A down market

To many, the Washington Market is the lone palm tree in the island of urban despair that constitutes North Oak Park. Too bad the neighborhood can’t buy happiness there.

Photo Illustration by Larry Dalton and Andrea Diaz

The wide, accommodating street corner in front of the Washington Market is crossed and re-crossed dozens of times a day by the same young men in hooded sweatshirts or red headbands, puffy jackets and the requisite droopy jeans. Sharing the corner with children and retired folks, the men hold quick conversations with local drug users and then glide into the middle of the street to lean momentarily into open car windows or to jump into front seats just long enough for the snazzy cars to cruise forward half a block.

Unfortunately, these street-level drug dealers are some of the most successful entrepreneurs in North Oak Park. Their daily presence, and the menace it implies, helps keep the small neighborhood surrounding the market from going straight and making a resurgence. With the attitudes of spoiled princes, the dealers stand casually in front of the market at 37th Street and 2nd Avenue. They work the isolated neighborhood that stretches north to Sacramento City High on Y Street and west to Alhambra Boulevard, with Broadway to the south and Santa Cruz Way to the east. In spite of cleanup efforts by the neighbors and the city, the drug-using community continues to keep its princes in new shoes and gold jewelry.

“Crack,” said Lee, a trim black woman standing on 37th Street one day, watching the doors of the market, “comes in three forms.” For her, this detail was a testament to the drug’s awesome power.

“It’s a plant,” she said, letting the image of the cocoa plant sink in. “It’s smoke,” she added, her voice dreamy. “And it’s a solid,” she said finally, as if crack cocaine itself were some self-animated shape-shifter, a supernatural demon spirit that used its power for evil.

A self-professed addict, Lee looked like she could have been a social worker. Her hair was plated into two neat braids, and she wore a clean, striped shirt and jeans. She didn’t look like the kind of person who would stand on a corner and spout passionate street poetry about cocaine, but, as the last of the early autumn sunlight began to fade, and a shy older man named Boo came to sit on the curb at her feet, that’s what she did.

“Like a plant,” Lee said, “crack grows inside you. It gets into your dreams. You wake up thinking you smoked it. You wake up exhaling it. … Every time you have $20, it turns into rock.”

Lee came to addiction late, she said. She started when she was 39 years old, after having been the kind of woman who helped pull prostitutes off the streets and then got them into computer classes. Her sister convinced her to take her first hit by saying that it was like smoking weed.

“Dirty bitch,” spat Lee, “I hate her.”

The fact that even the most naive woman of 39 should have known better doesn’t matter. Lee’s version of her life story relies on this betrayal.

Lee has a similar contempt, tinged with a little pity, for the women who keep smoking crack even while they are pregnant. If she were president, she said, she’d lock those women up until their babies were born.

“Crack takes the souls of children,” Lee said. “One little baby, he couldn’t even cry normally.” Standing on the street, she mimicked the sound of a pitiful, empty whine. “Crack babies … they’re going to kill off the world,” she went on. “Nobody wants them. Nobody loves them. They’re always fighting, hard to deal with.” Lee paused. “When they grow up,” she said, “that’s it.”

In front of the market, an Asian boy rolled by on his bike, his friend trying not to laugh as he wobbled precariously on the boy’s handlebars. Lee looked around at the dealers and their customers. A cross-dressed white man with fake eyelashes and a parasol yelled, “Get the crackheads out of here!” Lee whispered that he was a crackhead himself.

Customers visit the Washington Market, a social hub for the neighborhood but also the scene of a recent gang-related homicide.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A thin, pretty black woman dressed in a tight, pink T-shirt came by and said that drugs are so prevalent in North Oak Park because the black people there have it hard—“not to make it a racial thing,” she added. Right then, a wild-haired addict appeared out of nowhere on his bike, interrupted the woman in pink and asked if she was selling.

With her cover blown in front of a reporter, the woman in pink leaned back with cool, unquestionable authority and told the bike rider he must have mistaken her for someone else.

“Oh, right,” the man said, taking up the charade. “I’m sorry. You just look so much like that other girl.”

In a few minutes, he rolled by again, looking a little hungrier and apologizing some more. Finally, the woman in pink headed for the corner around which the man had disappeared.

“The babies start selling real young,” Lee said sadly. To her, all the dealers, no matter how tough, were still sad little babies.

As she talked, a shiny, black car packed with babies who’d grown into large men pulled to the curb in front of her. Three of them got out and strolled slowly down the sidewalk, keeping their eyes on Lee. When one man in corduroy shorts moved the flap of his unbuttoned suede vest aside, exposing his chest and one deep brown nipple, Lee got a little nervous. Was there something in the waistband of his shorts?

