Hustle and Florin
A slice of reality from one of the most impoverished, dangerous, diverse—and unique—communities in the Sacramento region
Rizaldy Vazquez was in his living room when he heard shots fired.
It was 1998. He was 18, watching TV alone when a pop, pop, pop took down a young Vietnamese man living two doors away from his south Sacramento home.
Vazquez didn’t leave his house at first, but when he did, the police had arrived. Neighbors mulled about, asking one another what had happened, who could have been shot.
At one point, officers took young Vazquez aside. They were somewhat suggestive in their line of questioning, according to Vazquez. But when it became clear that he had no idea what had happened, they abated and let him return home.
Today, Vazquez cuts an imposing figure. He is broad. Tall. Dressed in black. A flat-brimmed cap over dark eyes and a scarred nose. A deep, resonant voice that imposes itself on the room in spite of the tactful, gentle words it delivers.
A first-generation Filipino-American, Vazquez has spent 31 of his 33 years on Hayfield Circle, near the intersection of Power Inn Road and Gerber Avenue in south Sacramento. His story is not unlike that of many others who grew up in perhaps the most diverse area in all of the region.
But south Sacramento is not so easily labeled. It will not fit into a box.
It’s home to an airfield-turned-mall and a mall-turned-gangland. A place for retirees and a campground for the destitute. And it is open for business—not only for Walmarts and State Farms, but also for tamale vendors and juice-cart operators.
Just 50 years ago, the Florin Road-Stockton Boulevard intersection was the frontier of the metropolitan city limits. But once Florin Mall opened in the late 1960s on what was once the Sacramento Sky Ranch airfield, things got rolling. Homes went up. Then, more businesses. By most accounts, this shopping center was a centerpiece of south Sac.
Then, Arden Fair mall, north of downtown, was converted into an indoor mall in the 1970s, establishing itself as stiff competition. Crime rose near Vazquez’s neighborhood and businesses closed.
During the 1990s, he and his friends used to hang out at the mall, despite its reputation for virulent gang activity, when not attending class at the nearby William Daylor High School, a second-chance classroom created for the area’s at-risk youth.
“If you want to talk about the epitome of the hood or ghetto, that was it right there,” says Vazquez of his former classmates. “Some were in gangs. Some were just the hood fellas, I guess.”
“I was in between. I knew the gangs, but I didn’t run with them.”
His alma mater rests just southwest of the Florin-Stockton intersection, located on a unique U.S. Census Bureau tract made up of both residential and public land running south along Highway 99 and then back east over Stockton toward Power Inn Road, which is just a stone’s throw from Vazquez’s home.
This is one of the poorest spots in all of Sacramento.
According to the American Community Survey, the median household income on this 1.18-square-mile slice sits just below $25,000 per year. The median home value hovers around $134,500, about 43 percent of the median home value for Sacramento. Almost three in 10 adults over the age of 25 have not graduated high school, and at least one in four families lives below the poverty level.
This is it. This area is impoverished Sacramento. But it’s not precisely what you’d expect.Crime at the door
The hookers were coming, and it was up to the elderly to stop them.
About five years ago, the residents of Barkley Lindale, a community on the southeast corner of the Florin-Stockton intersection, found themselves under attack by south Sacramento’s thriving prostitution industry.
“They would meet their johns and park their cars somewhere in this immediate vicinity, and they would leave their traces,” says Kim Masunaga of the used condoms discarded in the gutters of Barkley Way and Lindale Drive.
“When there are young kids around,” she says, “you have to be careful that they’re not touching them willy-nilly.”
Masunaga sits next to her sister, Masumi, in neighbor Midge Chapin’s living room. Chapin heads the Barkley Lindale Neighborhood Watch, and sits across the table near her neighbor Tom Dunnings.
The room is dark and cool on this February afternoon. Old furniture enhances the home’s loved and lived-in feel. Everyone in the room has lived in the neighborhood for decades, and everyone in the room is retired. They are tapped in. They care deeply about the community. They work hard to keep Barkley Lindale clean and safe and take pride in what they have.
At first blush, this neighborhood is cleaner than much of the surrounding area, with homeowners, trimmed lawns, and the cheerful barks and howls of neighboring dogs. But as the residents speak of safety, they unexpectedly begin to paint a scene of criminal activity lurking right outside their doors.
Chapin recalls an attempted burglary about 10 years ago. How her kids were visiting one day, when suddenly, in broad daylight, someone tried to break in with a gun.
“The guys never got in,” Chapin recalls. “Got his rifle stuck in the door, ’cause our son slammed the door.”
This story reminds Dunnings of another incident.
“Last year, [our neighbor] Josie had that guy at her back door at 2 in the morning. Went to let her dog out, and he was standing there at the back door.”
These sorts of things happen once in a while, they say. That’s why they put up lights and have security doors.
