Everett’s Casino Road no longer such a bad gamble

Whatever you do, don’t live near W. Casino Road.

Michaeel V. Martina / The Herald

The area around W. Casino Road in south Everett is known for crime and poverty, but residents say it’s getting better.

That’s the advice U.S. Navy officers gave Nigel Legette when he was shipped to Everett from South Carolina several months ago.

He ignored the suggestion.

A couple of months later, he came home to find a dead man lying face-up in blood just outside his apartment at Cascadia Pointe. The man had been shot in the head at close range with a 9mm handgun.

The killing shook up Legette, 19. His fiance was pregnant, and he didn’t want his future wife and child to be living anywhere near flying bullets.

“I thought, nuh-uh, I’m not going to be around here if this is going to happen,” he said.

He thought about trying to get out of his lease. Then he thought about it some more. The shooting was just one incident. It wasn’t a drive-by or a gang fight; it was a feud between co-workers, he later learned.

He decided to stay.

If the shooting had happened a few years ago, and if the neighborhood was as bad as Legette had heard, he may have fled W. Casino Road.

Longtime residents described the neighborhood as a place where police avoided conflict, managers never screened residents, prostitutes roamed the streets and the neighborhood association was in disarray. But that was then. Now, Legette is OK with calling it home. “Its reputation is undeserved,” he said. “It’s not as bad as you hear.”

Others agree. The neighborhood still has its ugly side, but it’s changing.

A number of mutations – spawned by police, the community and government – have turned the area around W. Casino Road, known as Westmont, into a case study of neighborhood evolution.

It’s not a new species yet, but the crime-ridden Westmont area of a few years ago seems to be gradually fading into the past.

“It’s getting better,” said Umminhan Gurgolu,who has lived in a condominium off W. Casino Road for five years with her husband and two boys. “This street was dangerous before, but now it is not much different than other streets.”

Crime stabilizing

The numbers still show a largely renters’ neighborhood struggling with crime and poverty.

In 2004, Everett police reported 96 assaults, 209 vehicle thefts, 108 home burglaries and 134 domestic violence incidences in Westmont, an analysis by The Herald found. All those categories, except domestic violence, were slightly higher than in 2001.

But the neighborhood’s population has boomed the last few years, which may explain some of the increases, said Capt. Mike Campbell of the Everett Police Department’s south sector patrol.

Any sign that crime numbers are stabilizing indicates progress, he said, since previously crime kept going up.

Westmont’s poverty also presents challenges. Census 2000 data shows a community struggling with low incomes.

In the eastern half of the neighborhood, 16.2 percent of families live below the poverty line. In the western half, 16.7 percent live below that mark. Compare that with about 10 percent of families in Everett as a whole.

The poverty level means more people working two or three jobs, more people hoping to move to better neighborhoods, and more people not caring about the future of Westmont.

“It’s a challenge,” said Winnie Corral, program manager of the South Everett Neighborhood Center, which serves Westmont. “We’re talking about an area where a huge population is working just to make ends meet. And then do you have the energy to go to a neighborhood association meeting?”

At a Westmont Neighborhood Association picnic at Walter E. Hall Park on a sunny Saturday, the organization’s loyalists showed up to get to know their neighbors. A boy grabbed a hot dog, then quickly left. A man with a shirt full of political buttons chatted with the group, then left. No one else stopped by.

“We’re used to it,” said Sara Kincaid, association president. “Hopefully, it’ll be better next year.”

Westmont’s shifting population makes it hard to engage the community. Three-quarters of residences are rentals. The area is home to 17 percent of Everett’s rental units. That means a transient population looking for inexpensive housing.

Everett’s Department of Neighborhoods director, Wendy McClure, and Kincaid have a tough job. As soon as one set of residents moves in, another moves out.

“When you have a high turnover rate, it makes it harder to organize,” McClure said.

Signs of stability

Those who have lived in Westmont for a few years don’t think the numbers tell the entire story. They say they feel safer than just a few years ago.

Four-year 7-Eleven employee Harry Singh gave a rosy review of W. Casino Road 2005. “Before, most everybody didn’t like to work on this road,” he said. “Now it’s quiet.”

Gangs used to gather and drug deals occurred right outside his store. Singh would come in at 5 a.m. and see small clusters of people hanging around the parking lot.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.

Jessica Hayes, 18, an Everett Community College student who has lived in Westmont since she was in the second grade, is trying to change the image of the neighborhood.