The sun was going down. The plump high-school girls and the parents with toddlers in flower-print pants all had made their way home from the market.

“I’m in trouble now,” said Lee, picking at her fingernails and looking down. Outsiders mean trouble, and no dealer wants a customer talking about drugs to a reporter. Lee said she already knew of four shootings that had happened in the area in the last few months. She didn’t want to be the fifth. One victim had been her friend Gary. She remembered leaning into his car when her regular dealer walked up.

“Go!” Lee yelled at Gary, as the dealer started complaining that she was supposed to be buying from him, not from Gary.

“Go!” Lee repeated.

As Gary began to wind up the engine, the dealer pointed his gun through the window at Gary’s leg and pulled the trigger.

The young men outside the Washington Market gathered in groups of two to four. They were never quite still but churned around slowly on the street corner. Occasionally, during a lag in business, they crept up the block a little, held their bills in their hands and rolled dice on the sidewalk, their tough game faces dissolving into attractive, good-natured smiles. Sometimes, a woman in painfully tight jeans joined them. She stood almost motionless, facing the street, her hand on her hip as though she were a mannequin on display.

The rules that govern drug distribution near the market are fairly standard everywhere. Juveniles caught with a little bit of marijuana are safe from hard time, so the young dealers near the market stand on the front lines, making the kind of money they couldn’t make working at Burger King. But harder drugs are available, too. Street gangs appear to rule this aspect of the trade. According to a report published on the National Drug Intelligence Center Web site, two street gangs, the Oak Park Bloods and the 29th Street Crips, have been known to be rival cocaine dealers in the area.

A memorial to Corey L. Coleman, who was shot inside the Washington Market, stretched across the market’s outer walls last September.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Perhaps because of the gang presence, or maybe just because of the money that flows up and down 37th Street, the atmosphere right outside the market can be tense. Gunplay is too common, and all outsiders are immediately suspect, even reporters.

When asked questions, girls turned their backs and strolled away. Fearless looking men smiled sheepishly and said there were too many people on the streets for them to talk openly. The dealers themselves mumbled a rough “fuck you” and strode up the street, scowling. But, even in such a dangerous neighborhood, toddlers in Muslim attire played outside by themselves, and second-graders rode their bikes to the market and then dropped them absentmindedly outside.

New families who had wanted to buy homes in East Sac neighborhoods are pushing south into Oak Park, taking advantage of the low housing costs and turning random houses on every block into showpieces. But, in spite of the new paint and new roofs, many residents still keep bars on their front windows, keep their curtains shut tight and keep pit bulls in the yards. Rents for deteriorating houses and the neighboring apartment buildings are low, subsidized housing has proliferated, and low property values have led to absentee landlords. Where there are a lot of absentee landlords, there are crack houses. And so, there are also customers. It isn’t just Lee and Boo.

On recent mornings, a buxom older woman topped by a beautiful headscarf sometimes emerged in her fur coat and could be seen walking a crooked line down the middle of the street, her movements loose and jittery in the familiar style of someone perpetually high.

A healthy-looking man with clear eyes and a dirty white undershirt cruised the neighborhood on his bike, hailing drivers. “Oh,” he said, if the driver wasn’t buying or selling. “I thought you were Susan.”

One morning, a young woman shuffled slowly down 3rd Avenue between the leaf-covered lawns and old homes. She bent over to look hard at the driver of every car that passed her. Finally spotting a dealer turning the corner, she got excited and started hollering and gesturing at families raking up leaves to stop him. The driver did pull over, but, after taking one look in his rearview mirror, he pursed up his lips like a disapproving grandmother, gave a shake of his head and sped away. The woman stood in the street behind him, her face clouded, her palms held open at her sides. She looked utterly abandoned.

Outsiders have come into the area, too. Professional white folks with high incomes have to get their drugs somewhere, Lee intimated, and certainly not from their own neighborhoods. Lee said it was just pitiful watching them give so much money to the babies, who often handed over less than their rich, white customers had paid for.

If the area around the Washington Market functions like an island dominated by a familiar group of dealers and users, the market itself is the island’s lone palm tree. Beyond the criminality outside, the market is a gathering place, a neighborhood hub. When the neighborhood took a violent hit in late summer, the market became the local memorial.

In September, neighbors, friends and family left messages and prayers for a young man known locally as C.K. He’d been shot to death inside the market and was now romanticized on the streets as a “very nice young man.” Whether his nickname was short for something such as Crip Killer, as some members of the Bloods were called, was unknown.

