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WHERE WE LIVE: Cottonwood still fighting stigma of gangs, poverty and despair

Nine-year-old Fuchsia Ward was playing in the front yard of her family's new home just off Cottonwood Road one day in 1954 when she stopped and, perhaps for the first time, carefully surveyed the southern horizon.

She screamed like she'd never screamed before.

Her father, Arthur Ward, came scrambling out of the house. "What's the matter?," he sputtered, perhaps expecting a lurking stranger or a pack of wild dogs.

Fuchsia pointed south, her index finger trembling: Cotton, as far as the eye could see, interspersed with distant stands of corn. This was California, not Arkansas, she cried, and she had no intention of picking cotton ever again.

For the thousands of sharecropper families that came west to postwar California — black, white and Latino — that was a central part of the dream: No more poverty, no more subjugation, no more backbreaking labor. No more of the Arkansas "plantation," as Fuchsia called it.

California didn't always deliver for them.

Fuchsia Ward was one of the relative few for whom it ultimately did: As a teen, she did indeed pick some cotton — by her own choice — but she escaped Cottonwood Road for college and the opportunity for what became a long, rewarding career in education. But she came back to rescue some of those she'd left behind — or, more accurately, better their lives by helping to transform Cottonwood Road itself.

Today, Cottonwood has a whole host of Fuchsia Wards.

It has the good people who run the Friendship House Community Center, which has fed, clothed, educated and motivated four generations of families from Cottonwood Road and beyond. 

It has Jerusalem Mission Church, at 924 Cottonwood Road, where for 49 years the Rev. and Mrs. Freddie L. Thomas have preached the love of Jesus and the power of transformational thinking.

And it has local activists — like Arleana Waller, a lifelong member of Jerusalem Mission — who have engaged elected officials in a long-neglected cause: Bringing new residential, commercial and industrial growth, and the jobs they would represent, to a section of the city that has suffered from the stigma of drugs, gangs, poverty and crime for too long.

Drive south on what was once Lakeview Avenue, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, past Brundage Lane, where MLK transitions back into Cottonwood Road, and you'll see a succession of modest landmarks you might remember for all the wrong reasons — crime scenes from the past few years such as Central Cali Market (now Sam's Liquor), Roy's Market and Cottonwood Market, all within one sporadically blighted 3-mile stretch.
Recurring gang violence here has too frequently spilled the blood of innocents: In February 2017, less than a mile west of Martin Luther King Jr. Park, 5-year-old Kason Guyton was hit by a stray bullet fired into a car that Bakersfield police say was driven by his mother's boyfriend, a member of the East Side Crips. Two known members of the West Side Crips were arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the boy's death. Heartbreaking, yes, but not unprecedented.

For decades, tragedies like that have been a persistent and painful part of the Cottonwood story. Well-intentioned residents have just as persistently tried to intervene; some, like longtime resident Isaiah Crompton, one of the founders of the Stop the Violence gang intervention group, heroically so. It may seem to many, though, including those who have called Cottonwood home, that the rest of Bakersfield is content to leave it be. 
White Bakersfield hasn't always treated Cottonwood as an African-American community with African-American problems that only African-Americans can solve — it just sometimes might seem that way.
Fuchsia Ward admits that, as a girl, she simply did not like white people. The only Caucasians she knew before her family moved to Bakersfield were the Arkansas landowners who did not treat her sharecropper father with sufficient kindness or respect. When the Wards moved into the 1940s-era Crystal Springs development just off Cottonwood Road, they seem to have brought segregation with them: "Used to be, (the 1940s Cottonwood-area tract known as) Hacienda Heights, just down the road, was all white," she said. "Then one black family moved in and the for-sale signs went up. The white flight began."
But Friendship House, which opened in 1957, changed all that for her. Its sponsors, a predominantly white group of people from Bakersfield's United Church of Christ, genuinely cared; the proof was not just in their financial commitment but in their commitment of time. They fed, mentored and befriended.
Fuchsia became an after-school regular, as did several of her 11 siblings, doing homework, learning needlework, singing songs. Her mother, Lueether, became a regular volunteer. "And pretty soon," Fuchsia said, "I saw that people are just people and there's a good in all of us." Remarkably good, in some cases: Ray and Joan Dezember, members of the Church of Christ, helped acquire land for a permanent Friendship House building. They also saw promise in Fuchsia and sent her to college. "I know Ray is with the Lord now," Fuchsia said. "The Dezembers are in my heart forever."
In 1962, Friendship House leaders helped launch a Target Area Program through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the local program evolved into Community Action Partnership of Kern, according to James Burger of CAPK, Kern County’s official anti-poverty agency. CAPK, which today is one of the county's largest nonprofits, continues to operate Friendship House.
For all its goodwill and good work, however, Friendship House has not been able to transform Cottonwood on its own, and it cannot. But others have stepped up. The Bakersfield City School District is building Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School immediately west of Belle Terrace Park, which, thanks largely to Kern County 5th District Supervisor Leticia Perez, will apply $650,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding to new curbs, gutters and lighting throughout the area. That includes the park, which will be renamed Coretta Scott King Park, in honor of the civil rights leader's activist wife: It will be outfitted with new playground equipment, and a baseball field and community center will be renovated. The school itself will focus on STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — an investment in Cottonwood's future perhaps like nothing before.
Bakersfield Ward 1 City Councilman Willie Rivera, who has worked closely with BCSD officials to make MLK School's STEM program a reality, is also pursuing the annexation of some of Cottonwood's multiple county pockets — jurisdictional gaps that exacerbate public safety and infrastructure inconsistencies. One recent annexation is already complete and the wheels on a second have just started turning. More rural sections of the Cottonwood area within Rivera's ward have already received new crosswalks, speed bumps and patrols designed to stop illegal dumping and target shooting. 
It all has the support of Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who has been active in the area's Safe Streets Partnership, which among other things establishes pathways to help Cottonwood residents escape gangs. 
Waller, whose contractor-father, the late Willie J. Frink, built much of Cottonwood and Bakersfield in general, is fortifying Cottonwood in a completely different sense with the help of the Rev. and Mrs. Thomas. They have convened a working group of Cottonwood residents, former residents and friends to study ways to stabilize and redirect the community. They're pursuing zoning changes that will allow more residential development, which in turn, they hope, will encourage more commercial development, which in turn, they hope, will bring jobs to one of the city's double-digit unemployment zones.
"The people at these community meetings are bright, they're smart, they're community-oriented," Waller said. "They have all the tools. This is a community that's ready, that knows it's been overlooked. They just don't know how to do it yet. They're ready to learn."
The group, which meets next on Nov. 12, wants to develop a master plan for the area. A 1.1-mile extension of (South) Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, overlying Cottonwood Road, is but one step. (New Caltrans signage is the only holdup.)
"We want that stigma attached to this area, maybe deservedly, pushed out," Waller said. "We want the area we remember as children. If you raise the standards for your child, they're going to step up and elevate that community when it's their time."
The Rev. Thomas is a big believer that words can inspire.

"When people hear the words of Dr. King, they can envision the possibilities for their life and their community. Words matter, if we truly listen to them and feel their power," he said. "That's what we must do in this community."

Words, life-changing though they may be, matter more when they are accompanied by action.

Fuchsia Ward is happy to see both in play today in Cottonwood.

"Good people live here, proud people, determined people," she said. "I see it every day."

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. “Where We Live,” a look at a unique Bakersfield-area neighborhood, enclave or community, appears monthly.

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