North County 'Eden' Fights Drug Invasion : 3-Pronged Attack Aims at Solana Beach Dealing

Times Staff Writer

The cars begin arriving mid-morning, slowly prowling the narrow streets of Eden Gardens, one of the oldest and proudest Latino neighborhoods in North County.

The drivers include blue-collar workers, dress-for-success businessmen, restless teen-agers, low-riders and repeat offenders fresh from jail. Most are Anglo, and nearly all are drawn to this part of Solana Beach in search of a cheap hit of cocaine or heroin.

Eden Gardens has long been known as a close-knit family neighborhood with three renowned Mexican restaurants--the Bluebird Cafe, Fidel's Little Mexico and Tony's Jacal--but now residents say their community is being ruined by drug sellers and users.

'Poisoning Our Neighborhood'

"They're poisoning our neighborhood with their drugs," said Alice Granados, a lifelong resident of Eden Gardens. "Our children are forced to witness drug sales every day. The drug users and their suppliers have made parents afraid to let their children out at night or go to our neighborhood park unescorted."

Drug sales are not altogether new to Eden Gardens, a pre-World War II neighborhood that at first provided housing for farm workers and for maids, gardeners and handymen employed in swank Rancho Santa Fe.

But officials and many residents agree that the problem has gotten dramatically worse in recent years, both in the volume and type of drugs being sold.

Pushers have turned La Colonia Park and two nearby parking lots into a supermarket for illicit drugs, drawing customers from throughout North County.

"We've busted businessmen from Sorrento Valley, yuppies from La Jolla, construction workers on their lunch breaks--you name it," said Lt. Pat Kerins, who heads the Sheriff's Department narcotics squad.

The older, core area of Eden Gardens has perhaps 350 residents, but since January, 1985, sheriff's deputies have made more than 100 drug arrests in the area, Kerins said. In one raid alone, 26 people were arrested.

Worst Area in Sheriff's Jurisdiction

"There is no question that Eden Gardens is the worst area for blatant, street-level drug dealing anywhere in the sheriff's jurisdiction," Kerins said. The department patrols the county's unincorporated areas and eight suburban cities.

The increasing brazenness of sellers and buyers has left residents stunned and angry. Some have been intimidated into silence, but others are speaking out.

Eden Gardens is a small, enclosed neighborhood of about 1 square mile, with essentially only two entry streets. Sellers post sentries who quickly pass the word in Spanish when a sheriff's patrol car approaches.

"The buyers shoot up right in front of our houses and our children," said Al Gonzalez, 39, a cement mason. "They come to our houses asking for glasses of water or a telephone. You look outside and they're hunched over, either cooking or shooting their (drugs). Some are in flashy cars like BMWs."

Residents say they have been approached both by sellers and by upscale buyers, who assume all Latinos sell drugs.

"It's so open it's scary," said Christine Hernandez Aleman, 38, who, like Gonzalez, is a lifelong resident of Eden Gardens. "I've been approached four or five times by men asking me to sell them drugs.

"Yesterday, I saw a brand-new Cadillac, with a man 47 or 48 and a girl in her 20s, stop right in the middle of Valley Avenue and make a buy right before lunch," she said.

'I Was So Stunned and Shocked'

Solana Beach City Councilwoman Celine Olson said she saw a deal consummated between the drivers of a silver sports car and a "broken-down clunker" at about 4 p.m. one day while she was bringing a friend home from a senior-citizens center.

"I was so stunned and shocked at what I saw I didn't get their license plate numbers," Olson said. "They were so bold."

Prodded by homeowners, the city and the Sheriff's Department have devised an aggressive three-pronged attack on the neighborhood's drug traffic.

First, deputies have begun occasional foot patrols in the late afternoon and early evening. The patrols will become more frequent after the closing Monday of the Del Mar Fair, where several deputies have been on duty.

Second, the city plans to spend $500,000 in La Colonia Park to install more playground equipment and build a 5,000-square-foot community building. The goal is to attract residents from throughout Solana Beach, thus flushing out the sellers and users.

"We feel that the improvement of the park and the expansion of its use holds the key to correcting the problem down there," said City Manager Michael Huse.

"If we can attract a lot of people and possibly station a recreation employee down there, we think the illegal activity will move elsewhere," he said. "Drug sellers don't want a lot of witnesses around."

