"If you give us slums to live in, we don't have the pride to keep it nice. If you give us a nice, new community, we have that pride."
--Tenant spokeswoman Dorothy McAleavey in 1984.
She has spent her life in dusty West Texas towns and in tough Los Angeles housing projects. But now, on a bright day after a chill autumn rain, 23-year-old Debra Allen says the clouds have parted.
"To my idea, this is the nicest place I ever lived," says Allen, pushing her infant son's stroller as a second child, 2-year-old Damon, tugs at her pants leg.
All around her, along the curved streets of the Carmelitos Housing Project in Long Beach, things are peaceful.
"I was in Nickerson Gardens . . . and I was in Jordan Downs. Always in the projects," says Allen, a Carmelitos resident since May. "But this project seems more like condominiums to me. My friends from L. A., they ask me: 'What do I do to get in over here?' "
For Carmelitos, the largest of 32 Los Angeles County housing projects and for years Long Beach's most notorious slum, it is an improbable endorsement.
Built during World War II, a center of gang violence in the early 1970s, partially closed by 1980, Carmelitos has long meant crime and decay to the larger Long Beach community.
A councilman once quipped that Carmelitos, separated from fashionable Bixby Knolls by the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, would make a nice golf course when cleared. The city favored replacing the sprawling family project with new housing exclusively for the elderly.
Lawsuit Blocked Demolition
Instead, at least partly because of a tenant lawsuit that blocked demolition, Carmelitos has been rehabilitated with $24 million in federal money since 1982, and most of its tenants are still families whose incomes average $8,150 a year.
Today the 1,850-resident community has the look of a moderately priced condo complex. Its 713 dwellings are color-coordinated, sitting on 64 acres of rolling, shady land.
At its Orange Avenue entrance, just north of Del Amo Boulevard, a large masonry sign bears the project's name. Inside, children play at a new park and attend a preschool and nursery, which are part of a community center completed last summer.
A fashionably decorated senior center, with skylights, library and billiard parlor, is the focus of a newly opened 155-apartment complex for the elderly, who live around a courtyard behind security gates.
Carmelitos residents, many of whom have lived there for generations, say the restoration brought with it a surge of pride.
"I think people's pride has gotten up a lot," longtime resident Dorothy McAleavey says. "In general, I'd say we think we've got it pretty good."
Children say they are no longer ashamed to bring their friends home. Many tenants say they are determined to keep the project clean, and Carmelitos' neighbors say they are surprised and impressed by what they see as efforts to break a cycle of poverty.
Indeed, the project is now touted by the county Housing Authority as a showplace.
"Carmelitos is one of the most beautiful housing projects in the country . . . a model for other public housing authorities," says Executive Director David Lund. The authority, in fact, has just won a top award from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the renovation.
But not all is new and clean and safe at Carmelitos, residents and county officials acknowledge. They say the gains of reconstruction may be temporary if they don't work harder to keep things up and to improve the quality of tenants' lives in other ways.
"This is wonderful, but it's not enough," says Vincent Neal, 29, a 16-year resident. "This place is a storage house for poor people, and I don't think new buildings change that. People are still trapped in the welfare system without education or jobs."
Carmelitos manager Mary Douglas agrees. "Initially, all of them were impressed. But they need training and they need community involvement to continue the pride they first had."
Deterioration can already be seen in a handful of the 19 apartment clusters that serve--along with the senior-citizen compound--as mini-neighborhoods within the project.
In at least three of the parking lots around which the units are clustered, drug pushers and their customers often keep frightened neighbors awake with their deals and disputes.
One resident tells of a recent gun battle that spread from his parking lot into the street nearby. Another says she recently picked up six spent shotgun shells outside her door after a sleepless night of sudden explosions. And, last May, an errant bullet from the project seriously wounded a student at an adjacent junior high school.
Narcotics officers say the worst parking lots at Carmelitos make up one of the five most serious drug areas in the city. A police strike force made 18 arrests for cocaine sales during a one-week crackdown in August--despite gang lookouts who shouted warnings into cellular phones from Carmelitos' two entrances.
In the same lots, litter has also increased, and gang graffiti has begun to reappear. A few residents say there is so much trash around their homes that they have given up trying to keep the grounds clean.
