Margarita Chavez has the best house on the block. At least, that’s how she describes it to all who come to visit her in Detroit Park. She wants all of her neighbors to feel that same pride in their home. So Chavez patrols nearby streets to report neighborhood ills; trash, stray dogs and overgrown lawns. She’s a familiar voice to the city’s 311 operators — a squeaky wheel who knows how to get things done, for herself and her neighbors.
Chavez notes the location of a broken stove and oven before calling it in to 311, Sacramento’s customer service center. She has a regular route she takes in and out of the neighborhood, and she’ll gather information about a couple of different kinds of offenses before calling them all into the city.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Of the 22,000 complaints Sacramento’s Code Enforcement Department receives a year, 15 percent are due to inoperable or abandoned vehicles. Chavez has an encyclopedic knowledge of every house, person and vehicle in her neighborhood and she never hesitates to call in something that doesn’t look right.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Vernon Howlett lives just down the street from Chavez. They see each other often, exchanging news and keeping an eye on each other’s homes. Howlett and his wife have lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and he’s seen it improve during his time there thanks to the diligence of Chavez.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
An empty lot near Chavez’s home is prone to overgrown weeds and illegal dumping. It’s one of two on the street that leads to the neighborhood’s elementary school.
In July the dry, tall grass is prone to fires. Chavez spends extra time in the summer encouraging her neighbors to call the city about it.
“When more people call about the same problem ... it has more power," she says. "It gives more voice to it.”
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Chavez keeps notes and pictures of what she feels are eyesores and dangers in the neighborhood. She uses the notes in her weekly calls to 311, providing operators with addresses and details related to the alleged complaints. She likes to take pictures in case property owners dispute the allegations.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Based on her notes, Chavez calls the city to help with problems from illegal dumping to unkempt yards. She has the city’s 311 number programmed into her phone and she’ll often call in the early morning or late in the evening, when wait times aren’t quite as long. Operators staff the 311 line 24 hours a day, seven days a week and handle upwards of 250,000 calls a year.
Pauline: Nothing epitomizes 1960s suburbia more than the TV sitcom bewitched.
[‘Bewitched’ theme song comes up]
Pauline: A blonde housewife named Samantha is actually a witch. She keeps her powers secret while living a quiet life with her mortal husband. But one nosy neighbor named Mrs. Kravitz is always onto her.
[Bewitched clip plays: “There’s something very strange about her…”: [Bewitched clip plays: “There’s something very strange about her…”
“Gladys will you stop?” “No I will not, it is time that people found out about this house.]: “Gladys will you stop?” “No I will not, it is time that people found out about this house.]
[Audio fades under Pauline’s narration]
Pauline: The shrill characters portrayed in Bewitched are a bit outdated, but that Mrs. Kravitz type - you probably know someone like her where you live. Everyone has a neighborhood know-it-all, you know, that person who watches everyone on the street… And has an opinion about everything.
[Bewitched clip plays: “Abner! Come over and look at Mrs. Stevens mother!” “Whats the matter with you?! All of a sudden I’m married to a peeping tom! Spying on people! Sticking your nose into everybody’s business!”]
Pauline: Well, in Meadowview, that person may be Margarita Chavez.
Margarita: All this dumping was right here in front of the school. Nobody ever gets caught, you gotta catch these people.
[theme song comes up]
Pauline: She’s a retired grandma who regularly peruses the neighborhood, and she never hesitates to phone-in community eyesores.
[background sound of Margarita Chavez calling 3-1-1]
Pauline: So on this episode of Making Meadowview, we look at Margarita Chavez’ crusade against neighborhood blight, and how her neighbors feel about her approach.
Vernon Howlett: it's kind of like Marguerite's the police chief, and we're her soldiers.
Pauline: That story is just one in our series about how community leaders in Meadowview are tackling seemingly insurmountable problems. I’m Pauline Bartolone, and this is CapRadio’s documentary podcast, The View From Here.
[music slowly fades]
Pauline: Producer Jen Picard has the story.
[sound of birds and car driving by, car starts up]
Jen: Margarita Chavez has a vision for her neighborhood… She wants people to see it as she does, a beautiful place, worthy of being taken care of. But she doesn’t just wish for it, she helps make it happen.
Margarita: Ok, we’re going here first, down by the two empty the This is where we have a lot of illegal dumping… and today I picked up a lot of trash, and somebody came and dumped a lot trash right here….
