A Street Restored : Downey Woman Wins War on Crime, Graffiti

Times Staff Writer

Nineteen months ago Cheyenne Avenue in Downey was a darkened haven for thieves, gang members and graffiti-writing youths. Residents lived without street lights, sidewalks or even stop signs at some intersections. Carmen Sarabia Vinyard, fed up with her street's bleak situation, decided that something had to be done.

So she contacted city officials and other property owners on her street and convinced them that it was time to clean up the neighborhood. She circulated petitions and gathered signatures, and led a group of 2-dozen residents before the City Council. Her determination was rewarded when city officials agreed to lend a financial hand to the revitalization of Cheyenne Avenue.

Aided by the city's Community Development Agency, which works to inject new life into neighborhoods that need help, Cheyenne Avenue property owners agreed to pay for many of the street improvements--at a reduced rate--while the city donated some materials.

"My biggest problem was convincing the absentee landlords that this was something the neighborhood needed," Vinyard said.

Today, 41 street lights shine over Cheyenne Avenue and the two alleys flanking it, and wheelchair-accessible sidewalks line the street's three blocks between Paramount Boulevard and Downey Avenue.

Crime Warning Sign Posted

A Neighborhood Watch warning sign shares a pole with a new stop sign on the corner of Cheyenne and Paramount Boulevard, and similar signs are elsewhere in the neighborhood.

"If you rent or own your own property you should have your own sidewalk and at least have it swept for you," Vinyard said. "Other parts of Downey do. We should, too."

Vinyard will put the final touch on her street's face lift when she is host to a tree-planting celebration on Saturday. Downey Explorer Scouts and the city's Department of Public Works will assist in planting 22 evergreens, donated by the city, along the street. The 59-year-old mother of three plans to decorate her front lawn with balloons in honor of the occasion, which she hopes will renew the neighborhood's sense of community pride.

"I've seen this neighborhood go from bad to disastrous," the 32-year Downey resident said.

Two blocks from her home, Vinyard operated a clothing store that had been robbed five times in 4 1/2 years. The last robbery left an employee severely beaten and compelled Vinyard to close the shop and open another in a safer part of the city.

"My back was to the wall. . . . It was a matter of survival," Vinyard said. "I've invested too much money and time into this corner property to turn back."

Vinyard has invited Reps. Augustus Hawkins (D-Los Angeles) and Glenn Anderson (D-Harbor City), Downey Mayor Robert G. Cormack and City Council members to the event. Downey Housing Manager Edward Velasco will be there as well to provide information to residents about low-interest loans and rebates available for housing improvements.

Only once before has the city given such assistance to a neighborhood in need. The 9200 block of Elm Vista Drive, which suffered many of the same problems as Cheyenne Avenue, received street lights and sidewalks in January, 1987.

Construction on the three Cheyenne blocks began in April of last year and was completed last month. "It was a slow process," Vinyard said--residents waited more than a year after construction began before receiving sidewalks. "A couple of people were skeptical about whether the sidewalks were even going to be put in."

While city workers brightened up the public street and right of way, property owners were urged to do some housekeeping of their own.

Half a dozen city-donated dumpsters were placed on the street for residents to get rid of any rubbish in their yards or homes. City code enforcement officers were on hand to remind residents not to park vehicles on their lawns. Several property owners also were directed to clean debris from their front yards or paint parts of their houses. The city provided a $22,000 low-interest loan to one resident and will reimburse up to $500 to two others for making home repairs, Velasco said.

$3 Per Square Foot

Property owners who needed sidewalks installed were charged $3 per square foot of their sidewalk, according to Velasco. All owners will pay $121.52 for each of the first two years after the installation of street lights, plus an annual $9 maintenance fee.

"Now at least you can watch your kids ride their bikes on the sidewalk and not worry about them being in the street," said Melinda Tilley, a 4-year Downey resident.

"There's been a lot of work done on that street," said Housing Manager Velasco. "Partly because of our code enforcement there's a desire by people to fix their property." Two houses were torn down by owners to make room for duplexes, he said.

Impetus Needed

"Without Carmen a lot of this wouldn't have been successful," Velasco said. "The city can only do so much pushing. You really have to get a resident who is interested and knows the people to put a fire underneath (property owners) and get them moving."

Velasco said Downey officials will continue to offer assistance to residential areas that need improvement--such as Cheyenne or Elm Vista.

But Vinyard's crusading has not ceased. She and two other residents recently formed an organization to tackle a 2-mile stretch of Gardendale Street from Paramount to Lakewood boulevards--Gardendale Improvement for the People (GIFT). The street has both businesses and residences.

"It all comes down to people who have something invested in their property," she said. "I want this to work and I can't give up."

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