For the last few years, many residents of Ramona Gardens took pride in a remarkable turnaround.
Once controlled by a Latino gang, the Boyle Heights housing project had seen crime drop dramatically. Moreover, black families were beginning to move back into the rows of garden apartments — more than 20 years after the firebombing of two black families prompted most African Americans to flee.
Then on Monday night, someone threw flaming Molotov cocktails at four apartments in Ramona Gardens. It had all the hallmarks of the racial attack from the area's darker years.
Three of the four apartments targeted just after midnight were occupied by black families. The other housed a Latino family. No one was injured in the attack. Police have no suspects and have been careful to say the motive remains unclear.
But several law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said officials believe the attack was racially motivated. The apartment the Latino family stayed in was tucked amid the others. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.
The FBI is working with the LAPD to determine whether any federal civil rights statutes were violated in the attack, bureau spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Friday.
Either way, the damage has already been done. Some black families immediately put in for emergency transfers to other housing projects, according to police.
A few didn't wait for transfers and simply left. Others are debating what to do.
CJ Johnson, 32, said his family probably will leave soon.
Johnson, a black resident who works with special needs children and is married to a Latina, said the attack "came out of the blue. It's been peace and love with my family," he said. "I haven't had any issues. I'm a family man and they respect that."
One black woman, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety, said she has asked for an emergency transfer.
She moved to Ramona Gardens about a year ago and said the atmosphere has been calm until this week. Now, she said, she doesn't want to take any chances.
"I have a 17-year-old son," she said.
There are 23 black families living in Ramona Gardens, which is predominantly Latino. That number has increased since last year, when at one point 16 black families lived in the housing project. The complex has about 1,791 residents.
The violence was a blow particularly to a group of residents — including former gang members — who had been working to ease racial tensions and make blacks feel welcome. Even after this week's firebombing, it's not unusual for black and Latino residents, especially children, to mingle and talk.
In 1992, the homes of two black families were firebombed, sending adults and children fleeing into the street. Soon other black families left, leaving Ramona Gardens with virtually no African Americans for almost 20 years.
That began to change in recent years as black families returned. The LAPD, residents, gang intervention workers and others collaborated to keep them safe. Even some people connected to the "Big Hazard" gang, which has long claimed the area but whose presence has diminished, pitched in — usually behind the scenes.
At a meeting in Ramona Gardens' gym Wednesday evening, LAPD Capt. Martin Baeza told a mixed gathering of about 100 residents that police were increasing patrols.
"We're looking to restore a sense of community," he said in English and Spanish.
Baeza said the LAPD's Major Crimes unit along with arson investigators from the city's Fire Department are investigating the attacks, but don't know for sure whether race was the motive.
"There have been racial tensions in the past, but there have not been any racial issues recently," he said.
Police had not received intelligence or chatter beforehand indicating the attack had been sanctioned by any particular person or gang, he added.
The Molotov cocktails were made with glass bottles, rags and flammable liquid that ignites when the bottle breaks. Ramona Gardens has video cameras, but it's unclear if they captured the attack.
Residents said the firebombing was a particular shock because of how relatively good relations between blacks and Latinos have seemed in recent years.
Black resident Jeff Littrell, 49, said he and his 12-year-old son, Malik, like life in Ramona Gardens and are not going to be chased out.
"I'm not going nowhere," Littrell said in his living room, where trophies belonging to his son — for sports and for winning a spelling bee — covered the top of a shelf. "I know all the homies and when I see them I say, 'What's up?' And they say 'what's up' to me."
Just outside Ramona Gardens, someone planted an orange sign at the corner of Lancaster Avenue and Soto Street that read: "Enough with racism, hate and gangbangin evil nonsense. God don't like ugly!!! You've been warned."