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Troubling questions surround impoverished area in Las Vegas

Start the new year in the land of plenty, say a quiet prayer for peace and prosperity, then take a walk down Sunrise Avenue.

The slash of asphalt that skirts Fremont Street at 21st once bustled with working-class families. The neighborhood was filled with the promise of the booming Las Vegas of the 1950s. With sparkling apartments for new arrivals and efficient tract houses for those of slightly more means, it was a springboard to bigger homes in a recession-proof town that knew no limits.

Early residents would barely recognize the place these days. It’s a crosscurrent of immigrant newcomers and longtime residents mired in poverty. Cops assigned to Metro’s Downtown Area Command know it as a place of gang-related drug sales, familial dysfunction and violence. There’s no shortage of calls for service here, and some Homicide Section detectives must know the area by heart.

But to see this part of the valley simply as a confluence of criminal activity is to miss a greater and more troubling truth. Your fellow citizens survive here, raise their children here and sometimes die here.

Local government and nonprofit agencies, spartan in the best of times, are challenged by the valley’s many troubled inner-city neighborhoods. Late last year, I watched Las Vegas Neighborhood Services workers carry out a spirited cleanup of this section of Sunrise Avenue, ridding it of piles of rubbish and accumulated debris. Not long after the city vehicles showed up, one bringing pizza for neighborhood volunteers, residents came out of their apartments and pitched in. Some were drawn more by the scent of pepperoni slices than the prospect of a cleanup, but the morning was a reminder that something positive happens when locals get out from behind their desks and down to the street.

There’s no shortage of need. At nearby Hollingsworth Elementary School, home to approximately 700 students and three dozen teachers, poverty qualifies nearly every kid for free and reduced breakfast and lunch. Its academic hunger ranks it 198th of 210 elementary schools in the Clark County School District.

You don’t have to walk the neighborhood long before realizing the children who survive here have more on their minds than their schoolwork. There are gangs to dodge on the street — and often in their own homes.

“That’s the perception is that they all are,” Metro Capt. Andrew Walsh says. He’s in charge of the Downtown Area Command. “How did they get sucked into that life? I always struggle with the policeman’s role in that, the family’s role in that, the intertwining of those things, the role of the community, the role of the ministry and the church, the role of everybody in this. But here it is anyway.”

The answer is more complex than the stick and whistle of traditional police work. To be effective, the cops have to be perceived as more than just another drive-by gang.

Walsh’s troops log face time with neighbors and find themselves participating in everything from neighborhood cleanups, to drop-in visits at Hollingsworth, to helping with monthly food-and-clothing drives and occasionally taking to the court with a basketball tournament.

Walsh admits he’s at a loss for the perfect formula for success. He only knows more must be done.

“Maybe it’s the things we do down at 21st and Sunrise,” he says. “Maybe it’s the things we do at Hollingsworth Elementary School. What’s the right age to get ahold of a kid to say, ‘Hey, this gang life is bad for you’? And how do you get that message to stick if he goes home and the gang life is at home? … Maybe at one point we may have been the tip of the spear, but we also see it as something more than that.”

As he speaks the words, the sound of laughter is audible in the distance. Then, a flash of movement amid the squalor: children playing in a gritty yard flanked by filthy Section 8 apartments and wrought-iron fencing that keeps them out of the street.

“No one wants their kids to grow up in this neighborhood,” the cop says. He asks himself, “Are we doing what the community expects from us on all fronts, the service, the support, all those things? Are we doing that? Are we hitting the mark in all those areas? That’s the question for all of us.”

In the new year, say an extra prayer for peace and prosperity for Sunrise Avenue and others like it.

They need all the help they can get.

— John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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