Sure, Dunnings has had two cars stolen from him over the past couple years right off his driveway. And so have the Chapins. Ed, up the road, lost his truck. And the Masunagas had three break-ins when they first moved into the neighborhood decades ago. But, again, that’s why they installed lights and locks.
The Barkley Lindale area suffers less from violent crime than nearby neighborhoods. According to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s department, victims in the area directly surrounding the Florin-Stockton intersection reported 15 instances of theft, six of which were theft from vehicles, and four instances of breaking and entering last month. Conversely, the area itself experienced just two reports of drugs, four robberies and one property crime.
The conversation in Chapin’s living room soon turns to crime in pockets outside their neighborhood. To streets and stores around which they would not spend their time. Blackhawk and Loucretta drives. The shopping center back across Stockton.
“You go to Walmart,” says Dunnings, “there’s a lot of young black kids that just sit on the wall there, wandering in and out of their cars, asking for money, intimidating people. All these hoodies.”
“Doesn’t matter how warm it is, they got a hoodie on.”Diversified portfolio
There were times growing up when Vazquez wished his name was Michael.
“My name is Rizaldy. That’s an unusual name,” he says. “And when I was younger, you know, I wanted to be more—I don’t want to sound derogatory—like the white kids. Because when I saw them, I saw all the things that I didn’t have.”
Vazquez squints under his black baseball hat and recalls that young person not yet comfortable in his own skin.
“I had this ideal in my mind that, ’Oh, their family is all nice, they have this nice house, nice cars, they sit down at dinners,’ and stuff like that. My family didn’t have that, you know? We really didn’t sit down at dinners. My parents didn’t tell me how to be a good human being.”
Vazquez grew up on tough love. His parents perhaps taught him more about respect than affection. He attributes this in part to their military background, and, in part, to how hard his parents had to work as Filipinos in an unfamiliar land to put food on the table every night. This struggle was spared to many of his white classmates and neighbors, and the young Vazquez made this connection.
South Sacramento is a veritable melting pot. The area just west of Vazquez’s block, for example, comprises about 30 percent white, 22 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian residents, according to the American Community Survey. (These numbers total more than 100 percent because some people on the survey identified as more than one race.)
When looking at state numbers surrounding race and household income, it’s easy to see why the young Vazquez felt the way he did.
In California, the median household income for whites is almost $64,000, while that of Hispanics is about $47,000. Black households come in around $44,000 (the overall median income in Sacramento is $50,267). But in south Sacramento’s most hard-hit neighborhoods, it hovers around $25,000.
Compound this with the fact that some households are run by immigrants trying to adapt to a new culture, and opportunities to improve one’s quality of life grow even more scarce. On the tract west of Vazquez’s home, for instance, almost 20 percent of the population was born in another country, and more than half of them do not currently have U.S. citizenship.
His parents worked hard to give his brother and him a fighting chance. His mother is a U.S. citizen, but both she and his father were born in the Philippines. In Sacramento, Vazquez’s mother found work first with AT&T Inc. and then at UC Davis, and his father worked in the military and later for Hewlett-Packard before suffering a nonfatal stroke in 1998.
Around that time, Vazquez graduated from high school and entered the work force, landing a retail job at Old Navy. He later earned a technical degree and a decent-paying gig. But that all disappeared with the recession in 2007.
He currently lives with his folks, in the very house he grew up in, off Power Inn and Gerber roads. His mother works full time and his father, ever since his stroke, is on Social Security. All told, Vazquez estimates that the three of them together have about $3,000 of working income to get by every month. To make up for expenses as he looks for work, he sells his possessions on Craigslist.
In this start-and-stop economy, it’s extremely difficult for the people of south Sacramento to find work—even those with degrees. In the neighborhood near Vazquez’s home, the unemployment rate for males over 16 years old is 22 percent, with only 52 percent of the males over 16 in the labor force.
Vazquez tries to keep positive as he looks for work. “I’m looking for anything and everything.”The other next economy
A short Latino man pokes his head into Barbara Etrick’s State Farm office.
“Tamales!” he calls out. “Tamales?”
“No, thank you!” Etrick yells back, and the man waves and takes his leave.
“Every day there’s stuff like that that goes on around here,” she says. “Very entrepreneurial. There’s a fruit lady just down the street.”
Etrick and her husband opened their branch on the southwest corner of Florin Road and Stockton Boulevard three years ago during the economic downturn. At the time, she had just decided to move industries, from marketing to insurance.
Finally, Etrick found this intersection, through which up to 77,000 cars passed every day. Those numbers spelled opportunity to Etrick, and she and her husband bought the office space soon after.
This State Farm branch isn’t like other locations. For instance, all four of the agents working under Etrick are at least bilingual, so native Hmong-, Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking customers can all feel more comfortable.
Etrick’s operation is just a microcosm of what a number of local businesses are trying to do in this area: Spark the local economy while embracing its multiculturalism.
