Clean Zone: East Palo Alto Program Tackles Violence

A program in East Palo Alto gets people outside and into the parks in the worst parts of town. It’s called the Fit Zone Program, and it’s driving down crime in the city.

In 2012, then Police Chief Ron Davis implemented the program. Officers focused on parks with a high number of recorded gunshots throughout the year, detected using Shotspotter. Jack Farrell Park was identified as one of the problem areas.

“It was a park that used to be inhabited by a bunch of drug dealers, people drinking alcohol,” said current Police Chief Albert Pardini.

Then, the Fit Zone Program started. People were invited to play volleyball into the night. Kids were drawing, coloring, and studying on the park benches. Officers would ride bikes with teenagers in the neighborhood. The parks cleaned up.

“It went from 2,400 [gunshots recorded by Shotspotter] four years ago, to approximately 630 last year,” said Chief Pardini of Jack Farrell Park.

Ricardo Alvarado lives near the park and is now heavily involved in the Fit Zone Program with his family.

“This area was bad at that time years ago, and we want to live in this area and make some changes,” he said.

The group even painted large murals at two different parks. Director of Outreach Dany Ceseña says gang members saw kids painting those murals, and won’t tag the walls out of respect.

“By coming out and essentially participating in elementary style recess...and working on small arts projects people are able to reclaim their city,” he said.

This week, Chief Pardini is adding his own initiative with the help of local church groups. Together, they created the Clean Zone Program. Community members will spend Saturdays picking up trash and painting over graffiti. They’ll even paint homes and fences for seniors who can't themselves. Pastor Timoteo Uelese will lead the first cleanup this Saturday.

“There were some problems in our city with drive-by shootings. We're thinking if we take the streets, these people will not come back again. We belong to this place,” Pastor Uelese said.

It’s part of a one-two punch to combat crime. The families are taking back their city from criminals. Some, like 8th grade Gabriel, are happy to call it home once again.

“People used to think of us as bad people just because we live in East Palo Alto,” he said. “Not anymore."

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