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Residents gather for garage sales, celebrations and to address mutual concerns

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(Editor?s note: This is one in a series of monthly stories taking a close-up look at neighborhoods in Petaluma.)

Each year, several local schools participate in Walk & Roll to School Day to encourage students to develop healthy lifestyle habits, and some of them, including La Tercera Elementary School in the Old Adobe Union School District, have added their own particular twist.

?Many students and teachers at La Tercera walk together in pairs around the neighborhood, pretending to be a school bus,? said Meloni Courtway, a resident of the area.

The twist mirrors the social personality of the La Tercera neighborhood, which historically has gathered for garage sales, parties and holiday celebrations, as well as meetings to address compelling concerns.

And at the forefront of current worries is vandalism at La Tercera Park.

?When we first moved here in 1992, there wasn?t a high crime rate ? not at all,? said Michelle Giuliani, who has lived on Ivy Lane for the past 15 years. ?At that time, you wouldn?t give a second thought to going down to the park. Today, I don?t take my (4-year-old) daughter there. We go to other parks because I know through my own kids what happens at La Tercera.?

Concerned over the increasing vandalism, more than 100 neighborhood residents held a ?Take Back La Tercera Park? meeting there in February with city officials, as well as police and fire personnel. Since then, agencies have boosted their efforts to remove graffiti, condoms, alcohol and broken bottles from the park, and residents have initiated regular foot patrols of the area.

While vandalism and trash remain an ongoing issue, and many parents don?t allow their children to visit the park at night, several residents indicated that the meeting helped.

?Since the meeting, people have been working on the vandalism problem, and it?s gotten better,? said Ed Apelzin, who has lived with wife Doris onSt. Louis Court for the past 38 years.

Many residents credit Courtway, who organized the meeting along with her husband, Edgar, for the initiative she has shown since moving to the neighborhood in 2005.

?Meloni?s enthusiasm has paid off,? said Traci Long, who has lived on Peggy Lane since 1983. ?She?s been an inspiration to the neighborhood, and made it more cohesive.

?She?s woken it up.?

?Two years ago, this neighborhood was at the tipping point of being an undesirable place to live,? Courtway said. ?I wondered if people had resigned themselves to the way things were going.

?But a combination of new people here have made a positive difference. I?m not the only one.?

Now, after receiving unanimous approval from the Petaluma Parks & Recreation Commission, planning leader Suzi Stadelman, along with husband Bob and other residents, are collaborating with Petaluma Bounty, a local nonprofit group, to create a community garden in a previously vacant part of La Tercera Park. The garden will include a shaded rest and workshop area, children?s garden and 17 plots purchased by neighborhood families.

The plots cost $25 per year to cover the city?s cost for providing water, and residents will be able to grow plants, flowers and crops on them.

?A large group of people will have their hands in the garden. It will bring people together, and represents cultural development in the neighborhood,? Courtway said.

The quick transformation of the park has energized the area.

?It?s brought the neighborhood spirit out,? said Lynda Crain, who has lived on Tampico Court for the past 22 years.

Most residents interviewed feel that the neighborhood?s spirit never entirely disappeared, but has changed after the children of many long-term residents grew up.

From 1990 to 2006, the portion of La Tercera neighborhood residents under 20 years old has dropped from 30.7 percent to 23.9 percent, while the population of residents over 54 years old has risen from 14.9 percent to 28.9 percent.

?It?s not quite as lively now because there aren?t as many young children around,? said Elfriede Mitschan, who has lived in a home on Baywood Drive since 1971.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many couples were drawn to the neighborhood?s schools, safety and affordable homes, and plenty of their children congregated in one particular house.

?Our two children had a lot of friends, and my wife, Irene, is great with kids, so our house became a gathering spot for them,? said Jim Alberigi, who has lived on Baywood Drive for the past 36 years.

As Giuliani?s husband, Mark, grew up, he played with friends on Ivy Lane, where the couple has been raising seven children.

?Some of the homes here weren?t even built yet. He had no idea that one day he?d be living on this street,? Michelle Giuliani said.

Current residents laud the family atmosphere that still characterizes the La Tercera neighborhood.

?It?s a superb place to raise children,? said Dennis Thomas, who raised four children with wife Peggy at their home on ? most appropriately ? Peggy Court.

?It?s all pretty positive,? added Norris ?Bob? Dyer, a resident of Granada Court who raised two sons with wife Brigitte. ?Our kids enjoyed it, and it was a good place to raise a family. Across the street, there?s a new family that just moved in, and they have young children. So, the cycle continues.?

A growing number of these new families are Hispanic. The portion of Hispanic residents has grown from 8.3 percent in 1990 to 16.3 percent in 2006, and is expected to reach 19.9 percent by 2011.

Many of the new residents are making the neighborhood more attractive, say some of the long-term residents.

?Some former residents were ?letting their houses go,? but the new families that bought them have made them much more attractive,? said Joanne Machado, a resident of Peggy Lane for the past 31 years.

And despite the vandalism at the park, many residents praised the general safety of the area.

?I feel safe and protected here. We all look out for each other,? said Doris Apelzin.

This collective concern sometimes is displayed in unusual ways.

?Every time fire engines go by, we all come out of our homes to see what?s happening ? no matter what state of dress or undress we?re in!? Mitschan said, laughing.

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com. Corey Young and Yovanna Bieberich contributed to this article.)