Housing Project Is a Study in Contrasts : Despite Gunplay, Gangs, Carmelitos Has Its Defenders

Times Staff Writer

It is so tough that a postal carrier refuses to deliver mail there on her own, so rife with gunfire that a neighboring junior high school just built a 10-foot-high block wall to protect students from stray bullets.

Yet Long Beach’s Carmelitos Housing Project is considered a showplace of public housing projects, a well-kept complex of graffiti-free buildings in a quiet, park-like setting of trees and grass.

The oldest and largest of Los Angeles County’s public housing projects, Carmelitos defies and confirms the popular image of public housing. Residents in one breath praise it as the most pleasant project they have ever lived in. In the next they speak of nightly gunplay, gangs, chronic drug-dealing and fear of leaving their apartments after dark.

Portrayals Rejected

In the end, they reject portrayals of their home as a singularly brutal place. “Why are they trying to make Carmelitos even worse than Los Angeles?” asked a defensive young woman, who like many of her neighbors, refused to give her name. “Everything that is going on here is going on everywhere else.”

“This is paradise compared to other (public) housing developments,” said Milton Patterson, a county housing manager who oversees Carmelitos and other county projects.


He spoke recently near one of the project’s main streets, standing on a lawn amid the contrasts of Carmelitos. Behind him were children romping in a playground. Down the block, men loitered on the sidewalk, occasionally sprinting to a stopping car for what appeared to be a drug deal.

The dangers of Carmelitos were enough to prompt the U.S. Postal Service to suspend mail delivery for a few days late last month after a carrier was frightened by two men who jogged past her, carrying handguns. They were enough to prompt Lindbergh Junior High School to erect a 900-foot-long wall to separate it from the project.

They are enough to rouse the fears of nearby neighborhoods, where community leader and Long Beach school board member Jerry Shultz argues that calling Carmelitos a showplace is a “a joke.”

50-Year-Old Project

Still, the 713-unit, 50-year-old complex is “no worse than some other areas of the city and better than some,” Assistant Long Beach Police Chief Gene Brizzolara said.

Of the 63 murders committed in Long Beach this year, two have occurred in Carmelitos.

To an extent, say its defenders, Carmelitos suffers from being Long Beach’s only public housing project, a discrete community of 65 acres. “When you’re the only one on the block, you get a lot of attention,” said Carlos Jackson, assistant executive director of Los Angeles County’s Community Development Commission.

“If they’re not going to deliver mail to Carmelitos, they’d better not deliver mail to a lot of other areas,” complained City Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg, who represents the area. Kellogg volunteered to accompany carriers through the project before the post office resumed service, pending construction of a central mail room next to the management office.

Longtime residents complain that crime and drug-dealing have escalated dramatically in the last few years, drastically altering the way they live.

“There was a time when you could sit outside at 2 or 3 in the morning, sit in the doorway and feel the breezes and the children could put up tents in the yard and sleep there all night. That’s a thing of the past,” said one woman who has lived in Carmelitos for more than a decade and reared four children there.

Troublemakers Came

The turning point, she and others contend, was a $24-million rehabilitation of the complex four years ago. Apartments were emptied for remodeling, and when they were filled, many of them were filled with troublemakers from elsewhere, Carmelitos veterans insist.

“We probably have the same feelings about them as Long Beach has about us,” the woman said, referring to some of the newer tenants.

Some old-timers complain that management is not adequately screening new tenants and that the renovation was shoddy.

But it is outsiders who don’t live there that reap the biggest share of blame for Carmelitos’ woes. Crips gang members from Los Angeles and Compton have turned the complex into a drug-dealing headquarters, coming and going in shifts, residents say.

“There’s always, and I mean always, two or three people in the street selling drugs,” said a man named Bill who was playing Frisbee with his younger brother on one of the project’s rolling lawns.

Patrol cars regularly cruise through Carmelitos. The county contracts for police protection with the Long Beach Police Department, which is required to have officers on the complex grounds a total of nine hours a day, in addition to answering calls.

But when the patrols appear, the drug dealers just drift behind the buildings, only to emerge when the black-and-white cars turn the corner. “As far as running and hiding, this is a perfect place,” said the mother of four, who, like others, said the dealers are organized and equipped with police scanners to warn them of approaching patrols.

Police Activity Monitored

“Every parking lot here has at least three (police) scanners,” said Danny Racer, 36, who has lived in Carmelitos off and on since he was a child.

Racer said he routinely finds empty wallets on the grounds, discarded by addicts who steal them for cocaine money. His neighbors say they won’t venture out with a purse. Some of them have dodged bullets. One saw a man repeatedly run over by a van in an apparent drug deal gone sour.

“Every night you hear gunshots. If you don’t, you wonder what is going on,” said a woman who witnessed the van episode a few weeks ago, calling it " the most awful experience of my life.” No one went to the man’s rescue.

“You know what they’re capable of and you don’t want to be at the end of it,” said another woman, echoing the widespread reluctance of residents to challenge the drug dealers or report them to police.

Carmelitos’ open grounds, numerous parking lots and easy access from two main streets, Atlantic and Orange avenues, make it hard for police and inviting to drug merchants, say officials, who are considering proposals to close one of the entrances to restrict access.

“We will take care of the problem,” Patterson said.

But not everyone is so optimistic.

“You maybe can cut down on it,” said one woman, alluding to the drug trafficking. “But you can’t get rid of it.”