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Residents Refuse To Surrender Their Prospect Hill Community To Crime

Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
Mohammed Alam swept out glass around the windows of his store. He said it was vandalized four times.

Community activists, business owners, and residents are speaking up about crime problems in Prospect Hill, a community on the West Side of San Antonio.

Mohammed Alam, owner of the 99 Cents Plus convenience store on North Zarzamora, swept up glass as he explained how his store was recently vandalized for the fourth time.

“We are not getting help from the city. It’s not fair,” Alam said.

Alam was born in Bangladesh and has called San Antonio home for 17 years.

Vandalism is not the only crime he’s experienced in Prospect Hill. He was also held up.

“They put a gun in the head and like you know I called SAPD, and I think a couple of months later they get that guy,” Alam said.

Alam was not the only one enduring crime, and he wasn’t the only one ready to take a stand and transform the community for the better. The Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association hosted a meeting this month to discuss crime in the area.

Prospect Hill is located west of downtown and east of Our Lady of the Lake University.

Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
Vandalism isn't the only crime Alam experienced. He said once someone held a gun to his head and robbed him.

Jason Mata is a community activist and one of the association’s leaders. He and Alam both conceded that police officers in the neighborhood did their best, but they felt the police needed more help in a community that has seen murder, gangs, theft, drug dealing, prostitution, and aggressive panhandling.

“I commend the police department and the police and other law enforcement agencies,” Mata said. “I think they are doing a great job. But I feel like it’s like the school systems -- they’re just understaffed.”

Mata said the association was formed more than 20 years ago to protect the aging neighborhood from crime and other problems. Mata, who works as a general construction contractor, built a boxing gym to try to steer kids away from gangs but it was burned down. He said fire and police officials told him vagrants caused the fire.

He said older people, blue collar workers, and the working poor make up most of the Prospect Hill community.

As Alam swept up the glass at his store, Ramiro Cruz walked by. Cruz asked for a job and offered to help with the mess. Alam said he would call him later.

Cruz also called Prospect Hill home.

“It just consists of … people who have come from Mexico, people who have come from Honduras [to] make better lives for themselves,” he said. “I can’t really speak for everybody in the neighborhood because you have those who [are] doing drugs, alcohol and what not. … [B]ut for the most part it’s not really critical. It’s not really that bad as some people are saying.”

But Mata said most of the residents he speaks with in person and on social media believe there have been safer times.

Credit Courtesy of Jason Mata
Mata's wrecked boxing gym.

“If you asked someone who just moved in here four or five years ago, they’ll tell you that it got worse,” he said. “I guess at some point you get used to it, but newcomers to the community will tell you it’s pretty bad out here.”

Mata believed one major way to combat crime in the neighborhood would be a police storefront on the lower end of North Zarzamora. A police storefront is like a mini substation where police officers are permanently staffed. The association recently asked city officials to establish one but they did not get it.

Mata said if skeptics don’t believe neighborhood opinions about crime in the area, he pointed to all the news coverage of crime in Prospect Hill.

“I can tell you from the time that we asked for that storefront back in 2017 up to about six months ago, we did a little study of our own,” he said. “We went straight to the media sources ... we went straight online and checked out any kind of news stories for this corridor, Zarzamora, there was about 15 incidents of people getting killed or majorly injured.”

District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, who lives in and represents Prospect Hill as part of her larger West Side district, says studies show having police officers patrolling the streets is more effective than storefront operations, an approach backed by Police Chief William McManus.

The neighborhood association also believed video surveillance and signs that warn of video surveillance in the worst areas of the neighborhood would help to deter criminals.

Gonzales said cameras for high crime areas is worthy of further study. She said cameras are already part of new LED lighting installed by CPS Energy to catch illegal dumping. She thinks they could be deployed to fight crime. But even they have shortcomings.

“We could absolutely deploy that at any time, “she said. “Of course, even the capabilities are limiting in that you have to be able to see them on the camera, the visual space is limited, but it is something we can use.”

Gonzales added there are issues over storing and retrieving video captured by cameras, along with who would monitor those cameras. Those issues need to be worked out, she said.

Credit Courtesy of Jason Mata

Her office reports a handful of new officers were added to the area since 2017, but she agrees that more officers are needed. She said she and McManus are also planning a new crime strike force to fight gang violence in Prospect Hill.

Gonzales said crimes in the neighborhood often go unreported because some residents fear criminals or police, which hampers crime-fighting efforts.

She explained that’s a big problem because the more calls that come in, the better the police understand and pinpoint where the trouble is coming from and who might be causing the trouble.

“So that’s really important that we keep reminding people to call when they see them, to call 911 and to call the non-emergency number so that they have data and information,” she said, “because that’s also how resources are implemented, is by calls for service.”

Gonzales said her district deals with challenges other districts don’t. She said it is the poorest and most densely populated district in San Antonio. She said the homelessness generates calls to police for a variety of situations and skews crime figures in a negative direction for the district as a whole.

Mata said the Prospect Hill Association worked with city leaders and police in the past but wanted to see concrete action with lasting results. They wanted progress.

“Talking is great, but we’re tired of talking. I’m tired of having meetings, and we need action out here.”

Despite crime problems in the area, residents and business owners say they are standing up to criminals. They refuse to surrender Prospect Hill to the criminals.

Mohammed Alam is one of the determined residents. He is working to reopen his 99 Cent Convenience Store as a shop for henna tattoos.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.