Friends and family members covered the outer walls of the market in red and blue paint: “Wake up! We lost a real soldier … you respected by me … see you when I make it to the gates.”

Sticks of gum, open soda cans and single, plastic-wrapped roses had been propped up against the walls along with McDonald’s french-fry containers and school photographs.

Eventually, Harbans Singh, who owns the market, had the memorial painted over in a clean, creamy color topped by narrow strips of green, gold and red. Above that, a wooden sign with woodblock letters once read, “Washington Meat Market.” With the “Meat” removed, the sign looks oddly uneven.

Inside, Singh, a tall man with a short beard, works the counter with his wife, who wears traditional Sikh robes in quiet earth tones and who appears to speak little English, though that might just be a tactic for limiting conversation. Their customers can be unpredictably irascible.

Olga Vasquez is seeing some improvement in her neighborhood, but she still has to avoid the prostitutes having sex in the empty lot next to her house.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A sweet-faced, school-aged girl who grew up in the neighborhood said it was a great place to live, except for the police presence. “He calls them,” said the girl, glancing at Singh as if calling the police made him the neighborhood’s No. 1 enemy. Behind her, an angry old man bought a beer and then yelled that the place should be shut down because it attracts crime. The same man was doubly bitter because the city would have shut it down long ago, he believed, if a black family had owned it.

But, if the market is a magnet for crime, then it also is a magnet for good-natured conversation between neighbors. On one day, strangers who could barely remember where they met clasped hands or gave each other gentle hugs. Young women gathered to snack through the afternoon and entertained customers with a steady stream of jokes at one another’s expense.

One grandmotherly woman stopped all conversation by giggling childishly and calling out a warning as she bumped her bike up the curb and bounced it off the market’s raised stoop. She lost both her sandals in the process. Exposing her upper teeth, half of which were missing, the woman announced that she’d just bought the bike for $5. She was going to take it to a friend who would paint it purple for her.

If the need for a quick paint job suggested the bike was hot, well, that didn’t dampen the woman’s natural enthusiasm for the thing one bit. In spite of the street craziness, she was still delighted to chat with her neighbors and share news of her good fortune—even if it had been obtained illegally.

Singh, who’d seen the best and the worst of his neighbors, remained unmoved by even the sweetest of his customers. He went to shoo the dealers off his corner again.

The two boys curled their lips and cursed under their breath, but they didn’t challenge him. Instead, they crossed the street and stood on the opposite corner, where they stared at Singh with a what-did-that-accomplish look.

“They act like it’s legal,” grumbled Singh, coming back into the store. “The cops have searched them three or four times, but they never find anything.”

Kitty-corner from the market is one of the area’s three low-cost apartment buildings. Managed by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Glenhaven, like many of the rental properties around the market, has problems keeping good tenants. Recently renovated and freshly painted in cream and cranberry, four of its apartments already have been shut up with plywood.

One block north, another SHRA property, Sherman Oaks, has the same problems. It’s supposed to house only senior citizens, but one of the older residents, Mary Pew, claims a young prostitute tromps up and down the halls all night in a pair of heavy clogs. Kids have broken in, also, to use the patio for dice games. And Pew once had to call the police when her neighbor, who called himself a minister, insisted that someone was trying to kill him. The minister claimed that the violent junkie shooting heroin in his bathroom was a random stranger, but Pew had seen groups of young people going in and out of the minister’s apartment regularly. She wasn’t convinced that he was teaching them Bible stories.

The fact that some of the older residents share their apartments with younger relatives doesn’t help things. One random weeknight, a young woman stepped out of her doorway and into the street in front of Sherman Oaks. Her winter coat fell just over the tops of her thighs. Beneath the hem, she wore nothing but a thin pair of nylons and stilettos. She headed for the Stroll, a notorious prostitution district nearby. But, before she could get even half a block, a young man from Sherman Oaks trotted up to her, danced around her a little and led her back toward his friends at the apartment building.

Prostitutes, of course, go where the drugs are, and that leads them to the island around the Washington Market. Like the dealers in front of the market, the girls sometimes conduct business out of doors, in empty lots or alleyways or under sheltering overhangs. They, too, own a piece of the street, these princesses of partly sheltered places.

Olga Vasquez, who’s lived in the same house on 1st Avenue for 43 years, volunteers every morning at the Women’s Civic Improvement Center on 36th Street. The petite Mexican-American lady said that when she passes the empty lot next to her house at noon, she can see the prostitutes and their customers having sex.

In the early mornings, the security guard for the WCIC walks to the side of the building and calls out his regular greeting to the prostitutes who huddle against the outside wall.

