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War to Retake a Neighborhood : Canoga Park: Plan is aimed at drug deals in an area where more than 504 people have been arrested on narcotics charges since 1988.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The children of Lanark Street are afraid.

Afraid to run barefoot through Lanark Park because they might step on drug needles discarded in the grass. Afraid that dealers will ask them to stand sentry and look for police. Afraid that talking to a stranger could be viewed as snitching and bring retribution.

One 11-year-old boy said he once felt safe at home and at the park. But then something changed.

“A bad person came to live here and brought all of his friends,” he said.

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Lanark Street is the largest open-air drug market in the west San Fernando Valley, police said. Since 1988, more than 504 people have been arrested on the Canoga Park street and in Lanark Park--commonly known as Narc Park--on narcotics-related charges. Quick drive-by drug deals are everyday occurrences, police said.

On Thursday, city officials announced a neighborhood improvement plan that they hope will allow children who live in the low-rent apartments that flank the 21700 to 21900 blocks of Lanark Street to feel as safe as those reared in the million-dollar estates in nearby West Hills.

More than 14 city and county agencies--including the Los Angeles Police Department, the Board of Public Works, the Rent Stabilization Board and the County Department of Health Services--will participate in the sweeping effort aimed at eliminating drug traffic from the besieged neighborhood.

The goal is to restore community pride and build confidence in city government so that residents will cooperate with authorities in the battle against drug trafficking.

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On Wednesday, police and city officials will meet with tenants and ask them to serve as the “eyes and ears of law enforcement,” said Los Angeles Police Officer George Aguilar, who patrols the area.

Residents will be asked to write down the license plate numbers of passing cars that they suspect are involved in drug transactions and send the information anonymously to police. The police will send letters to car owners, stating that the vehicle was spotted in a neighborhood known for drug dealing.

Police said they believe that the letters will deter drug buyers from driving to Lanark Street.

Most Lanark Street drug transactions involve small-time dealers who sell drugs to support their own rock cocaine habits, and casual drug users from outside the neighborhood, Aguilar said.

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In a recent reverse sting on Lanark Street, targeting drug buyers rather than dealers, police arrested 25 people in several hours. All but two of those arrested were from affluent communities including Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Encino and Agoura Hills, police said at a news conference Thursday to announce the program.

As part of the revitalization effort, city agencies will work with property owners to revitalize apartment buildings, most of which are run-down and marked by graffiti. On Thursday, officials informed property owners and managers that they must bring their buildings into compliance with city building codes or face prosecution.

City Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represents the area, said the decay is “an invitation to criminals to come on down here, nobody here cares.” Improving the buildings, she said, will increase residents’ pride in their area and perhaps give them the courage to take a stand against the drug dealers.

Picus said a similar multi-pronged effort improved police-community relations and reduced drug-related crimes about 44% in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice. She hopes that the formula of citizen and police cooperation will prove equally potent in Lanark Park.

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But the Lanark Street problems are deeply rooted, and officials and residents alike concede that improvements will take time.

Most residents, many of whom are Latino immigrants, despair of ever stemming the tide of crime in the neighborhood, Aguilar said. They are afraid to call the police for fear of retribution.

Jose Munoz, a tool factory worker and father of three young children, said he welcomed the effort, but said it will not be easy. He believes, however, that many residents in his building will cooperate with police.

“We would like the police to clean up around here,” Munoz said. “I don’t want my kids to look at that each day.”

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On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of six boys at the park discussed life in their neighborhood on the condition that their names not be published. Although they are only 10 and 11 years old, the boys are hip to dealers’ tricks. Police said their descriptions are well-founded.

The boys said they commonly see drugs passed in a quick handshake. They watch as dealers hide chunks of rock cocaine in their mouths, to make it look like chewing gum. They have seen drug users shield a friend’s arm with their body so that a needle can be covertly injected. Drug pouches are buried in the park for safekeeping.

As the boys spoke, the 19 acres of Lanark Park hummed with everyday activities.

On one of the four baseball diamonds, the Canoga Park High School junior varsity baseball team battled the visiting Birmingham High School team to the enthusiastic cheers of friends and family. A group of teen-agers played basketball. All four tennis courts were occupied.

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In the sandbox, film technician Mark Wilson helped his daughters Anna, 5, and Sonya, 2, scoop sand into pails with shovels. Nearby, Alicia Gomez, 43, sprawled out on the lawn next to her daughter, Luz, 12, and her son, Jesus, 2.

Wilson brings his daughters to the park nearly every day. Gomez said she comes at least twice a week. Neither have had any problems in the park.

But both said they always leave by sundown.

As dusk settled on Lanark Street, youths began to gather, signaling to passing cars and trucks. Cars stopped in the middle of the street and young men darted out to meet them. Hands reached out of open windows, hands reached in. After the contact, the cars speed quickly away.

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To the children of Lanark Street, this was part of the normal cycle of activity. The traffic increases as the day wanes.

Home is not safe either, they said. Addicts often snort cocaine in the laundry rooms. The smell of marijuana wafts through the stairwells. Dealers fight loudly and in the hallways. Often the boys will be ordered to scout for police during drug transactions.

As the boys pour out their tales, a tough-looking teen-ager on a bicycle approaches. The children become visibly fearful. The teen-ager talks to the boys.

Afterward, they leave the park in a hurry, looking concerned and looking behind their backs as they flee.

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