BLIGHT IN THE SOUTH BAY : Wilmington’s Third World a Dumping Ground : Neighborhood: Activists see little hope of cleaning up the nightmarish world of trash, crime and unpaved streets off east Anaheim Street.
Although it occasionally attracts Hollywood producers seeking a burned-out backdrop, the area of Wilmington just east of the Dominguez Channel isn’t likely to appear in a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce brochure any time soon.
From Anaheim Street, the 15-by-3-block area looks little different than many other parts of the industrial harbor-area community: Boarded-up buildings and fenced-off lots belonging to the Port of Los Angeles dot a row of mostly maritime businesses.
But behind the facade lies a serpentine network of dirt tracks winding among auto dismantling sheds, garbage piles and abandoned vehicles. Along the trails and railroad tracks, the area looks more like a dump on the outskirts of a Third World city than a part of Los Angeles. Aware of its uniquely filthy atmosphere, movie producers have staged scenes in the area, including a short segment of the 1989 film “An Innocent Man,” starring Tom Selleck.
Parts of I Street are impassable, blocked by 20-foot piles of garbage, tires, railroad ties and auto parts. Abandoned cars and six-foot high stacks of garbage line a railroad right of way. Feral dogs roam the corridors, feeding on garbage and growling at passers-by. Prostitutes and drug dealers beckon to potential customers from “offices” in rickety campers, and occasional unattended fires smolder by roadsides.
Activists for years have complained that Wilmington has been used by Los Angeles as a dumping ground for junkyards and heavy industry. Although neighborhood groups have won a number of battles to improve that stepchild image in residential areas, they say the nightmarish world of garbage, crime and unpaved streets off east Anaheim Street has been hidden from view like a crazy uncle.
“We call that area the ‘Third World,’ ” said Bill Schwab, a Wilmington activist. “We have almost viewed it as a lost cause.”
Some business owners on Anaheim Street say they have complained about the problems in periodic letters to the Public Works Department over the years but have seen little change. They say a recent rash of robberies and the increasing willingness of prostitutes and drug dealers to ply their trades on Anaheim Street show that the problem is growing. And they say the city should take action.
“My property values are going to be shot to hell,” said David Stoll, who has owned a marine engine supply store on Anaheim Street for more than 20 years. “How can I conduct a legitimate business in this atmosphere?”
Police make frequent arrests in the area, mostly for car thefts, said Harbor Division Officer Phil Gasca. But some business owners along Anaheim Street say the denizens of the Third World in recent months have grown increasingly bold in venturing off the dirt tracks.
Last month, robbers broke into a storage yard at Louis Equipment Co. on four consecutive nights, said owner Manuel Louis.
“It isn’t so surprising that nothing is safe here. The last time they really cleaned up this area was over 10 years ago,” Louis said.
City public works officials acknowledged last week that the area has been neglected, but they said it is up to the City Council to act on the problem.
Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, whose district includes Wilmington, said Thursday that a task force was created two years ago to look at the problem but has not made any reports recently.
Flores said she would look into the problem but added that city budget shortfalls could make a full-scale cleanup difficult. She said she will ask city public works officials to notify local property owners that they may be assessed to pay for such an effort.
“Maybe we have not done enough,” Flores said. “Maybe the only thing left to do is just go in with a bulldozer and just clean it out.”
City officials say there have been periodic plans to clean up the mess, but they say the expense of such an operation and the need for coordination between city agencies, from animal control to street maintenance, have allowed the Third World to slip through the cracks over the years.
“We cleaned up the area south of Anaheim a couple of years ago, and the second phase was supposed to go north. But it never proceeded,” said Don Hanson, assistant director of street maintenance for the Public Works Department.
Public works officials say the city has the power to force private landowners to clean up their property. Because of the clutter, however, it is often hard to determine where property lines are and who is responsible for the piles of trash.
The city is responsible for keeping the streets passable, but public works officials say the city does not regularly maintain unpaved streets. The financial responsibility for paving the streets would fall to adjoining property owners.
In recent years, the Port of Los Angeles has bought virtually all properties that have come up for sale in the area, and all of those properties have been cleaned up and fenced off.
Flores said the earlier cleanup south of Anaheim Street went ahead quickly because she was able to secure a loan from the city to begin work immediately. Property owners were then assessed to repay the loan. She said there is no similar money available now to begin an effort in the Third World area.
Port officials acknowledge they eventually would like to own the area and use it for Harbor-related business. At that point, they say, they would clean up the entire area.
But they balk at the idea of major expenditures now to improve streets in the Third World.
“An assessment would be potentially counter to our desire to assemble the properties,” said Mike Lemke, director of property management for the port.
Lemke said paying to clean up and pave streets would not make sense to the port if it intends eventually to raze the whole area. He also said the port is the only entity likely to have the resources to buy the entire area, and improvements could encourage smaller businesses to move in, delaying those plans.
Officials from the Southern Pacific railroad, which owns the tracks that bisect the area, say they regularly clear debris from their 40-foot-wide right of way and would like to see a broader cleanup. Southern Pacific would be willing to pay part of the costs in a joint cleanup effort with the city and the port, said Capt. Jim Edgar of the company’s police department.
“We are attempting to (set up a) joint venture to clean up the whole thing,” Edgar said.
Harbor Division police also say that cleaning up the area would make their jobs easier by improving accessibility and visibility.
“What has happened is everyone has sort of taken the area for granted. There are no excuses, but that area has probably been neglected a little more (than other parts of Wilmington),” Officer Gasca said. “We would like to see it cleaned up.”
Surveying the pile of debris clogging I Street on a recent morning, business owner Stoll shook his head as he recalled a grassy field that covered the area more than 30 years ago when his father owned the business.
“I used to run out here in a vacant lot catching jack rabbits,” he said. “But this has been like a damn spreading cancer. Nobody has done a thing, but I hope they will start now.”