Jen: A couple of times a week, she tours her neighborhood by car, surveying the scene lot by lot. On one spring day, I went with her.
Margarita: This was one of the worst houses right here, duplexes. Oh my God. And the guy was a gardener and he couldn't keep it together….
Jen: Margarita has an encyclopedic knowledge of her neighborhood and every person who steps foot in it. She’s always laughing, but she takes this patrol work seriously - even though it’s entirely volunteer. Anything that doesn’t look right… she scribbles notes about it in a journal. Random trash piles, abandoned cars, knee-high grass and weeds. To her, they’re all reasons to call the city.
Margarita: This is the one other house that I called the other day. See how bad it is? I don’t know if someone’s living here or not… and I called on this one too, on cedar springs….
Jen: Margarita lives in Detroit Park, an ethnically diverse, working class neighborhood in Meadowview. The small, single family homes are mostly well maintained, but also a bit weathered. There are lots of metal fences. Margarita sees what needs to be fixed…houses in disrepair, water leaks, people dumping junk in her neighborhood. She even tries to catch them sometimes.
[background sound of car driving around]
Margarita: One time I went for my walk I had my digital camera. And I saw the young man over there on. When we passed by a lorry way and he was going to dump in there. And I said guess what. I got my camera. Go ahead. And he sped out of there so fast... Nobody ever gets caught. That's the thing. You. Know. You got to catch these people. Not so much for the money. But just to catch him and. Make him stop you know pay the consequences.
[fade out car ambi]
Jen: That whole mantra “if you see something, say something?....” Margarita takes it to the next level. The notes she takes on her informal street surveys… she takes those back to her house and calls 311 - that’s the city’s customer service center to handle residential problems.
Elizabeth: City of Sacramento my name is Elizabeth. How can I help you?
Margarita: Hi, Elizabeth. I have a few things here. There was so much illegal dumping.
Elizabeth: OK - location please?
Jen: 3-1-1 is a catch-all for a whole range of neighborhood problems… Need a new garbage can or some oversized junk picked up? This is your go-to service. And you can also use it to lodge complaints anonymously about neighbors and businesses that are violating city codes.
Margarita: There's a stove and that one's been there like two weeks.
Elizabeth: Where is it at on the street?
Margarita: It’s on the street. The street goes like a run, like a U. And it's like in the corner.
Elizabeth: Wow. I don't think a lot of people realize that we’ll pick it up, just call us.
Margarita: I know…
[music fades down]
Margarita: Come see my house ...I have pictures everywhere and one guy told me, he came to do the pest control and I got rid of him and he said why so many pictures and I said why not?
Jen: Margarita’s home is one of the nicest on the block. With a tile roof and decorative wrought iron fence, it stands out. So does all of the photographs and artwork on her walls. She spends hours a week on various projects, often using found objects and drawing inspiration from everything around her.
Margarita: One time on my walks, I picked up this. This is a piece of palm tree and it looks like leather and I told my granddaughter, let's put it away and one day we'll do something with it and this is what she did with it? Isn't it neat?
Jen: Margarita dedicates as much time to maintaining the outside of her house as she does inside.
[background sound of lawn mower]
Jen: She’s the kind of person who will mow her lawn every week even if it doesn’t really need it.
[Margarita mowing lawn: “but at least I took care of it, you know.”]
Jen: Before Margarita retired, she worked as a gardener and house cleaner. She knows first hand what happens if you don’t deal with a mess right away and she’s not afraid to point it out.
Margarita Chavez: Some people say oh why should or why she always putting her two cents in or whatever And it's because you know things have to be done before somebody gets hurt.
Jen: But it’s not just pride that motivates Margarita. She also worries about other people. A lot. About her elderly neighbor tripping over a pile of junk in the dark. Or what might happen if kids play hide and go seek in an abandoned refrigerator.
Margarita Chavez: If you don't do it sometimes it might come back to haunt you. Like today, after coming out from the store from Bel Air, I always notice in the parking lot if there's a screw or nail, I pick them up. That's I've always done that, too. I don't want to have a nail or screw in my tire and have a flat tire. I don't want anybody to go through it.
Jen: Margarita doesn’t just worry though. She follows the rules, in fact, she’s always been a bit of a goody two-shoes.
