Drug dealers were doing a brisk business along Langdon Avenue in Sepulveda in 1986 until angry residents, intent on reclaiming their neighborhood, organized crime watch groups and lobbied for more police patrols.
They drove the drug dealers off the street early this year, but not out of the community.
"What used to be open, blatant dealing on the streets has moved inside" into many of the two- and three-story apartment buildings that line Langdon Avenue, said Los Angeles Police Officer Dennis Erickson.
"They're trying to establish a home base and they're using these apartments."
The neighborhood, from Nordhoff Street south to Roscoe Boulevard between Sepulveda Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway, has long been a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, police and residents say.
Problem Out of Control
But by November, 1986, police said, the drug problem had grown out of control. Cocaine was sold in broad daylight, sometimes directly in front of Langdon Avenue Elementary School.
Residents routinely reported hearing the sound of gunfire and said they saw armed lookouts, hired by dealers to keep watch for police, perched on apartment house roofs.
The situation so unnerved Langdon Principal Gerald Gottlieb that he started "drug drills" at the school to protect students in case a narcotics transaction erupted into violence.
The sound of a bell sent playing children charging from the schoolyard to classrooms, where windows were shut and doors were locked.
The drills galvanized residents, who strengthened crime watch groups, successfully lobbied for more police patrols and called attention to the problem.
12-Officer Task Force
In January, police assigned a 12-officer task force to the problem. Since then, 1,200 drug-related arrests have been made in the area, Sgt. Frank Reynoso said.
In July, community activists opened the Sepulveda Community Resource Center in a back room of the United Methodist Church.
Police and Los Angeles County probation officials helped staff it.
Through family counseling, job referrals, a drug-awareness program and a hot line that offered crime information, the center united a community determined to drive "the bad element" from its midst.
Neighborhood leaders and police reported dramatic results--for a while.
"Unfortunately, we were lured into a false sense of security," said the center's director, Debbie King.
"The neighborhood relaxed, so there is more activity," she said. "It's time to wake up because the wolf is back at the door. And we've got a new kind of dealer. He's craftier. He knows the laws and ordinances as well as we do, so he won't go near that schoolyard in the daytime."
Langdon Avenue residents, through all their anti-drug efforts, may actually have compounded the problem by making it so difficult for dealers to ply their trade on the streets.
Hard to Remove
"They get a foothold in an apartment through a friend or acquaintance, then they move in," Erickson said. "And once they establish residence, we have a difficult time removing them."
The problem became so severe at the Valley Vista Apartments on Sepulveda Boulevard that 14 tenants moved out in a single month, said Fred Petersen, a trouble-shooter for South Bay Management Co., which manages the property.
People were afraid to go to the pool because suspected dealers and their customers would congregate there, Petersen said. Tenants became victims of car vandalism, burglary and assault.
A disabled, elderly woman who befriended some of the dealers out of loneliness was bullied into surrendering one of her Social Security checks, Petersen said.
A new manager and armed security guards were hired in September.
They made repeated calls to police, and Petersen said their efforts resulted in eight arrests.
There have been no problems since, he said.
Apartment managers blame other managers, who they say are either oblivious to the problem, afraid of it, lax about enforcing building rules or more concerned with filling vacant units than with cleaning up the neighborhood.
King said a suspected drug dealer she forced from her apartment building simply moved into another apartment down the street.
At a community meeting Thursday, managers reported driving drug dealers from their buildings only to see them rent another apartment down the street.
"We have to stop being nice and take our block back," said Otha Cole, who manages an apartment building on Orion Avenue. "We need the support of management and the community at large."
He told residents to photograph tenants suspected of selling drugs, ask people who loiter in buildings for their names and report all problems to police.
Pretty soon, he said, dealers will get the message and move on.
King, who manages another building on Orion Avenue, said property owners and managers should go beyond traditional credit checks and thoroughly investigate the background of prospective tenants.
Talk to previous landlords, she suggested, and inquire about former tenants' habits.
"I'm only as strong as you are, if I'm your neighbor," she told the group. "We have to start communicating."
King circulated flyers advertising Thursday's meeting to managers and tenants of about 100 apartment buildings from Plummer Street south to Roscoe Boulevard and from Orion Avenue east to Van Nuys Boulevard.
Pacoima Residents Attend
Fewer than 40 people attended, including a group of Pacoima residents who said they want to learn tactics for battling drugs in their community.
Managers of what some residents say are the Sepulveda apartment buildings with the largest drug-dealing problems did not attend, to the annoyance of some of those who did.
"I've only been here a couple of months and I'm already mad," said Lisa Kernan, who with her husband manages a 60-unit apartment building on Rayen Street.
"The children are suffering," she said. "They see it being condoned by silence, by their own parents. I've seen children learn to count by counting the money their parents earn from drugs. I am the mother of a 3-year-old. To know she may grow up and be exposed to that just kills me."