Will Williams grew up in Albuquerque’s International District in the 1990s when it was still known as the “War Zone” – a drug-infested area with crack houses “block to block” and violent gang rivalries.
“I was part of the problems in the neighborhood,” Williams, 46, said candidly as he drove me around the “I.D.” – an area roughly bounded by San Mateo, Lomas, Wyoming and Gibson in the southeastern part of the city. Now he strives to be a catalyst for improvement.
We rolled through residential areas in the southeast quadrant of the district known for a concentration of multi-family dwellings. This isn’t a multi-modal, mixed-use urban environment with coffee shops and shopfront design standards. Instead, it’s a lot of housing for one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse areas of the city.
Some apartments are boarded up – possibly being renovated. Others look worn and neglected. There are a few signs of squalor – piles of rubbish in the street, likely from an eviction – but mostly the small homes on small lots give off a working-class vibe.
“Given the ‘War Zone’ stigma, it’s a real tight-knit community,” Williams said. “There are a lot of hard-working people in this community. There are only a few pockets of the area that are kind of bad and give it a bad name.”
Williams stopped at Phil Chacon Park on the southern edge of the district, where four tents were pitched along a fence in the shade and a white sedan with an “Albuquerque Community Safety” logo on the door sat in the parking lot – its occupant no doubt doing some casework follow-up on a homeless client.
“I wanted you to see this park,” Williams said. “This would be the public park for people in this neighborhood to use.”
But there are no kids playing. Is it the heat? Or, more likely, the sense of danger lurking?
“They would never let North Domingo Baca Park be like this,” Williams said of the large multi-use park located north of Paseo del Norte and east of Louisiana Boulevard. This park isn’t as lush or manicured as North Domingo Baca. Spray-painted graffiti covers a backboard on the basketball court.
But the International District has plenty of bright spots.
Williams is hopeful the gleaming new International District Library will spur additional investment in the area. There are some great ethnic restaurants – the May Cafe comes to mind – and the Talin Market provides an array of international food items. Weekend flea markets attract treasure hunters. The New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial is located on Louisiana, north of Gibson.
The menace of competing neighborhood gangs may be gone. But addiction, crime and homelessness are big problems. Last year, when Albuquerque set an all-time mark for homicides with 117, there were 24 in the I.D. This year there have been 11 through the end of July – a pace that would result in a slight dropoff if it holds.
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina acknowledges that the I.D. remains a high-crime area, requiring all the community policing tools at the department’s disposal. There’s a Problem Response Team assigned to the Southeast Area Command, which employs a variety of outreach strategies, including Ambassadors – police officers who work with specific minority communities.
“The voices that felt APD never heard them, we need to make sure that they always have someone who is listening,” Medina said. “I think this is where our approach is so important for building public trust. In the past, our philosophy was to go in and saturate an area and give everyone traffic tickets and look for people with warrants. Now with our Violence Intervention Program and our gun violence units, we are specifically trying to focus on drivers of crime, because we know that just because there’s poverty in an area, there’s still a lot of good people who live in that area. One thing you have to remember is that we put resources in those areas to protect victims.”
Medina cut his teeth in the I.D. and he’s familiar with the changing criminal dynamics. Today’s crime isn’t driven by gang turf wars, but “social networks” of criminals who are loosely affiliated and doing all the same criminal stuff – moving guns and drugs – just not on a block-to-block basis.
Will Williams works to change this environment, exuding a defiant optimism as only someone wholly invested in the area’s potential could.
As a member of the UpLift Initiative “street team,” Williams goes door to door talking to residents about personal challenges they face and letting them know about services available through the UpLift program. The goal is to create a more resilient community.
UpLift is just one of several initiatives under the umbrella of the New Mexico Black Leadership Council, a nonprofit that has quickly become a go-to resource in the I.D. since forming as a 501(c)(3) in 2019.
Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, who represents the I.D., is a big fan of the NMBLC, whose founder Cathy McGill has been instrumental in grassroots organizing in the community and convening stakeholders to address issues such as gun violence.
“If you need to go to a place where decisions get made, it’s that building down on Ortiz,” Davis said, referring to the NMBLC office.