“It needs some help,” she said. The drug deals, the questionable people walking around – she’s seen it all. “It doesn’t have the reputation for being the nicest street,” she admitted.

Hayes has worked with the small yet committed Westmont Neighborhood Association to pick up trash along the street. After some internal conflict, the association reorganized two years ago and has met regularly to talk about community goals and crime prevention. The meetings attract only about 10 people, but it’s a start.

Everett police, meanwhile, are keeping close ties with the association. They have revived a program to meet with apartment managers and offered managers a three-phase crime-free rental housing workshop that turns drug-house rentals into crime-free communities.

“We look at it as a police-community partnership,” crime prevention officer Steve Paxton said. “The police can’t solve all their problems.”

Paxton said seven managers in Westmont have gone through at least part of the anti-crime program. He added that he didn’t know if that type of communication even existed a few years ago.

Managers battle back

The shooting at Cascadia Pointe Apartments was the catalyst for getting managers interested in anti-crime efforts, Paxton said.

Dawn Pearson is one example.

Good, old-fashioned community block watches can do the trick, Pearson said. She took over management of Amber Glenn Apartments, next to Cascadia Pointe, a year ago and is rallying neighbors to crack down on crime by watching each others’ apartments.

She has gone through the first phase of the anti-crime program, which taught her how to work with police and firefighters, how to evict bad tenants and how to handle the loss of good tenants. She plans to complete the other two phases as well.

“My hope … is for this to spread out to the rest of the neighborhood,” she said.

Bill Cook, a district manager who oversees Cascadia Pointe, has a less activist approach to crime.

“There’s nothing we can do to prevent crime,” he said. “We’re property managers, not law enforcement officers. We do what we do; they do what they do.”

Nevertheless, he’s made changes since taking over in March. The interiors and exteriors of the complex have been given a cosmetic makeover. The front gate now requires a code.

With managers taking more action, police are able to get a grip on the situation.

“The trend used to be call 911, the police come out, deal with the problem, then go and do something else,” Paxton said. “Then someone will call 911 again, and the police will deal with it again. A lot of managers were not in the loop.”

Problems still exist

Evolution takes time. And for mutating neighborhoods, that requires patience and tolerance – luxuries some residents can’t afford.

Kathy Bailey doesn’t want her 3- and 13-year-old sons growing up in Westmont. Police came to her Autumn Oaks apartment complex four times in a recent week, she said. The last time, they evacuated an entire building.

The scene, all too familiar to residents, didn’t phase onlookers.

“People had their lawn chairs out and were just watching like it was no big deal,” she said. “They were just out there chitchatting like nothing happened.”

Bailey has lived at Autumn Oaks for 10 months. She doesn’t let her kids play outside without supervision. She doesn’t take them to the Walter E. Hall Park. They hang out in parks outside the neighborhood.

The cheap rent attracts all kinds of people, some of whom she’d rather not have her kids grow up around. She’s ready to move.

Corral has heard that story before. Some residents tell her they want to move as soon as they can.

“Sometimes, people don’t feel very safe there,” she said. “They say, ‘My car’s been broken into three times,’ or, ‘I have trouble with a neighbor, but I can’t say anything or I’ll be evicted.’ “

Mike Ray also has had trouble in the neighborhood since he moved there from Texas with his family about a year ago. Ray, who works at the South Everett/Mukilteo Boys and Girls Club, said he learned about the area’s bad reputation after all his family’s Christmas presents were stolen from their storage shed last year.

“It’s really not that bad compared to what I’ve been told,” he said.

Progress being made

The struggles are real. Crime, poverty, language barriers and physical barriers make it difficult for Westmont residents to wake up and sing “Kum Ba Ya.”

But frontline efforts by police, managers and the neighborhood association are carving a path toward brighter, less crime-ridden days in Westmont.

The changes are real, too.

“Those are all positive steps,” Campbell said of police and community programs. “Not just touchy-feely things, but things you can point to. People out there are feeling better about their neighborhood, and they should be.”

Hayes, the community college student, senses progress, too.

“A few years ago, people stood up and said things needed to be fixed,” she said. Now, that’s happening.

Westmont is evolving. Residents say they hear police drive by only once a night. Managers are trimming bushes and adding lighting to prevent car thefts. People are organizing picnics. Apartment by apartment, resident by resident, progress is being made.

McClure said the changes are slow, but they’re sure. “People are not giving up on that neighborhood.”

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