Odette Gomez points to her front window, which has been firebombed twice.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Checkout time, ladies,” he tells them.

Apart from a couple of automotive shops along the border, the Washington Market is almost the only legitimate business left in the island of North Oak Park. A new window-covering shop went up on the western border, but, otherwise, businesses are transient, shoestring endeavors. The newest consists of a simple backyard grill set up in a dirt lot on Broadway. Its owners squat on the property and serve barbecue to construction workers as well as to the people who drive up after dark, slinking down into their front seats until Reverend Debs, as he calls himself, passes a plate of barbecue to his wife, who walks it across the lot to the cars.

Other residents have started small, home-based businesses, but none of them have the resources to open a permanent shop. And, with rental prices increasing in the area, it’s likely they never will. Selling barbecue is rarely as lucrative as selling crack.

Jay the Junkman is one of those who scratch out a living. In his gray, fleece shirt with dirty cuffs, and a knit cap that barely contained a head of wild hair, Jay spent a slow afternoon raking leaves in front of the old-fashioned, stand-alone garage that acted as his storefront. Through the open door, one could see mountains of oil- and dust-covered machinery.

He fixes things for people, he said, looking at the sad old trucks in his driveway. If someone needed a lamp, maybe he could find them a lamp. If someone needed a radio fixed, maybe he could fix it.

Jay’s wife is deceased, and his son autistic, he said. And, after cleaning up his sidewalk, Jay was off to anger-management classes. “I got counseled,” Jay said. “That’s how I can keep it together.”

Now, he said, he tries to counsel others in the neighborhood. He sometimes can be seen with the old homeless men in the morning, wearing his kelly green terry-cloth robe and laughing among them and the cans of beer they swaddle in paper bags. Presumably, he’s helping them deal with the effects of poverty and addiction.

Most people understand that the neighborhood’s problems are complex, stemming from generations of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and violence piled up on top of each other and left to simmer by local government. But some community activists look for present-day causes and end up blaming small-business owners such as Singh.

The corner in front of the market always has been dark, the activists complain, and always has offered nighttime cover to dealers and prostitutes. The activists also accuse Singh of catering to panhandlers and the homeless by selling single beers from his well-stocked coolers. And couldn’t the police put an officer there full time?

Singh probably won’t stop selling singles, which are too popular for him to give up, but he did hang new lights outside to brighten up the corner. He also put up “No Loitering” signs, and he regularly makes the effort to chase the dealers off his property. He even allowed the neighborhood to put up its memorial and then bought the paint and repainted the walls with the help of some of C.K.’s family members.

As for keeping an officer on the premises, Sgt. Justin Risley, public information officer for the Sacramento Police Department, estimated that such a project would cost $50 an hour in time and resources. The department can’t afford it, and neither can Singh.

To the south of the WCIC, a brooding group of old men often stands on a street corner in front of a trash-filled lot that acts as the men’s own open-air club. They come from the depressing subsidized housing units to the east of WCIC, or from unknown back rooms and basements. Some of them are homeless. One man, reclining in his wheelchair, may sit there for an hour by himself, waiting for his compatriots.

“This is my day,” yelled one of them one day. He was an older man with only a few teeth, all of which were crusted with food. “Veteran’s Day,” he shouted.

The owner of the Washington Market has hung extra outside lights and “No Loitering” signs to discourage drug dealers and prostitutes.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A younger man with an unlined face and lovely eyes swayed as if he could be pushed over by a breeze. He bent precariously backward, as if giving the world some space and some respect. He and his friends know, he said, that public drunkenness is a nuisance, so they try to hide their habits and try to be unobtrusive. But the police, he said, come and mess with them all the time, search them and disperse them.

But, like a flock of birds, the men return, holding onto their turf and wishing the WCIC still offered free lunches to all the poor, instead of just to the senior citizens.

Edward Clark, a middle-aged man who rode up on his bicycle as if he were the club’s chosen MC, the mayor of their street corner, said in very proper speech that nothing was going to help the neighborhood but the neighborhood itself. Leave it alone, was his advice. In 2003, he said, North Oak Park would become the city’s hub. He has put all his hope in folks like former basketball star Kevin Johnson, who is buying up Oak Park buildings and renovating them left and right, and City Council Member Lauren Hammond, who has planned for an Oak Park renaissance. In 2003, Clark predicted, all the power would be in his corner.

In a way, Clark and the activists are right when they say the neighborhood is changing. Blocks full of single-family houses are looking less rundown, shut down and abandoned and more like the modest neighborhoods of East Sac. But, as property-purchase rates go up, some fear that the poorer residents who’ve survived the area’s worst days inevitably will be displaced.