Mason Graham, a member of NMBLC’s leadership team who wears many hats (digital content and marketing specialist/policy analyst and head of NMBLC’s Black Voters Collaborative) estimates 25% of the state’s Black population of 54,000 lives in Albuquerque and about 50% of the Metro’s Black population resides in the I.D., “so the Highland cluster of schools all see higher numbers of African American students than any other schools in the state.”
The Highland cluster has lower literacy and mathematics scores than other Albuquerque Public Schools, has higher poverty rates and is more socially vulnerable, Graham noted. Given how often testing systems have changed within APS over the last several years, it can be hard to verify that claim. But the Journal’s Rick Nathanson recently documented the strong correlation between poverty and a lack of proficiency in reading and math.
And no one is denying that the International District is impoverished.
While each high-crime area of the city has its own unique factors, Medina says the I.D.’s persistent poverty and low educational attainment are challenges that law enforcement can’t address.
“We have to look at how to improve education. How do we improve kids getting through that period of time without falling into that recurring cycle of criminality and violence? We should be looking at creating a healthy environment. The moment we have a healthy environment for people to succeed, you have people that are less likely to do drugs, that are less likely to be involved in criminal activity,” he said.
Impetus of change
Vulnerability in the I.D. became more acute with the pandemic.
“You lose your job, your house – it can all spiral so quickly and Black people and people of color are most at risk of that happening,” Graham said. “They need some sort of guidance and support because these communities don’t have all the resources that others do.”
That’s where UpLift and NMBLC’s other programs come in. The mission of the NMBLC is to “foster sustainable leadership, create inclusive opportunities, develop multicultural capacity and cultivate progressive partnerships that support Black communities and benefit all New Mexicans.”
The UpLift Initiative is sponsored in part by the Department of Health “Better Together” project (COVID Pandemic Equity Initiatives), Con Alma Health Foundation (Reimagining Black Communities in New Mexico) and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The UpLift program was launched as a way to help New Mexicans deal with challenges stemming from the pandemic – things like emergency rental assistance, internet access or where to get a vaccine.
Williams goes block to block engaging with residents, bringing their concerns back to the NMBLC’s headquarters, where staff can ponder solutions that may involve outreach to public officials. His big project the last two months has been mapping the entire I.D., compiling information on every single multi-family dwelling, including property records, the status of buildings and the frequency of police calls. Eventually the data could be used to help identify where interventions can reduce problems.
NMBLC staff hit as many “touch points” as they can, interacting with schools, property owners, business owners and convening meetings with city departments when appropriate. An in-house attorney can help with things like eviction notices or housing discrimination. Staff field complaints about dilapidated dwellings, negligent landords and piles of trash in the street.
The NMBLC works with all schools in the Highland cluster to promote literacy and the value of education. It registers people to vote and convenes roundtables to discuss equity in a variety of areas.
All of this outreach results in practical hands-on measures to address lack of resources, lack of attention and lack of political will in the I.D., said Sean Cardinalli, the interim director of another NMBLC initiative called the Chisholm Table. That project doles out $20,000 microgrants to help small volunteer-led organizations expand their reach.
“We’re here for the individuals,” Carinalli said, “and on the other side we talk up the ladder. We talk with the schools, to city bureaucrats and the police. This is how we try to affect change. Eventually you get up to the macro levels.”
As a teenager Williams was part of the War Zone’s criminal gang culture. He said some of his friends were killed by police officers. Now, part of his job is cultivating a workable relationship with the police. There are a few people in the community who still harbor resentment about police tactics, especially of the past. Williams gets that. But if they consider him a “sellout” for collaborating with police on better protection in the area, he’s not bothered.
“I’m a product of this neighborhood and for me, that opinion is worthless,” he said. “They can say whatever they want about me. I’ve been called worse and been treated worse. For me to be doing something positive, I don’t care how I’m judged about it. Because I’m here doing the work. I don’t want to see the negative behavior by the police toward the community members, but, yeah, I do feel the need for community safety.”
Coming Monday: A potential flashpoint – the death of a Black teen during a standoff with police in the International District – becomes the focus of a “courageous conversation” between NMBLC and APD.
Journal community engagement editor Andy Smith writes columns based on conversations with diverse individuals and groups throughout our community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.