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Graffiti Warfare : Koreatown Brigade Paints Own Slogans in Anti-Drug Effort

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying their complaints about an “eyesore” apartment house have been ignored, residents of a Koreatown neighborhood have taken to painting graffiti on the property to draw attention to their plight.

“We didn’t want to do it, but it was kind of a last resort,” said a neighbor, who did not want to be identified.

The abandoned apartment house at 553 S. St. Andrews Place, known as The Towers, has become so notorious for drug dealing and prostitution, neighbors said, that some of them have dubbed it “the apartment building from hell.”

Three months ago, the neighbors thought the problem was solved. After complaining to police and city officials about illicit activities there, a fence was erected around the building. The fence, however, was crushed last month in a Los Angeles Police Department raid, and now, said one neighbor, “we’ve got the same situation we had before.

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“You get to a point where all the complaining in the world doesn’t seem to do any good,” said Steve Callis, who lives next door to the building.

And so, with brushes and paint, several of the neighbors last week executed a sneak attack, painting protest slogans such as “Same Drugs, New Location” and “Do What You Gotta Do LAPD” on the front of the ornate, 70-year-old building.

“It isn’t something that any of us would have ever thought we would have engaged in,” said a member of the graffiti brigade who insisted upon anonymity, “but sometimes extreme circumstances call for extreme measures.”

A police spokesman said the department was not amused.

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“The claim that we’re somehow responsible for transients coming back in there is something new to me,” said Sgt. Ron Batesole, who heads community relations for LAPD’s Wilshire Division. “If, indeed, we’re responsible for the damage they say, then we’re not averse to sitting down face to face with the people who are complaining and discussing it.”

Batesole added that officers have made numerous arrests for drug offenses and prostitution at the property in response to complaints by neighbors.

Residents said the situation has gone from bad to worse since a new owner bought the building in February and began getting rid of the remaining tenants with the aim of developing the property.

Since the last tenants moved out three months ago, neighbors said, the building has been overtaken by transients, including drug dealers, who have continued to live there without water or electricity.

“They come out to the street at night and put their stuff (drugs) under the bushes, and sell to people driving through,” said Josephine Torino, 73, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. “It all happens around that building.”

The Department of Building and Safety in August ordered the owner, real estate broker Jeng Chi-Li, to erect the fence to keep transients away from the building.

But residents say the calm did not last long.

“There may have been a few nights you could call normal,” Callis said. “A few transients continued to slip in, and we kept complaining, until the police came and raided the place.”

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He and others said that officers arrested four people at the property in October, and that in the process of entering the grounds, trampled the fence in two places, making it easy for trespassers to climb through.

“They talk about a drug war, and this is an instance where we feel like the victims,” Callis said. “After the raid, the word spread quickly that The Towers was available again as a free place to stay.”

As an attention-grabber, the graffiti appears to have accomplished its aim.

On Wednesday, Department of Building and Safety officials ordered the owner to secure the fence, and building inspector Mike Lee said officials will seek the owner’s permission to have city workers paint over the graffiti.

For some neighbors, the graffiti removal can’t happen soon enough.

“Would-be renters take one look at that mess on the building and just keep going,” said Jean Fisher, who manages some apartments across the street. “Nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where there’s graffiti.”


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