Even the new children's playground became a center for evening drug activity until floodlights were installed, said McAleavey, who is head of the tenants committee.
"We seem to be getting harder-nosed tenants who'd rather shoot at you than talk to you," she said.
Overall, crime reports to police from Carmelitos are up, from 257 in 1986 to 295 during the first 10 months of 1987. The number of tenants in the project has increased steadily from about 1,000 in late 1984 to 1,850 today.
Tensions are building, too, between longtime residents, many of whom are white, and predominantly black newcomers, who often move from Compton and Southeast Los Angeles, say residents of both races. Carmelitos, mostly white for years, is now 49% black, 32% white and 14% Latino.
Some tenants also complain about the quality of the new construction and the slowness of maintenance workers to respond to leaking roofs, bad plumbing and heating problems.
And they wonder why their fine new community center often sits silent instead of being filled with sounds from long-anticipated recreation, job-training and tutorial programs.
Housing Authority officials say they are keenly aware of those concerns and are determined to devise a strategy to improve the quality of life at Carmelitos while protecting their $24-million investment.
The 50-year history of federal public housing is littered with money wasted on new dwellings trashed before their time, say officials here and in Washington.
"You can bemoan the fact, but you can't dispute it," says HUD's Alan Greenwald, who has allied the Housing Authority with a "slum buster" from Florida, the nonprofit Oasis Institute.
After cleaning up projects in Fort Lauderdale that Greenwald says were "a monument to bombed-out government investment" and launching programs in six other cities, Oasis came to Carmelitos in April.
Oasis is "the most real-world approach I've ever seen," said Greenwald, a HUD official for 10 years. "You identify your strengths, which are 90% of your tenants, and work out from there.
"These guys, in Fort Lauderdale, literally were up at 2 in the morning with their pistol on a table, playing cards and fending off drug dealers."
In theory, however, the Oasis program is much less dramatic than such confrontations. It rewards good tenants with the best apartments, furnishings and programs, while denying bad tenants the extras until a legal reason can be found to evict them, Oasis' Ronald Range explains.
'They've Given Up'
"People have become a little bit complacent," Range says. "They tend to accept standards less than they would in a middle-income community. They've given up on the system.
"And we've got to teach them they have a responsibility, as well as management, to take control of the quality of life in their community."
A key to success at Carmelitos will be to make drug dealers, many of whom live elsewhere, and their tenant hosts so uncomfortable they will move on, Range says. Like the rest of Oasis' agenda, this requires better cooperation among tenants, the Housing Authority and the larger Long Beach community, he says.
After meetings with Range and the county, Long Beach police recently began placing officers at Carmelitos during peak hours of drug dealing instead of patrolling the area as part of a larger beat, Deputy Chief Gene Brizzolara says.
"There are a lot of good people there who say they are willing to provide information and to testify" against drug dealers, Range says.
But tenant spokeswoman McAleavey has her doubts. "People are so intimidated. They call the police but say, 'Don't you come by my place.' They don't want to be retaliated against."
A number of residents say drug dealing declined this fall. They attribute most of that to the late-August police crackdown, however, and not to the Oasis program, which has just begun to implement its recommendations.
The full reform plan should be completed by June, when Oasis' $90,000 contract expires. It will pointedly suggest better management by the Housing Authority, Range says.
County managers need to get to know their tenants much better, make sure apartment repairs are done promptly and correctly, and get funding for more programs that will involve and inspire tenants, he says. They also need to weed out people who have moved into Carmelitos illegally and are causing more than their share of problems, he says.
"You can fix the physical, but if the social is not intact, you've got problems," he says.
Housing Authority operations manager Russell A. Carlsen declined comment on Range's recommendations, which he has not received in writing. But he says Oasis was hired "with a commitment to improving" everything at Carmelitos.
"We're the first to admit Carmelitos isn't perfect," Carlsen says, "but we're moving in the right direction."
Time, Not Money
Range says Oasis' recommendations require investing time but not more government money, since a stable community costs less to maintain. In other cities, the expense of extra programs has often been picked up by private groups, and there is no reason the same should not happen in Carmelitos, he says.
