Many people heard the barrage of gunfire that killed Andrea Denise Garrett in a housing project on the Eastside recently, but at first, few thought much of the noise.
"You're always hearing stuff like that around here," said Michael, a self-described gang "associate," who was talking with friends several blocks away when the shooting occurred early on Feb. 12. "All I knew was, the bullets weren't coming at me."
But even in the Aliso Village and Pico-Aliso city housing projects, considered by authorities to be among the most troubled public complexes in Los Angeles, the gunning down of an innocent person--the 20-year-old Garrett, who was pregnant with her third child--has shocked many who live in the aging, sprawling 2,400-resident mini-city that straddles East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.
"The thing is--oh, my God, she was pregnant," lifelong Pico-Aliso resident Breavon McDuffie said, echoing the sentiments heard throughout the projects.
Not since the death 10 years earlier of Communist organizer Damien Garcia, who was stabbed for allegedly sassing local gang members, have area residents been as upset as they are now.
Tenant leaders, such as Anita Moore, have scoured the housing projects, talking to neighbors and strangers alike and urging cool heads.
"All we need is another shooting for folks in Malibu to say, 'Well, those folks are at it again,' " she said.
Talk of fencing off the housing projects to outsiders, considered a major source of the trouble there, has surfaced as tenant leaders discuss possible solutions with city housing officials.
Also, evictions are continuing for residents who are involved in cocaine and other drugs. Authorities said drugs are usually to blame for most acts of violence, including Garrett's death, in the area.
The area is commonly known to many as "Pico-Aliso," but there are two distinct housing projects. Aliso Village is north of 1st Street and the Pico-Aliso project stretches for a mile south from 1st Street to within the shadow of the Whittier Boulevard bridge. Community meetings to decry the violence have been organized but with mixed results.
For example, one gathering scheduled Friday by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) was canceled when authorities said the atmosphere in the aftermath of the shooting was too tense.
In an unusual show of force, even for the two 50-year-old housing projects, a special task force of more than 50 Los Angeles police officers and other law enforcement personnel in recent days has converged on Aliso Village to discourage any retaliation for Garrett's death.
"We're just buying a few days of peace," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, who is heading the Hollenbeck Division investigation into the murder.
Even the members of a local gang that police suspect was involved in the Garrett shooting are keeping a low profile, investigators said.
"They know they're going to get hit (in retaliation)," one veteran officer said.
Garrett was friendly with--but not a member of--the East Coast Crips First Street gang, a predominantly black gang that police officers say controls the cocaine trade in the projects. The area in the past was the territory of Latino gangs and police believe the shooting resulted from the growing tension between the two groups.
Caught in the middle of the showdown are the residents who, for the most part, seem to enjoy life in Pico-Aliso. Dolores Leyva--a 22-year-old single mother of two whose $150-a-month two-bedroom apartment is next to a freeway on-ramp--a lifelong resident, is one of them.
"I grew up here," she said. "I know my neighbors and I have friends here. All that other stuff with drugs doesn't bother me. I'm not into drugs."
Other Latinos, who make up an estimated 90% of the projects' residents, are more tentative, perhaps because they do not speak English or do not have legal residency in the United States.
Approached by a visitor, a group of chatty women hanging out their wash on clotheslines late one recent afternoon said they wanted peace and that they opposed the gangs. But in the next breath, several of them said they were powerless to prevent their sons' involvement in the gangs.
"Look, senor , I try to do the best I can with my (four) sons," said Avelina Martinez. "But I can't be at all places at the same time to see if they're getting into trouble."
Believes She's Stuck
Ofelia Gomez added, "I just want to get out. But I can't afford to. I'm stuck, no?"
Anita Moore, another Aliso Village resident, is more hopeful.
"I feel safe here," the mother of five boys said, "I really do. Period."
As she spoke--several days after the shooting--police officers raided several nearby vehicles, looking for a cache of semiautomatic rifles and other weapons. The noise of screeching tires and loud voices occasionally drifted into Moore's Spartan-looking living room, forcing a listener to lean forward to hear her words.
Reminded of the police action outside, Moore, who has lived in the project for 17 years, proudly said one son, Keith, has a steady job and her youngest, Marty, aspires to become a psychologist.
"I know all the gang members around here and they give me respect," she said. "I could go out in the middle of a gang fight and they'd stop. I'm not a God or some kind of queen (because) maybe they may go fight somewhere else.
"I want to stay because I want to make them gang free. . . ."
The day after the interview, however, Moore's upbeat mood turned to anger. One of her other sons had been arrested for stealing a car.
The killing of Garrett has reinforced the need for more security and better accommodations at the Eastside projects, according to tenants' representatives, who are among the most vocal in Los Angeles.
For the most part, city Housing Authority police and Hollenbeck Division officers provide the only security for the two housing projects. There are no physical barriers to keep out strangers who wander into the area.
Most units, built during the flurry of post-Depression construction in Los Angeles, need painting, new floors and other repairs.
Representatives like McDuffie and Lucia Mendoza are constantly talking to neighbors, carrying their ideas to city housing officials, who promise to do their best to help them out.
Many of the Pico-Aliso units are currently being painted and anti-graffiti projects are an ongoing campaign. Some graffiti eulogizing the Garrett woman was among the first to come off the walls after the shooting.
"That graffiti with her name is just plain vandalism," Mendoza said.
McDuffie has talked about erecting a fence around the housing projects to keep strangers out. The wide-open areas of grass between the apartments, the parking lots and the adjacent streets make it easy for outsiders to come in.
But the fencing may give some residents, already down on themselves for living in public housing, further embarrassment.
"We don't want people to feel fenced in," McDuffie said.
Mendoza, the mother of three, is involved in organizing protests and community events to avert violence. She was among many residents who campaigned for more police foot patrols in the area and for citizen watch groups in her part of Aliso-Pico.
Ironically, on the night of the Garrett shooting, the 60ish-looking Mendoza helped organize a dance--less than a mile from the crime scene--where the evening passed peacefully.
"Everyone enjoyed themselves," she recalled. "There were even some gang members there and they, too, had a good time. I saw the police cars as I was leaving the dance.
"I didn't know someone had been killed until the next morning."
The best hope for the projects' residents, most agree, is the fight against drugs. But it's a struggle that few realistically expect to win.
Housing Authority officials have evicted numerous residents of the projects for a variety of offenses in recent months, ranging from non-payment of rent to involvement in drugs.
"We try to stay on top of it but we need more help from the residents who can point out these people to us," said one Aliso Village housing official, who asked not to be identified. "In many cases, people who claim to be against drugs are harboring these dope dealers from the police."
Frequent patrolling by Los Angeles police and Housing Authority officers scares away dope dealers for a while, but they return when the heat is off and police manpower is diverted elsewhere, authorities say.
The most disheartening side effect of the battle against the gang-controlled drug trade is is in how the projects' young are affected.
"I was outside the other day," recalled Mendoza, "and this little chavalito , only 6 years old, says, 'I'm from TMC (a local gang that is allied with East Coast Crips).
"Can you imagine . . . a 6-year-old boy saying that ?"