In Search of an Identity : Area Lacks a Sense of Community

Times Staff Writer

Dick Haddon's church has an identity problem.

"I tell people that the First United Methodist Church of Gardena is not in Gardena," the Rev. Haddon said, "and people just kind of stare in disbelief.

"This is Gardena, but it's not. Even the post office says 'Gardena,' but the reality is, we do not live in Gardena. . . . If we had a fire . . . the response would come from the city of Los Angeles."

That is a complicated fact of life in Harbor Gateway, the 8-mile long, 4-block-wide umbilical cord acquired at the turn of the century to link Los Angeles to its port.

In a city where community names conjure up images--Venice, Silver Lake, Boyle Heights--Harbor Gateway draws a blank.

Bounded on the west by Gardena and Torrance and on the east by Carson and unincorporated county land, the area was for decades known as the "city strip," the "shoestring strip" or, simply, "the strip."

Area Rechristened

Four years ago, the Los Angeles City Council rechristened the area to try to bring a sense of identity and community pride to its citizens--some of whom do not even know they live in Los Angeles.

Harbor Gateway lacks much of what makes a community a community--no central business district, no civic center or gathering place, no library branch, no police station and, as Haddon noted, no post office. Its largest park is a cemetery. And, despite the new name, mailing addresses of residents remain unchanged. They still say Torrance or Gardena, not Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, this leaves some people confused.

"They say, 'Look, my mailing address is Gardena,' " reported Gene Painter, the city of Gardena's superintendent of human services who said he does not turn away Harbor Gateway residents who ask for help. "Strange as it may seem, they don't know where they live."

Optician Chris Toughill joined the Torrance Chamber of Commerce when he opened his shop in a Harbor Gateway strip mall, and his neighbors did the same. It wasn't until the Torrance mayor declined to attend their grand opening, Toughill said, that the merchants discovered that they were in Los Angeles.

Even the young toughs of the Gardena 13 gang, interviewed while hanging out on a Harbor Gateway street corner, insisted they were standing in Gardena.

In population, Harbor Gateway is tied with Westwood as Los Angeles' second-fastest growing area. Sylmar is first. Between 1980 and 1986, according to Los Angeles Planning Department estimates, Harbor Gateway's population increased 15.6%, from 30,238 to 34,951.

A drive through the Gateway is like a trip from the city to the suburbs. On the north end, which begins at El Segundo Boulevard, there are apartments needing repair, gang graffiti on walls and single-family homes with barred windows. The southern end--which stops at Sepulveda Boulevard, where Harbor City begins--is punctuated by newly built strip malls, condominiums and well-manicured lawns.

Property values follow a similar pattern, with the lowest prices in the north. Home values in nearby Torrance or Gardena, however, are considerably higher. Real estate agents report that a house in Harbor Gateway might sell for as much as $50,000 less than one across the street in another community.

Agents attribute the difference to better city services, particularly in Torrance, which has its own schools.

"The minute you mention Los Angeles," said Gardena real estate agent John Warner, "it frightens . . . people away. It's just one of those things. Homes have always been cheaper over there (Harbor Gateway)."

Said resident Betty Roy: "I hate to be known to live in the strip. When my friends ask where I live, I tell them Torrance."

Indeed, four years after the name change--in spite of spiffy blue-and-white signs that declare "Harbor Gateway" below the Los Angeles city seal--those who live and work there say they still feel betwixt and between, not fully a part of Los Angeles, Harbor Gateway or the bordering cities.

'In Limbo'

Moreover, they complain that their new moniker has not brought with it what they really want: more attention from city officials, better services such as street cleaning and tree trimming and, above all, increased police protection.

"We're like in limbo," said Roy, a longtime resident of the Gateway's southern end. "We're not really Torrance and we're not really Carson. . . . We're only here because Los Angeles needs this little piece of land to attach to the harbor. Nobody cares about us. . . . We're like the forgotten people."

For Sylvia Figueroa, life on the border means a daily struggle at It's a Miracle, the Mexican pizza parlor she opened a year ago at Gardena Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

The city of Gardena is across the street, and the differences are stark. On the Gardena side, Gardena Boulevard--that city's main business thoroughfare--is getting a face lift. The street is clean, and the trees are neatly trimmed. City officials are offering grants to business owners for renovations.

Neighborhood Contrasts

Across the street in Los Angeles, the trees are scraggly and overgrown, vagrants sleep in a littered vacant lot, liquor stores abound and the Gardena 13 gang seems to own the corner.

"The other side there's no drunk people, no people looking for drugs," said Figueroa, who sweeps her sidewalk regularly. "The other side is so clean. Even the sidewalk is clean.

"You see the street?" she asked, pointing to a pile of litter. "That's terrible."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the area, conceded that the Gateway is not getting its share of services.

"It's difficult to get a library in there, because no matter where you put a library in the Gateway, you only serve a limited number of city residents," she said. "It's difficult to get a street cleaning service on a regular basis because they have to come from somewhere else to get there. . . . It's not like having a nice, round community where you have something in the middle and it serves everybody around it."

The United Way apparently agrees. In March, the umbrella agency's Harbor/Southeast division declared Harbor Gateway an "under-served geographic area," citing "real gaps in law enforcement" and social services.

The declaration is part of a long-term plan by the United Way to upgrade Harbor Gateway by organizing neighborhood leaders to form nonprofit programs for residents.

A citizens group, chaired by Haddon, is setting goals for the project, apparently marking the first time that community leaders around the Gateway have come together to talk about the area's problems. The minister and some others agree that the first goal should be improving community pride and cohesiveness to create political clout.