Singh’s next-door neighbor, Odette Gomez, said retired people sometimes have to save their pennies to buy one of those single beers that folks are always complaining about. They drink it and go home, she said. For them and for others, the market’s a real lifeline. Old women, Gomez said, can’t walk all the way up to a store on Broadway and carry their groceries home.

Gomez, were she a different kind of woman, might fall into that category herself. Instead, she’s more like the neighborhood nanny. A formidable, older white woman in sweats, who refers to herself as “farm stock,” Gomez is Singh’s No. 1 supporter in times of trouble. And, having spoken to the police countless times, she’s one of their trusted sources. But she doesn’t take sides against anyone. She and Singh have found that a useful policy. Even the kids on the street trust her.

“They call me Mom-o,” said Gomez. When a kid’s in some kind of trouble, he knows he can call her and, without even giving his name, ask her to move a note along to his family or help him out in some other way. Gomez won’t ask any questions. She’ll just do as he asks.

This has given her some familiarity with the gangs. Gomez claims they form along racial lines and that the larger neighborhood supports nearly half a dozen, among them Hispanic, black and Hmong. The kids on the street around the market are primarily black, but those who provide them with crack and methamphetamines are white, said Gomez—science types. “Eggheads,” she called them.

Why do the dealers get away with it? Gomez said there aren’t enough cops to keep a lid on all of it. The occasional sweeps pick up a few kids, but, a couple hours later, new ones have taken their places.

Of course, with the drugs and the gangs has come violence. Gomez’s own house has been firebombed twice. There are still scars in the paint along her front window. Shots were fired through her windows as well, though the angle, according to Gomez, gave the impression that the shooter was just firing warning shots. Someone wanted to discourage her from getting too involved, maybe. The gunshots weren’t her first warning.

Gomez once managed the Glenhaven Apartments, before they were taken over by SHRA. With an odd delight, she said there was once a $15,000 price on her head because she was trying to clean the place up. She remembers working outside and seeing a flash out of the corner of her eye. A 15-year-old boy was in the passenger seat of a car that went speeding by. He pushed a pistol out the window and up over the hood and fired off a few shots, but Gomez found it almost cute that he was pointing so far up into the air that the bullets just sailed away over her head and never hit anything.

Gomez talked about all this without concern. On Gomez’s first day in town, she said, she and her husband pulled up to a stop sign, and a man poked his head in the window to ask what their pleasure was. Right then, her husband drew the line. He pulled out a machete he kept in the car and threatened the man. Since then, Gomez has had her own semi-secure place in the neighborhood.

For the most part, people are good, she said. They watch each other’s backs. For added protection, Gomez keeps a couple of dogs. She recently had to place a bitten-up sandal on the sidewalk in front of her house because a girl lost it after hopping the fence for a quiet place to do her drugs. She must have made it back over; just the sandal was left.

Living right next door to the market, Gomez was the first person in the neighborhood to get a call from Singh on the night C.K. was shot.

According to Gomez and Singh, C.K. had been in the store by himself when two men from a rival gang spotted him. They got all puffed up and started arguing, but then C.K. turned away, easing the tension and ending the argument. But he pulled out his cell phone, and the two men assumed he was calling for reinforcements. One of them took C.K. by the hood of his sweatshirt and threw him onto his back in front of the cash register. Singh tried to intervene. He called the cops and Gomez, but the men continued to wrestle. Then, the third man decided to end it. He pulled out a gun and shot C.K. twice in the chest area, “under the ribs,” said Gomez, as if the shooter knew exactly how to make the shots fatal.

Soon, the market was flooded with neighbors, but there were still no cops. C.K. had wandered to a back corner of the store and had collapsed. Somewhere, a woman was screaming her head off. When the paramedics arrived, Gomez helped shoo everyone out the door and then went back to C.K., who was lying in his own blood within a small circle of family. “I don’t want to die,” he said.

Edward Clark, the eloquent mayor of street corners, said he was one of the last people to see C.K. alive. Everybody had been moved outside, but he went to feel the man’s pulse to see if, at the heart, C.K. was still alive. While Clark watched, C.K.’s pulse simply stopped.

Memorials like the one that plastered the Washington Market with prayers and notes, said Gomez, are how the neighborhood shows its grief. That’s why everybody wanted a little bit of the romance of his death and pointed out that their sister or their cousin went with his brother or his cousin. With the memorial, said Gomez, the island dwellers around the Washington Market didn’t have to be so tough for once. It was safe, finally, to just pour out their hearts.