harlan cleaned up the outside of the complex and planted new shrubbery. She also hosted barbecues in an attempt to bring neighborhood residents together.

“I made it clear that I wasn’t alone in making a change,” Harlan said. “And in the time I was there it changed dramatically.”

Although things have gotten better on Columbus Avenue in the last two years, residents say they still see their share of shady activity.

Falyn Pierce and her husband moved from Oakland to a modest house on Columbus about a year ago—it was close to campus, rent was cheap and it was just about the only place in town that allowed them to have a dog.

The 24-year-old Pierce says when they moved in a neighbor told them, “If you want quiet, you’re in the wrong place.”

Just two weeks after moving in, Pierce’s other roommate got into a shoving match with a neighbor who told them he was going to return with a gun and shoot up their house.

HOUSE OF HARLAN <br>Imogean Harlan stands in front of the 1000 block of Columbus Avenue. Harlan moved into the complex in 2002 and played a major role in cleaning it up and encouraging other residents to do the same.

Photo By Tom Angel

But, even after the incident, Pierce says she doesn’t feel unsafe in the neighborhood.

“For so many people living on one street, there’s not that much going on.”

Pierce, who’s witnessed a number of close calls, believes the unsupervised children in the neighborhood are most at risk and suggests that the city install speed bumps to curb the drag racing that she said commonly takes place on the avenue.

And, like many people living on Columbus, Pierce says it’s common to see children riding bikes without helmets or just wandering the streets late at night with no parents in sight.

In fact, Pierce told the CN&R, the owners of the two-bedroom, one-bath house across the street (listed for sale at a noticeably cheap $162,000 by Chico standards) have friends staying there just to keep unsupervised children from loitering in and around the property.

Pierce and her roommates plan on staying in the house for the next few years because of the large space and cheap rent. She said it’s usually she and only a handful of others in the neighborhood who make the majority of calls to police, but that more needs to be done.

“In the long run, calling the police all the time isn’t going to fix the problem.”

It’s about 10 p.m. on a muggy Tuesday night, and Sgt. Jennifer Gonzales is half-jokingly apologizing for the lack of action this evening. Even though it’s a week night, Gonzales is surprised by how quiet the Columbus Avenue neighborhood is.

As we approach the 1000 block of apartments on a call of a woman complaining of abdominal pain, Gonzales explains how things would have gone down two years ago.

“By now we would have heard whistles and phone calls signifying that the police were here,” she said, explaining that even the youngest children would often give out the signal. “It was a tight-knit community, but it wasn’t a healthy community.”

Gonzales has been on the force for 10 years and said she remembers cutting through Columbus from Nord Avenue while she was attending Chico State in the early 1990s.

As we stroll through a few of the shadowy apartment complexes, Gonzales points out some typical nooks and crannies that make catching suspects a difficult task.

The backsides of many of the tall stucco apartment complexes face the railroad tracks, which Gonzales says act as a major thoroughfare between Columbus Avenue and Cedar Street and make nearby businesses like Subway and Safeway prime targets for robberies.

Most of the apartments have been cleaned up and new light fixtures have been installed. However, there are still a few complexes toward the north end of Columbus that remain dark and run down.

A handful of kids, probably not even 10 years old, run across the street toward Safeway—it’s now about 10:30 p.m. and there are no parents to be seen.

We head back to the SUV, and Gonzales reflects on where Columbus Avenue is today.

RUNNING FREE <br>Nineteen-month-old A.J. Seabourne gets some play time in during a barbecue held by Stairways Recovery promoting residents’ effort to make Columbus Avenue a drug-free zone.

Photo By Mark Lore

“Is it perfect? No. Is it getting better? Yes.”

Efforts to clean up Columbus Avenue have slowed a bit over the last year, but they certainly haven’t stopped.

Chico police had a much stronger presence on Columbus Avenue in 2002 with the establishment of the Temporary Allocated Resource Goal Enforcement Team (TARGET). The program, made up of four officers, was created to concentrate on one problem area until it got fixed.

However, due to budget cuts within the department, the program was disbanded in July 2004, and the officers went back to regular patrol. It was around the same time that Jarvis, a major contributor to the effort, died after a two-year battle with cancer. Imogean Harlan also moved out of the neighborhood six months ago because, she says, she refused to raise rents on those staying at The Harlan House.

Chico City Councilmember Andy Holcombe was part of the Columbus Avenue Task Force, which included Jarvis, property managers and Chico police.

As an attorney representing low- and moderate-income tenants in rental disputes, Holcombe has worked with several tenants in the neighborhood who he said were being treated unfairly. Even if tenants are deemed problematic, he said, it is important not to lose sight of landlord/tenant laws.

Holcombe said he is encouraged by the progress made on Columbus Avenue in terms of the drugs and racial tension that used to divide the neighborhood. Calls to his office regarding tenant-based complaints have also declined.

According to Holcombe, Francis Properties was an “interesting outfit” in that it was more open to giving people a second chance while, at the same time, providing little or no maintenance.

Capu Lit has been property manager for Francis Properties since 2002, around the same time Imogean Harlan replaced the previous site manager, who she says was selling pot out of his apartment.

“It was like letting the wolves watch the chicken coop,” Harlan said.

Lit contends that he is extremely vigorous in his screening process, but that finding good tenants remains a challenge to this day. Renters with money go elsewhere. By dropping rent, Lit says, he can be more selective but inevitably the company takes a hit in the pocket book.

“It takes years to wipe away that stereotype,” Lit said.

While he agrees that the area has improved dramatically over the last two years, Lit poses the question: “Are we solving the problem or are we just moving it?”

Even with a few setbacks in the last year, the effort to make Columbus Avenue a safer place to live has picked up where Imogean Harlan left off. Stairways Recovery, a nonprofit organization that houses people with behavioral-health issues, has filled the space once occupied by The Harlan House.

Shawn McNiel, who was a lead staff member at The Harlan House, is now program director at Stairways, which opened in October 2004. McNiel and Assistant Program Director Dan Cavanaugh hosted a free neighborhood barbecue earlier this month in a continued effort to make Columbus Avenue a drug-free zone.

Tim Truby, community services officer with the Chico Police Department, has worked with the residents of Columbus over the past few years. He said law enforcement and the city attorney will work on the wording of the drug-free-zone resolution before it goes before the City Council, probably in late August.

Truby said calls for service in the area have remained about the same since 1997, but that the more serious calls in two of the more problematic addresses have dropped significantly.

He gives credit to the handful of Columbus Avenue residents who continued to fight for their neighborhood even when crime was at its worst.

“The neighbors have not lost hope, they have not bailed on the community, and they have stayed focused on the goal of making the neighborhood free of crime and drugs.”