BRADENTON -- In southern Manatee County lies a neighborhood known as Pride Park. The area immediately surrounding 63rd Avenue East is considered one of Bradenton's toughest neighborhoods -- an area long ridden with crime.
Beneath the layers of drugs and gang rivalries in Pride Park are families like that of 34-year-old Leticia Saucedo, who bought a house along 59th Avenue East with her husband, Albino, almost a decade ago. For the couple, the house was very cheap and would do until they built up enough credit to move elsewhere.
"When we got here, the situation was much worse, but right now it's a bit more calm because of our neighbors close by," Saucedo said in Spanish.
As she sat in front of her home on a recent evening, the stay-at-home mother of four didn't hesitate when asked what the worst part is of the area: the gangs.
"They walk around in groups," she said. "You see this every day."
For this reason, Saucedo has been fiercely protective of her children. None are allowed outside alone -- and their house has an alarm system in place.
"The problem here is that there are people who come and go (because of the apartment rentals)," Saucedo said. "And they're not always good people."
Pride Park, which took its name in 2002 but has been established since the 1970s, has a large percentage of rental units. According to U.S. Census records obtained by the Manatee County Neighborhood Services Department, there were 2,433 renter occupied
housing units in a 1-square-mile area around Pride Park in 2013. The number of housing units occupied by homeowners was less: 2,197.
Cheri R. Coryea, director of neighborhood services, describes Pride Park as a unique place.
"It's a diverse neighborhood with many small business owners," she said, adding that the area has an elementary school (Blanche H. Daughtrey Elementary School) and a middle school (Sara Scott Harllee Middle School).
In recent years, there's been great focus on Pride Park because of its crime.
"There is what's called an enhanced patrol, which are after-hour, off-duty police officers that patrol the neighborhood," said Coryea, adding that it's for the safety and protection of the neighborhood.
"We are over in that area constantly," said Manatee County Sheriff's Office Capt. Dan Kaufman, who oversees several different zones, including one encompassing Pride Park called West 30. "We put a tremendous amount of resources in the West 30 area and Pride Park."
Usually two sheriff's cars are assigned to the zone in three separate shifts during the day to patrol the area.
Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, whose district includes the Pride Park area, said she's seen an improvement in the neighborhood over the past few years.
"People are really taking pride in their homes and in fixing them up with landscaping," she said.
DiSabatino said she'd like to see children in the area stay away from gangs and continue on with their education.
"There are just so many opportunities for youngsters today," she said. "I hope they take advantage of what this area has to offer them."
Perhaps the neighborhood's shining glory is Pride Community Park at 815 63rd Ave. W. Built with federal, state and local funds through the Community Development Block grant, the park features basketball courts, a multi-purpose trail, soccer field and splash park, among other amenities.
The splash park is near to John Mann's heart.
"It's pretty impressive. You go see the kids at the splash park, and they're laughing and giggling. We didn't have that before," said the 66-year-old Mann, who has fought to uplift the children of Pride Park for years.
Mann was one of the founding members of the South County Community Redevelopment Area's advisory board, which was recently dissolved to become a larger entity.
"We've got some great kids down that way," the West Bradenton resident said. "I grew up poor, so I could relate to every one of those kids in there."
On a recent, hot Wednesday, kids ran joyously through Pride Community Park as mothers watched with keen eyes. Sweat glistened on their faces.
Under a pavilion sat Juan Carlos Aparicio. The 19-year-old's phone was plugged into an outlet and blasting Latin music.
"It's tranquil here," the Pride Park resident said. "Families can come here and cook carne asada and host parties."
As for beyond the neighborhood, Aparicio spoke openly about the area's drug problems.
"Without the youth, they (drug dealers) can't sell," he said. "Instead of being productive, they (young people) get into drugs."
Charlie Bodden, 66, moved to Pride Park more than two decades ago from Bayshore Gardens. The retired painter, originally from Honduras, has seen the area undergo many changes.
"There's a lot of violence now," Bodden said as he stood in front of his home on Ninth Street East. "Before, there weren't many police around here. Now, I look out the window at night and see them everywhere."
Still, Bodden has never moved.
"This is my home," he said.
For Bodden, there's comfort here.
Amaris Castillo, Law Enforcement/Island Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.