The low-income residents of the Dana Strand Housing Project say that drug sales and drug use have been going on there for years. But for the most part, residents say, they are not affected because of a tacit understanding that if they don't interfere, the drug dealers leave them alone.
That arrangement, however, became strained recently when a mail carrier was attacked and robbed, and a second carrier was threatened. Mail delivery was discontinued for two days early this month to about 80 of the 382 apartments in the complex on Wilmington Boulevard and C-Street.
The mail interruption and the possibility of future stoppages have residents venting their frustration and looking desperately for ways to stop the drug dealing.
"We need guard dogs, and if not them, then we should call the National Guard. That's how bad it has become," said one elderly woman--a 16-year resident of Dana Strand--at a hastily called meeting on March 7 to discuss the interruption of mail service.
"You're dealing with crazy folks," said another woman, a mother of three children who has lived in Dana Strand for four years, at that same meeting. "Nothing but the Lord has taken care of me and my children."
The meeting was called by a man whose mother has lived 18 years in the two-story, faded green project, once used for military housing. The man, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation, said he grew up in Dana Strand and said that drugs have been sold there day and night for at least the past 10 years.
"People are living in fear," he said. "There are 10 to 15 drug deals every day. The easiest answer is to move, but most people can't afford to move. It's time people banded together."
Nothing definitive came out of that meeting, but a second one is scheduled for Wednesday at noon at the project's main office.
But not all residents believe that the drug dealing is a problem. One 18-year resident of the complex, Butch Jackson, called the mugging of the mail carrier "a freak accident by a guy who was too high."
Jackson, who admitted to drinking beer in the parking lot with some of the guys but would not say whether he used drugs, said an incident like the mugging of the mail carrier "will never happen again. We all look out for each other here. It's just a few individuals who (get out of hand.)"
He said that while dealers sell drugs at the complex, "they do it with respect. They don't do it in front of kids. And when we see kids saying they want to be hanging out with us, we tell them no, that they should be getting an education."
But other residents--many of them elderly or single mothers living on government subsidies--said that although they want to get rid of the drug dealers, they fear retaliation if they speak out. Some residents said they are too scared even to call police despite the fact that the police do not require them to identify themselves.
Evangelina Morales, the manager of the project, said drug dealing is a critical problem at all housing projects, not just Dana Strand, because of their population density and the frustrations of poor people, many of them unemployed, looking to make a quick dollar.
Police officials said housing projects are popular spots for drug dealers, most of whom do not live in the projects. Police say most housing projects are poorly lit, providing shadows in which dealers can hide; and the many buildings, clustered close together in the complex, allow suspects to quickly elude officers.
Harbor Division police say that three of the four major drug dealing spots in Harbor City, Wilmington and San Pedro, are at housing projects.
At the March 7 meeting, Morales told the handful of people there that if they really wanted to be effective they would have to work together.
"Don't call me when there's a problem, call the police," she said. "Each and every one one of you has to call the police. There are nearly 400 families here, that means nearly 400 voices. If all of us call, then someone has to listen."
Harbor Division Police Lt. Tim Murphy said he sympathizes with residents. "They have a right to live peacefully," he said. But, he continued, police dealing with the problem are frustrated by the judicial system.
He said there are almost daily arrests for drug-related incidents at the complex. He estimates that in the last six months between 700 and 800 arrest were made at Dana Strand, most for possession or sale of drugs.
Murphy said about 90% of the drug sales involve $25 cocaine rocks--actually about the size of a pebble--that are melted and smoked. He said the other 10% of the sales involve PCP and marijuana.
He said police know who most of the drug dealers are and many of them have been arrested during routine patrols and undercover operations, but most immediately returned to the streets after posting bail. Others, he said, are convicted but not sentenced to jail.
As an example, police cited the case of a 40-year-old Wilmington man who was arrested Wednesday night at Dana Strand on suspicion of PCP possession. Arresting Officer John Karle said the man had a record of six arrests and convictions, three times for possession of PCP. Karle said that when the man was picked up last week he was awaiting sentencing on a conviction for possession.
"We are making literally hundreds of arrests, but when they can make quick money they'll be back," said Sgt. Gerome Brackley, assistant watch commander of the Harbor Division. "They don't have to beg people to buy, they literally having people begging them to sell them stuff."
Murphy said the problem at Dana Strand is further aggravated because a handful of residents shelter dealers when they are pursued by police. He said the complex's many small parking lots, where most of the deals take place, also allow suspects to cut across fields and easily elude police patrolling the areas in their cars.
John Walton, patrol administrator for the Housing Authority, is just as frustrated as the police. He has 39 officers who patrol 21 housing projects throughout the city.
"We could definitely use more officers," he said, adding that he recently received approval for nine additional positions to be filled by the end of the year.
Wilmington Postmaster Ralph Berry said he will monitor the situation at Dana Strand and will halt mail delivery again if another carrier is threatened.
"If it gets any worse, we will curtail all service," he said. "The safety of my carriers is the most important thing. We expect it on the 1st and 15th (when welfare checks are delivered), but when it gets to the point where they are being threatened daily, I'm just not going to have it."
Barry said he will propose to the Housing Authority that a central mail station similar to those found in apartment buildings be installed at Dana Strand. He said eliminating door-to-door delivery would make it safer for the carrier and cut mail delivery time there from about three hours to less than one hour.
Postal worker Phyllis Gregg delivered the mail at Dana Strand for 19 years with few problems. She had to give up her route for a desk job when she injured her ankle stepping into a hole a year ago.
Gregg said she was surprised that a carrier had been attacked at the project, but said it probably happened because the carrier was unfamiliar to the residents.
Although she said she did not know any of the residents very well, Gregg said she felt a part of Dana Strand. She said she occasionally loaned residents money and nearly always got paid back.
But she, like many of the residents, minded her own business when drug deals occurred.
She said that after 19 years on that route--and watching many of the children grow up--she has mixed feeling about the complex.
"When I was out there, I tried to see things from their point of view. Selling drugs is obviously wrong, but when you're born poor, its hard to get out."