But the community is quieting, according to some. "Things have calmed down greatly," says Doug, who has spent all of his near-18 years in Paradise Hills. Doug attends Morse High School, in the adjacent community of North Bay Terraces, and is an avid artist and author of a blog, "Change Is Constant" (hiphophostage619.blogspot.com). "Gang-wise, things have calmed down, and cops have been cracking down on it. Pretty much the problem now is not even gangs anymore; it's about being better than another person, material stuff, you know what I'm saying?" He cradles his skateboard. "Gangs are still a factor here, because just a few weeks ago a friend of mine, he was shot around this area," Doug says slowly. "And it was around six o'clock when him and his good friend were shot, and they weren't even related to any kind of gang so... It's a shame that innocent people like him fall down victim to this kind of stuff."
Doug, who is the youngest in his family, has managed to avoid that lifestyle. "I listened to my mommy," he quips, then turns serious. "My two older brothers, they were into the gang stuff as well, like, they'd always tell me not to do the things they did, but early on when I was younger, I wouldn't understand what they were doing 'cause I was fortunate enough to have them keep all that stuff away from me. Because I've seen my friends, my peers, they're my age, and they'd have older brothers, even sisters, that wouldn't care if they were smoking pot or doing whatever, a lot of the gang stuff, in front of them, and they weren't ashamed of it. But I'm blessed to have two older brothers to be considerate about my future 'cause they don't want me messing up like them."
Many area kids end up "banging," joining gangs and causing upheaval in the neighborhood and within their families. Doug recently ran into an old friend from elementary school and realized that he'd joined PH, a local gang. "I found out his aka and that he was the same guy I saw on the news in a high-speed chase. I went, like, 'Wait, wait, wait. That's you?'" His laughter doesn't undercut the seriousness of it. "It's ridiculous," he says, "but then again, the people I've known, I'm not surprised."
The gang's reach has its limits, though. Pat Fickling, the head librarian at the Paradise Hills Branch Library, considers the danger to be relative. "If you're hanging around with people who are questionable, then you're in for some questionable activity," she says. "So, yeah, there is gang activity, and some of it spills over from National City because we're so close. And so a lot of those National City gangs consider this their turf. I don't think if you're walking down the streets, the odds are any better of something happening to you here than anywhere else. A lot of it is your perception."
Riad Mansour, who manages a convenience store, agrees. "Before working here, people used to talk about Paradise, like, very dangerous, you know? From my perspective, I think that's bogus." His store, which belongs to his aunt and uncle, is known as "Mom and Pops." Mansour has been here three months, moving from San Jose; before that, he lived in Iraq. "I mean, I see a lot of nice people here, you know?" he continues. "Family people, friendly people." So far, he's had few major problems, and in all the 18 years Mom and Pops has been in operation, everything has gone smoothly. Mansour does, however, acknowledge the danger. "I mean, it is dangerous because it's mixed with all different kinds of people, especially the young ones," he says. "That's what the danger comes from, the young people. Not, you know, older. Young fellas. Teenagers, 18s and 20s, 22s." The worst trouble they make for him is being loud in the store or, on occasion, stealing.
For Guy Preuss, the only evidence of gangs is the graffiti, which he can't stand. When his friends from the East Coast come to visit, he says, "I'm sort of ashamed. The only gang I really know of is the Paradise Hills Locos, and that's, once again, hearsay," he says, most likely speaking of PH, the gang Doug mentioned. "But who these damn Paradise Hills Locos are, I don't know. These people must be damn near my age now," Preuss says, laughing.
Even though he is not involved with any gangs, Doug knows their names, and he rattles them off: PH, which stands simply for "Paradise Hills"; BNG, or Bahala Na, a Filipino gang; STS, for Santanas; and AKP. Their graffiti scrawls across most of the sidewalks of Parkside Park with an almost gothic letter style, nearly illegible. "The ground is the gang's canvas," says Doug, "and they're not really great artists." The crisscrossing layers of graffiti solidify the gangs' presence, making them loom larger than perhaps they are. But they're around.
Doug recalls a day "back in the '90s" when he was accosted by a man who nearly ran him over outside his house, an experience he chronicles in his blog. "'Your ass didn't even stop at the STOP sign!' I yelled as I was walkin' into [my friend] Ken's ride," he writes. The gangbanger wasn't having any of it and shouted back. "'I don't give a fuck! This is my 'hood! Aye! AYE!'" he bellowed, before driving off. Bristled, Doug continues venting his frustrations at the situation and those like it on the virtual pages of "Change." "I'm especially pissed at the fact that he claims this neighborhood that I grew up for my 17 years 'n' most likely went through the same bullshit he did," he writes, "fucking loser."
Aside from gangs, the biggest complaint of the area's residents has stemmed from the board-and-care facilities the neighborhood has cultivated over the years. Rather than catering to the infirm and elderly, many board and cares provide homes for substance abusers and people with severe mental illnesses but without providing the care that the title implies. Residents, for the most part, are left to their own devices, which means many of them end up trolling the streets. The facilities are hard to spot since for privacy (and most likely aesthetic) reasons they don't advertise. "Just look for a house that's way bigger than it should be," says Fickling, explaining how easy it is for these places to spring up. "Somebody comes in and buys a property, expands it so it can hold more people, and then with a very minimum, as I understand, of licensing and paperwork, can open one of these places," she says. With residents free to roam, they often end up at places like Mom and Pops to cash checks and buy lottery tickets and cigarettes. Some chitchat, almost incomprehensibly, with each other and with Mansour, who takes it all in stride. "I don't mind, you know," he says, referring to the cluster of folks who gather to sit in the plastic chairs outside the store, "if they get a soda, a smoke, or something." He stops, but adds quickly, "No beer."