Margarita Chavez: I was kind of the teacher's pet. So when she went out of the classroom to the office or something she would say OK Margarita I start writing where misbehaves. Start writing the names because you're going to have to write like a hundred times I will be I will behave when Mrs. Drake is out of the class. So I would. You better start writing. You're on the list.
[Music comes up]
Jen: But Margarita’s goal isn’t just to rat people out or to penalize them. She’s all about education and working together. Though she’s faced some pushback from neighbors during her years patrolling, her efforts are largely cheered on by most.
[music comes to end]
Vernon Howlett: It's kind of like Marguerite's the police chief and we're her soldiers and we just kind of, you know, we can't do the whole city, but, you know, the area where we live, it actually has made a huge difference.
Jen: Vernon Howlett lives just down the street from Margarita. They often get together to talk about neighborhood news. He’s seen it improve little by little because of Margarita’s passion for getting things done. Neighborhood meetings… She’s there. Want the city to put in speed bumps, she’ll get the signatures.
Vernon Howlett: So when new people move into our immediate vicinity, she goes, she introduces herself, she talks to him. They know who the mayor of the block is. Everybody knows. If they don't, they find out. And if they don't find out from her, they find out from their neighbors.
[Music fades up]
Vernon Howlett: But when you get, you know, everybody working together, it makes to, you know, living in this community be better.
Jen: A lot of calls come into 311 each year. About 22,000 of those get routed to the code enforcement department … Jacqueline Martinez is the liaison. She’s exchanged numerous calls and text messages with Margarita - sometimes on a weekly basis - and she had nothing but good things to say about her.
Jacqueline: I don’t want anyone to think that she is a problem. If anything, she’s helping the community. She’s helping Margaritaville, become a more beautiful, ideal location to live in.
Jen: Martinez tries to take the fear out of dealing with code enforcement by focusing on education and customer service. She often works directly with people who file complaints - like Margarita - to follow up on low-level stuff, like unmowed lawns or outdoor storage. If a resident fixes the problem and Martinez sees a picture of it, she can close the case. Not having to send out an enforcement officer to every complaint saves the city about $300,000 a year. So how does they feel about people like Margarita, who call in a couple of times a week?
Jen: Is it ever annoying to have someone constantly contacting you about their neighborhood?
Jacqueline: I wouldn’t say it’s annoying…For me, I care, I want the properties maintained. Again, Margarita will inform me and thank me. And that’s what I look for, too. I want us to step in and get that lawn cut, find out who the owner of that vacant lot is. It’s a community involvement and I think Margarita is setting the tone…
Jen: The city says every community has a Margarita, and they highly encourage more people to become like her. Nobody intends to be a bad neighbor, and 311 is an example of how residents and the city can work together to solve community problems.
[backgrouns sound of drumline comes up]
Jen: I caught up with Meadowview’s city council person Larry Carr at the dedication of LeVar Burton Park this past summer. The city had recently completed renovations on the park and community members had come together to celebrate.
Larry Carr: You know, there are 70,000 people in the district it's impossible for a city council member to know what's going on everywhere all the time. We depend on Margarita and people like Margarita to help us help them.
Jen: Margarita is ready to do just that. In fact, she’s been working with Larry Carr’s office on getting upgrades made to her neighborhood park, too. And she’s not about to rest.
Margarita Chavez: No, because maybe I will inspire somebody a little bit more. You know for their neighborhood. A lot of people are calling 3-1-1. That's why you can't get in. So you know, I'm not the only one. when more people call about the same problem, same situation. It has more power. It gives more voice to it.
Pauline: That was Jen Picard reporting. That’s it for this episode. Making Meadowview was edited by John Biewen and Joe Barr. Jesikah Maria Ross heads up community engagement. Olivia Henry, Erica Anderson and Mounia O’Neal were part of her team.
Sally Schilling, Gabriela Fernandez, Paul Conley and Linnea Edmeier also helped produce Making Meadowview.
Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Our web site was built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell. Our Chief Content Officer is Joe Barr.
Tell us what you think of this episode, or any of the previous Making Meadowview stories. Email [email protected]
Make sure you don’t miss any episodes... search for “The View from Here” on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Special thanks to the Sacramento Public Library, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the Listening Post Collective. Our music is from blue dot sessions.
I’m Pauline Bartolone…. Thanks for listening to Making Meadowview, a series from CapRadio’s documentary podcast The View From Here.