(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
The fenced-off pathway from Mountain View High School to Southeast 147th Avenue has been known as the 420 Gate for longer than anyone can remember. That number being code for "time to get high."
But the end of the last school year and the beginning of this one have seen kids' behavior around the gate sink lower than ever, according to neighbors. Drug dealing and consumption, littering and vandalism, menacing passersby, blocking traffic and even urinating on nearby property have become all too commonplace among the teens who congregate here, they say.
"They have gotten a lot more brazen," said Sara Idriss, a retired nurse who lives down the block and says she'd been dealing with it for years — and she's sick of it. "It's really out of control. They're like a mob."
So Idriss and others have organized an ongoing neighborhood watch — you might call it a vigil — at the site. Three times a day. Early morning, lunch and right as the dismissal bell rings.
Organized is the word. Watchers' shifts are laid out in a database. "We've assigned times to different people to come down and just be here," said Idriss. "We used to do this individually, as homeowners. Not as a team. Now we've gotten together and said, 'Oh, no. We are taking our neighborhood back.'"
School gets out at 2:30 p.m. About 15 minutes beforehand, on a recent Wednesday, neighbors started showing up at the T-intersection of 147th Avenue and 12th Street. They brought folding chairs — one brought a baby in a stroller — and perched across 147th from the pathway so they could see directly up it as emancipated students started surging down.
Many of those students headed for home, as you'd expect. But quite a few loitered on the pathway and didn't emerge onto the street.
"Some have claimed it as their territory," said Idriss.
"They used to do it out here; now they stay on the pathway," Yvette McCartney said. "It's like, 'We're going to outsmart those annoying adults.'"
Some of the neighbors who started congregating here last spring didn't just stare down the kids and make their presence felt — they would walk right over and get in the kids' faces. "Get out. Go home. Get a life," is how Idriss described their message. Some even brought video cameras to document who was there and what was going on. McCartney said that sparked some adolescent outrage.
"The kids started complaining — these bad adults are taking pictures of us," she said. The kids actually went as far as calling 911 on the adults, she said. So now the neighbors don't get confrontational, they said — they just make sure to show up every day and make their presence felt.
That's partially on the advice of Vancouver police Cpl. Charlie Ford, the officer assigned to the neighborhood. "Don't poke the bear," he told them. "Just be a presence. It is helpful."
So is Ford's own presence. Ford was on the scene when The Columbian visited; he said he routinely stops by this particular gate as school lets out, and he sometimes hangs out as long as the kids do. He seems to know many of their names and histories. Neighbors said the nuisance is definitely lessened when Ford and his police car are there.
"This place has always been a problem," said Ford, who's been assigned this area for about five years. "The kids always congregate here. There can be 30, 40, 50 here."
But not every kid is a problem, he added. And there's a fine line to be drawn between illegal loitering and perfectly permissible hanging out.
For example, some of the kids who emerged from the path settled directly down on the adjacent front lawn of Zack Elder. Actually it's the home of his grandmother, he said. Zack, 23, is her caretaker.
He's also an obviously uneasy buddy of many of the kids who landed on his conveniently located lawn and started lighting up cigarettes. He traveled back and forth across the street several times between those kids and the group of neighbors across the street — a "generational ambassador," quipped neighborhood watcher Caleb Mesplay — and after consulting with Ford, he urged certain of his friends to move along.
"I used to be part of that 'gate community,'" Elder said. "I'm trying to get them to get out of their bad habits. I'm trying to shut it down."
Many neighbors have prominently posted NO TRESPASSING signs, Ford pointed out — which means the kids have been warned, and he can crack down if necessary. He also pointed out that a bunch of kids assembled on a lawn may be irritating, but if they have permission it's not against the law. Blocking the sidewalk is, and so is blocking the street. "That's when it becomes disorderly conduct," he said.
He said he once ticketed one kid who refused to step out of the street — only after being warned repeatedly. At that point the message probably got back to some parents at last, Ford figured.
He added that the same sort of problem persists at Evergreen High School, which is part of his territory.
"I go back and forth a lot," he said.
The Mountain View High School security officer did not respond to Columbian requests for comment. The pathway in question is city of Vancouver property, not school district property.
So you have two factions amassed on opposite sides of 147th Avenue, with Elder playing unhappy intermediary.
Another group of kids that assembled around Ford complained that they're being slandered because of others' actions. Some added that there were halting efforts last year to organize their own cleanup and improvement efforts at the walkway — but these didn't go far.
"There's too much of a reputation for bad hooligan kids," said former Mountain View student Austin James Harris, 19. "We weren't doing anything wrong."
"I just don't want to get shot down because of other kids," said Alexandria Harrison, 18.
"The gate's always been full of kids," Keanna Bolibar-White, 15. "It's gotten worse over the years because kids don't have any respect."
"We all understand" why neighbors organized their vigil, said Zoey Claborn, 15, who added that she'd "be flipping" if she was a homeowner living near the walkway.
Neighborhood watcher Marsha Johnson didn't seem to be buying it — ticking off for Elder the bad behaviors that persist. It's not just that she has personally cleaned up the walkway and paid for disposal, she said, nor that she's witnessed kids urinating between houses. It's that at least some of the kids are pointedly belligerent — glaring, refusing to get out of the way as she comes down sidewalk, even spitting in her path. "I'm itching for an argument, lady," is how she described the attitude.
"I don't want to pester your grandmother while she's resting," she told Elder. "It's not that I don't want you to have friends, but when they degrade and vandalize and they are incredibly contrary, I don't know what else to do."
Neighbors said there have been several drug arrests in the area over the past several years. But what really has them jumpy are reports that one or two discarded firearms were found on the pathway and in a nearby storm drain. At least one of these was determined to be "a fake," according to Ford; he is still trying to determine whether there's any truth to the other story — that the other firearm, if it existed at all, was a pellet gun.
All in all, Ford said the situation has been "a lot quieter" since the neighborhood's adults got organized and started bringing pressure to bear. "They are good people, and they're just doing their patrols," he said.
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or firstname.lastname@example.org; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.