To do that, residents must reverse 82 years of history.

Over the years, since the so-called Shoestring Strip Annexation of Dec. 26, 1906, Harbor Gateway residents have somehow coalesced into five distinct neighborhoods. From north to south, their rough boundaries are El Segundo Boulevard to Rosecrans Avenue; Rosecrans to Redondo Beach Boulevard; Redondo Beach to Artesia Boulevard; Artesia to 190th Street; and 190th Street to Sepulveda Boulevard. The east-west boundaries of the three northern neighborhoods are Vermont Avenue and Figueroa Street, while Western and Normandie avenues bound the two in the south.

Overall, Harbor Gateway is a racially mixed, middle-income area, with an estimated median household income of $30,431 and a population that is 48.4% white, 13.2% black, 16.5% Asian and 21.8% other racial groups, according to the 1980 census, the most recent statistics available.

Latinos--whose numbers are not tallied as part of the racial breakdown in the 1980 census--are Harbor Gateway's largest minority group, accounting for 32.9% of the overall population, according to census data.

However, the picture changes when the area is more closely examined. Demographic statistics show that the various Gateway neighborhoods often resemble adjacent communities more closely than they do one another.

For example, the two Gateway neighborhoods near south South-Central Los Angeles and Compton have the heaviest concentration of blacks, 44.7%. Whites make up 23.6% of those two neighborhoods, which extend north from Redondo Beach Boulevard, and Asians make up 6.9%. The estimated median household income there is $27,453.

Make-Up of Community

But in the strip's midsection, from Artesia Boulevard to 190th Street, the population reflects that of the southern end of Gardena, which is heavily Asian. There, the black population is minuscule--just 0.4% --with most of the population split between whites, 48.1%, and Asians, 44.8%. Estimated household income in this section jumps dramatically, to $44,498.

And south of 190th Street, approaching predominantly white Torrance, the white population jumps even higher, to 66.3%, while the Asian population dips to 8.6% and the number of blacks rises slightly, to 2%. Median household income is $27,607.

Although it is primarily residential, the Gateway also includes a burgeoning business district at the San Diego and Harbor freeways, where, according to the California Department of Transportation, 500,000 cars drive by each day, making it the second-busiest intersection in Southern California.

The so-called 190th Street Corridor is a major drawing card for commercial developers, who have built about 5 million square feet of office space there in the last eight years. Gleaming high-rises with pleasant landscaping have replaced a Shell oil refinery and manufacturing plants.

"We sort of had a shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age," said Howard Mann, president of Andrex Development Co., one of the area's major developers.

Mann predicts that the move away from industrial to commercial uses will help upgrade nearby areas by attracting home buyers who hold high-paying jobs in what he calls Harbor Gateway's "urban cluster." Already, he is planning a restaurant to meet that market, based on an analysis that, he said, "found that the average income per household within a 5-mile radius of this intersection is $50,000."

Dining in elegance, however, is certainly not a priority farther north in Harbor Gateway, where large concentrations of undocumented Latinos residents are struggling to get by.

A study by the United Way found that illegal Latino immigrants are the "most under-served" group in the Gateway.

Haddon and other local leaders said their presence also makes it difficult to form neighborhood coalitions because illegal aliens fear they will attract unwanted attention from immigration authorities if they participate in community affairs.

"Their need is to be invisible," the minister said, "and that does not make for a good community."

Haddon is particularly attuned to the problems of undocumented residents because his church runs the 3-year-old Harbor Gateway Center, one of only two social service agencies the United Way found serving the strip.

Center's Problems

The center--which offers a variety of nutritional, health and educational programs to about 1,500 people--lacks money and staff. The executive director left more than a year ago when the money to pay her ran out. Haddon, who took the pastor's job in July, has been doing her job ever since.

United Way officials say they would like to strengthen the center and also persuade social service agencies in neighboring communities to expand operations here. Their study showed that the area lacks adequate shelters for battered women, delinquency prevention programs, drug- and alcohol-abuse programs and crisis intervention centers.

If there is one common thread in the complaints from Gateway residents, it is the increasing gang activity and the lack of police protection. Many said that they go for days without seeing a patrol car and that officers covering the area are often sent on calls elsewhere.

Los Angeles police officials said they have been trying to improve service, especially during the past year when citizens groups and Flores have pressed for additional patrols. But they also acknowledged that cars are called out of the area more often than they would like. Capt. Sandy Wasson of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division, which covers the part of the strip north of the San Diego Freeway, took issue with residents who say Harbor Gateway gets less than its fair share of coverage. He said a recent deployment study showed that while the area has fewer patrol cars--just one basic car in the north and one in the south--it also has less crime.

Wasson said he views Harbor Gateway as "a neighborhood in transition that's got great potential." He has encouraged the formation of neighborhood watch groups.

Flores, for one, said she senses a growing participation in such groups and "a renewed interest in community improvement."

She maintained that the city has improved services in recent years, especially police coverage. She also noted that a Harbor Gateway paramedic unit was established in June and that this year, the city Library Department finally included a proposal for a Harbor Gateway branch in its long-term plan.

The councilwoman said she would like the Gateway to have its own post office and ZIP code.

"I think it's important," she said, "to have an actual tag and title on who you are and where you are."

But she said she knows persuading the federal government will be difficult.

In the meantime, Flores said, she is thankful for whatever recognition the new name has brought the area.

"At least," she said, "I know that when I mention Harbor Gateway in City Council now, my colleagues know what I'm talking about."

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