Business hasn’t been easy in recent decades for the old Florin Mall area. The 1980s and ’90s marked a time of economic decline and increased gang violence. More recently, the 2008 financial crisis has not been kind to local residents and businesses alike.
Today, residents say things are getting better. But ever so slowly, and not without hiccups. Panhandlers pepper the mall’s parking lot. Petty theft is a problem. And the Walmart, located in the lot north of Etrick’s offices, is notorious as the location where Juana Reyes, the “tamale lady,” was arrested by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies last summer and nearly deported for selling tamales in the parking lot.
Despite Reyes’ brush with the law, however, it’s easy to see that the entrepreneurial spirit has not died on Florin Road. Fruit and snack vendors as well as men selling Valentine’s Day baskets from the trunks of their cars stand along the area’s empty parking lots, clearly enjoying strong business.
This is the sort of thing that gets under the skin of local officials. Larry Carr, head of the Florin Road Partnership, is adamant that such vendors get permits to sell their wares. When he sees them out on the thoroughfare, he says he often alerts the local security company, Paladin Private Security (which the Florin Road Partnership has hired), to kick them out of the parking lots.
Etrick, who sits on Florin Road Partnership board, agrees that the vendors need permits, but she doesn’t think the process should be so difficult. And she can’t help but admire their pluck.
“These are people who are unstoppable in terms of getting it done. They’ll get it done one way or the other. And you know what? You’ve got to applaud that.”Homeward, bound
Outside the Starbucks on the northwest corner of Stockton and Florin, a man calls out. His light eyes are glazed, murky. Facial hair unkempt. His smell is sharp, and the booze on his breath is unmistakable. He wears a dusty camouflage shirt and dusty camouflage hat, which, somehow, clash.
The man, perhaps in his early 40s, begins spinning a yarn: He just got in from Portland, Ore., with his brother, to see his brother’s ex-wife, so she could return his guitar to him, as well as some of his other effects (bless her heart). He’s waiting on a voucher at the VA, but somehow that, too, has fallen through. Now he’s $16 short of a ticket home.
He edges closer, hand out, hoping for some cash. But it slowly hits him that his cause is a lost one. He stops. Says, “Thanks for your time.” Turns.
“Well, shit,” he says, ambling back through the parking lot.
While many in Sacramento consider the banks of the American River and downtown as zones most heavily populated by the city’s destitute, the stretch of land just northeast of Florin and Stockton is also home to a number of area homeless.
A large tract of the empty lot on the northeast corner of Florin and Stockton is used for festivals throughout the year, such as the Vietnamese Tet celebration. But a few hundred feet to the north, one will find a large field, some abandoned buildings and a number of shrubs turned into beds by the area’s homeless.
Refuse is strewn across this forgotten zone. Empty shopping carts lay abandoned in the field. The whole area smells of urine, and one will find moldy, mottled couches and box springs tucked behind trees and bushes, where homeless men come to lay their heads at night.
In this year’s homeless point-in-time count, volunteers counted some two dozen homeless people on the Florin-Stockton stretch of land, indicating the harsh realities facing south Sacramento’s needy.
“I had a friend who was homeless for a while,” recalls Vazquez. “I let him sleep in my car for a few weeks. Mom wouldn’t let him stay in our house,” he laughs.
Funny as that may sound, support from friends and family in south Sacramento can make all the difference. Growing up in this part of town, it’s an everyday occurrence. Vazquez has had friends die from violence, die from drug use and end up in prison. These are the people with whom he attended grade school and high school.
And while his family may have gone through tough times when he was younger, Vazquez says he’s still thankful for when, in his early 20s, he had a roof over his head, when he decided to leave the work force and go back to school, earning his associate degree in electrical engineering from ITT Technical Institute.
“Compared to what my parents had, I made it. That was one thing I wanted to show them when I graduated from college. ’The fact that, you know what, I know your situation wasn’t the best. But I’m thankful for you,’ and this is one way of showing it.”
After graduating, Vazquez was hired as a technician with Walgreens, helping to keep stores across Northern California running. Unfortunately, Walgreens laid him off in 2007. He has enjoyed some steady work since then, but, at the moment, he is between jobs.
These days, it’s not about economic status or skin color to Vazquez. He’s happy with who he is. He’s happy with the family he has. Thankful for the air in his lungs. He is searching hard for employment, yes, but his work and wages will not be what define him as a person.
“When I went to college,” says Vazquez, “I realized … I need to change who I am. Not only for myself, but for my friends and family. So I can be a better person.”
“I just want to be a good citizen of the Earth.”
Now, standing outside of his house on Hayfield Circle, Vazquez speaks of the neighbors beginning to form a sense of community in the area.
He firmly refers to the building behind him as his home, but it is clear that he’s not just talking about the house.
“This is where I am,” he says. “This is where I’m going to be for a while.”