Letter Sent to Apartment Owner

And third, Huse has sent a bluntly worded letter to the owner of the 24-unit Solana Seashore Apartments, a two-building complex adjacent to La Colonia Park.

The letter, sent to Steven Luxenberg, a partner in the Rapp & Luxenberg Development firm of Solana Beach, notes the continued concern among Eden Gardens residents about the apartment buildings on Valley Avenue.

"The concern centers around the property's reputation as a focal point for drug-related activity," Huse wrote. "The neighbors complain that dealers and users frequent the facility while little or nothing is done to discourage this illegal activity."

Dale Vogelaar, director of operations for Rapp & Luxenberg, said he resents the implication in Huse's letter that the firm has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward the property.

The firm has owned the buildings for about two years, he said. Most of the tenants receive federal rent subsidies under a housing program for the poor.

Vogelaar said that, in the three months he has been overseeing the management of the buildings, drug users have been removed as tenants, would-be buyers have been chased from the parking lot and the on-site manager has agreed to testify in court against a dealer despite threats to her life.

'It Was a Shooting Gallery'

"When I got there, it was a shooting gallery in the stairwells," Vogelaar said. "Children were watching the junkies puncture their arms. I used to be afraid to go down there, and I'm a pretty large man.

Their soda pop bottle caps, matches, spoons and candles were founde everywhere, he said, referring to paraphernalia used in the preparation of street drugs.

Vogelaar insists that the buildings have gotten better--but improvement has not been as noticeable to the 50-odd Eden Gardens residents who attended a recent meeting with city officials and sheriff's deputies to plead for protection.

"In the past, the legitimate citizens could comfortably avoid or turn their backs on the drug dealing in Eden Gardens," said Sheriff's Capt. William Knowles, head of the Encinitas substation, which has responsibility for Solana Beach. "Now it's gotten so bad they can't do that any longer.

"They have a legitimate fear of the lowlifes who come crawling out after dark," he said.

A complicating factor in cracking down on drug sales on the street has been the tendency of dealers to use illegal aliens to make their transactions, according to Knowles and Kerins.

Fit Dealers' Needs Perfectly

The aliens fit the dealers' needs perfectly: They work cheap, they are willing to take chances, and, if arrested, they are often uncooperative and make poor witnesses.

"The dealers feel the aliens are expendable," Knowles said. "If they get arrested, they can always be replaced."

A group of young men sitting outside the Solana Seashore Apartments last week complained that deputies unfairly pick on them and roust them for petty offenses because they are poor. They said they are not acquainted with any drug dealers.

"Every neighborhood has drugs, not just Eden Gardens," said a young man who would give his name only as Rafael. "The older people are exaggerating."

Still, the drug problem has led to the unusual situation of growing sentiment in a Latino neighborhood for increased sweeps by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Although they cannot prove it, residents such as Granados, Gonzalez, Aleman and others believe the immigrants selling drugs in their neighborhood do not have the documentation needed to remain in the country.

A Drug Users' Paradise

"I used to hate the Border Patrol because I would see the unhappy children in school after their fathers were picked up and deported," said Granados, 46, who works as a community liaison for the bilingual program of the Solana Beach elementary school district.

"Now I would like to see the Border Patrol down here more often," she said.

Eden Gardens has proved to be a drug users' paradise. It is close to the freeway, a 15-minute trip from La Jolla and only 20 minutes from Oceanside. And, in the past, many residents admittedly had a look-the-other-way attitude.

Eden Gardens is bounded by Interstate 5 on the east, Via de Valle on the south, Stevens Avenue on the west and Academy Drive on the north. It was given its name decades ago by an imaginative real estate agent.

Newly built condominiums and small business parks are nibbling at the edges of the old neighborhood.

If the city's plan to draw more residents to La Colonia Park is to succeed, it must reverse an established social pattern in Solana Beach. By and large, the Anglos venture to the heart of Eden Gardens only for its restaurants.

"We have to get away from the notion held by many that the park is for the Eden Gardens area," said City Manager Huse.

Meanwhile, residents wait and hope. When the deputies on foot patrol leave, the people Alice Granados calls the "vampires" arrive.

"They come by at lunchtime and weekends and Friday nights, after they get paid, to buy their drugs," said Al Gonzalez. "It's sad what's happening."

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