They Call This Part of Wilmington ‘Third World’ : Neighborhoods: The area is blighted by rising crime, unpaved streets and garbage. Reform efforts have failed due to neglect by L.A. officials and some property owners.
At first glance, the run-down section of Wilmington, just east of the Dominguez Channel, looks little different from other parts of the industrial Harbor-area community. Shuttered buildings and fenced-off lots belonging to the Port of Los Angeles dot a row of mostly maritime businesses.
But behind that landscape lies an even grimmer view, a network of unpaved dirt tracks winding among auto dismantling sheds, garbage piles and abandoned vehicles that appears more like a dump on the outskirts of a Third World capital than a part of Los Angeles. Six-foot-high stacks of garbage line a railroad right of way. Feral dogs roam about, feeding on trash and snarling at passers-by. Prostitutes and drug dealers beckon from “offices” in rickety campers. Unattended fires smolder by the roadsides.
Aware of its filthy atmosphere, movie producers seeking cinematic wastelands occasionally come to the area to stage scenes. A short segment of the 1989 film “An Innocent Man,” starring Tom Selleck, was filmed in the area.
Wilmington activists have complained for years that the area has been used by Los Angeles as a dumping ground for junkyards and heavy industry. Although neighborhood groups have won some battles to improve its image, they say that the area they call the “Third World” continues to fester because of the inactivity of city officials and private land owners.
“We have almost viewed it as a lost cause,” said Bill Schwab, a Wilmington activist.
Some business owners on Anaheim Street said they have complained about the problems in letters to the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, but saw little change. They said a recent rash of robberies and the increasing boldness of prostitutes and drug dealers in the area indicate that the problem is growing. And they want the city to 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?”
Los Angeles police make frequent arrests in the area, mostly for car theft, said Harbor Division Officer Phil Gasca. But some business owners along Anaheim Street said 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,” Louis said. “The last time they really cleaned up this area was over 10 years ago.”
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. City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, whose district includes Wilmington, said that a task force was created two years ago to look into the matter but has not done so recently.
Flores said Thursday that she would check into the situation, but added that the city’s budget shortfalls could make a full-scale cleanup difficult. She noted, however, that if a cleanup is undertaken, local property owners may be assessed to pay for the 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 said there have been periodic plans to clean up the area. But they added that the expense of such an operation and the lack of coordination among city agencies, from animal control to street maintenance, have prevented a major cleanup.
“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.
Flores said the earlier cleanup made progress because she was able to secure a loan from the city to begin immediate work. Property owners were then assessed to repay the loan. She said there is now no money to begin a similar effort.
Public works officials said that the city has the power to force landowners to keep their properties up. Because of the clutter, however, it is often hard to determine where property lines lie and who is responsible for the trash piles.
The city is also responsible for keeping the streets usable by traffic, but public works officials said that the financial responsibility for paving the area’s dirt tracks would fall to property owners.
In recent years, the Port of Los Angeles has bought virtually all properties that have come up for sale in the area. The properties have been cleaned up and fenced off. Port officials say they eventually would like to own the area and use it for harbor business. At that point, they said, they would clean up the entire area.
But they balk at the idea of major spending 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 if the port 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 that improvements could encourage smaller businesses to move in, delaying those plans.
Officials from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks that cross the area, said they regularly clear debris from their 40-foot-wide right of way and would like to see a cleanup campaign. Southern Pacific would be willing to pay part of the costs in a joint cleanup effort with the city and the port, said Jim Edgar, a captain in 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 access 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 areas of Wilmington),” Officer Gasca said.
As he surveyed piles of debris clogging I Street on a recent morning, business owner Stoll recalled a grassy field that once 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.”