Three years ago, a one-block-long street near San Benito Foods underwent a name change because a majority of the residents had petitioned to have Hazel Street changed to Comienzo Street, which means “beginning.” According to Hollister City Manager Bill Avera, a number of the signs—both Hazel and Comienzo—were stolen, possibly by gang members. Avera said it was mostly likely members of the Hazel Street Gang who were taking the signs. Councilman Raymond Friend believes gang members probably did take the earlier signs, but thought the theft of the recent Comienzo Street sign was most likely a case of vandalism.
Avera said changing street names is not simply a matter of switching them.
“It takes some time to make sure all the public agencies and residents have enough time to make that transition,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process, from the post office to everybody on the street.”
Recently, the city made an attempt to literally put the signs beyond reach by placing them atop two 16-foot poles. After the signs appeared on Facebook, one disappeared and the city decided to take the other one down before it, too, was stolen.
Avera described the Hazel Street Gang as a “rough bunch” that started on Hazel Street and spread though Hollister. He remembered nearly 20 residents had signed the petition in the belief that by doing so it might ease the gang activity on the block.
“They were contemplating various names and some of them were funny,” he said. “They went from rainbow to flower, everything that was not hard, so to speak,” he said. “I’m not sure who came up with the name ‘Comienzo,’ but it may have been someone on our staff. The residents liked that and it’s the one we ultimately went with.”
Each time the signs have to be replaced it costs a few hundred dollars, including the poles, signs and staff time, Avera noted. After the one on the east side of the street was stolen, he told staff to take down the one on the west side.
“It’s frustrating, so now we’re going to have to try to figure out another way to deal with this,” he said. “Every time we do this, we’re spending a few hundred dollars and taking away time from doing other things around the city. So, it’s not only the cost of the sign, but a loss in productivity.”
Avera believes a number of the houses have new residents in them since 2014, so there probably aren’t as many gang members living there now. He said it may still take a while to resolve the problem.
“The reality is we’re required by law to have street signs available,” he said of the possibility that someone might be keeping score. “Even if it were 100 to zero, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t keep doing it. We’ll try various approaches to make them as vandal-proof as possible. But if someone really wants something, they’ll take it, regardless.”
While the city can keep fixing the signs, Avera said it isn’t fair to those who live on the street, as well as being a public safety issue.
Sgt. Don Pershall, Hollister Policed Department Public Information Officer, said he doesn’t know if gangs were taking the signs, but commented that the Hazel Street Gang is a Norteños gang that appeared decades ago on the street.
“Sometimes they’ll pick a street and that will be their marker, but they have a larger territory than that,” Pershall said. “They’re one of the more established gangs and part of a larger gang. They’ve had fights and drug sales on the streets.”
If anyone were actually keeping score, Avera said eight signs have been stolen, and the city has yet to figure out what to do to stop the thefts. One city official joked that they could be electrified.