One proposal for computer training and tutorial services was submitted months ago by Neal, who moved to Carmelitos in 1971 and led a church youth program in the project for years.
"I was surprised at the willingness of the outside community to become involved, because Carmelitos has historically been a real sore spot," Neal said. "But they were really surprised at (the improvements) they saw here."
One church, Grace Fellowship, has contributed furniture and recreational equipment; the South Coast Ecumenical Council has offered to pay for summer camp for at least a few children, and the North Long Beach United Methodist Church helped with a Halloween party, contributed bags of food to tenants at Thanksgiving and will take 30 children to camp, Neal says.
United Methodist, of which Neal is a member, is also seeking grants of thousands of dollars from larger Methodist groups to pay for the educational programs Neal hopes to start.
"There's some dignity and personal pride being engendered at Carmelitos . . . and there are people in our church who are very much interested in being a part of that," Pastor Donald Meier of United Methodist said.
Patrick Bratton, principal at Lindbergh Junior High School, says he, too, sees a change in attitude at Carmelitos. He approached the county about building a wall between the project and the school after the shooting incident in May, but now has decided "to give some credence to their intent to clean up the situation over there."
"This fall there have been no incidents of any sort," said Bratton, who has been recruited as a volunteer director of the Carmelitos senior center.
Long Beach city officials say they also can see that Carmelitos is beginning to be more accepted by the rest of the city, or, at least, considered to be less of a problem.
"I never hear anybody complain about Carmelitos anymore, so that must mean something, " says Long Beach Assistant City Manager John Shirey, who lives just blocks away.
The families of Carmelitos--mostly poor, undereducated women with children--tend to move in and stay. They are covetous of rents that average $150 a month and, after a while, they begin to think of it as home.
Even when the project's worst 155 units were demolished several years ago, the families moved nearby and hung on. As the six-phase renovation of 558 other apartments progressed, they moved from one building to another.
Thirty-eight families have been there for more than 20 years, and another 99 for 10 to 20 years.
"It's grandmother, mother and daughter, generation after generation. That's what this development is made up of," said Douglas, the manager.
Some families stay on even after they have the money to move out. One family, with three grown children, pays $735 a month in rent, the maximum 30% of income that can be charged, she said.
"The children just stay around forever, and many of them bring their wives in here," Douglas said. "It's a feeling of security. They've been here so long, it's like being institutionalized."
These old-timers have a vested interest in Carmelitos. They are the ones who recognize the improvements of the last few years and whose involvement the Housing Authority needs--the oases of strength from which it hopes to build.
But they are hardly a unified bloc. Some are activists who followed tenant leader Glenn Crout to court in 1977 to make sure the project was not torn down. But many others say that life is tough enough without more problems and responsibilities.
"If you keep to yourself and mind your own business, then you're OK here," says Glenda Farrell, 36, a small, thin woman who moved to Carmelitos when she was 15.
"I'd lived here for three months when this kid attacked me with a pair of pliers and I lost my eye. That kind of made me hate this place. But I've got used to it now," she said.
Signs of Beating
Farrell's 19-year-old son, Dieter, one of four children, has moved out of Carmelitos partly because of problems with other young residents. On a recent afternoon, one of Dieter's friends, a 10-year tenant, had a swollen black eye, the result of a beating he had taken for failing to repay a $3 debt.
"A lot of people are getting pushed around by people who just moved in," Dieter said.
The problem is worst, he said, around lot No. 8.
Near that lot, which is littered like no other in the project, Linda Richard, 30, is in her mother's small, well-tended backyard of lawn and rose bushes.
Richard, whose family has lived in the project for two decades, said some old-timers are thinking about moving out and that she increasingly keeps to herself.
"It's not too bad a place to live as long as you don't deal with the people," she said.
But a number of residents--such as McAleavey, Neal and Crout--promise to remain involved in community affairs.
Neal, who is close to graduating from college and whose wife, Rhonda, is a university graduate, says that one day he wants to move out of the project.
In the meantime, Neal says, Carmelitos--for all its problems--is cheap, secure and reasonably safe.
"It's not Shangri-La, man, but it's not quite hell either."