About 90 people who live near John Greenleaf Whittier Park walked their streets Saturday morning armed with brooms, shovels and garbage bags. In two hours, they collected nearly 5 tons of trash from a neighborhood that once had a date with the wrecking ball.
Two years ago, the City Council backed away from a plan to level and redevelop the area after residents protested. But the residents say the message was clear: The city would not tolerate a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Whittier's village-like downtown, on a main route toward City Hall. The neighborhood had to shape up or else, said neighborhood activist Carolyn Blaisdell.
Residents speak of increasing gang activity, and they tick off two beatings, a truck burning and a shooting in about the last three months. They also complain of drug sales in the park. There is graffiti in the alleys.
City officials estimate the four-block, 10-acre section to have a population of about 700. The mostly Latino area is one of the city's poorest. More than 78% of the households earn a low or moderate income, according to city statistics.
Saturday, change was evident. John Greenleaf Whittier Park, perhaps the city's worst, according to Director of Parks Hideo Hamano, is getting a $280,000 face lift. The park renovation will include lights, a ball field, a sidewalk, a picnic area and play equipment. The park will reopen late in the summer, Hamano said.
Resident Bob Hancock had purchased 21 brooms for 99 cents each. "I told everybody, 'If you push a broom, you can keep it,' " he said.
A militia of young and old attacked the alleys and the streets, seizing old mattresses, car parts, abandoned washers, dryers and couches and piles of lumber and roof shingles. When people saw the approaching horde, they heaved out old toys, rusty chairs and tires. Some seniors waved the throng into their yards, motioning them to have at it.
"My father, he started cleaning the yard, and the kids just pushed him aside and did it for him," said 19-year-old Verna Nelson.
For its part, the city hired La Habra Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit agency that specializes in reviving old neighborhoods. Whittier will also contribute about $250,000 over the next three years to a neighborhood loan fund, said Glenn Hayes, executive director of the nonprofit agency. Local businesses will chip in another $500,000, Hayes said. The loans will go to homeowners at interest rates they can afford. The money can also be used by a committee of residents to buy properties to fix up and resell.
In addition, the city intends to build about 10 affordable townhouses in the area for first-time home buyers. The plan is to build them on the corner of Penn Street and Union Avenue.
Area residents will govern the home renovation program through an advisory council. The goal is to improve the area without turning it into a place where its current residents can no longer afford to live.
"The cleanup, although serving the obvious purpose of cleaning up, was also to let . . . the neighborhood know the project was moving forward," said Henry Gray, the city's community development analyst.
"In order for folks to want to make an investment in rehabilitation, they have to have faith that the neighborhood is going to improve."
Blaisdell had her doubts. "Once the pressure was off, I was afraid people would relax and forget we almost had to move," she said. "We decided we would have a meeting every month. There were sometimes only three people."
Some homeowners have lived here for decades, but there are many newcomers as well. In the last 10 years alone, about five apartment buildings have replaced single-family homes. Other properties were turned into rentals as owners built units in back yards or fronting on alleys. They typically rented the original house too. Apartments now outnumber single-family homes by a 4-1 ratio, Gray said.
Saturday's event was just a start, organizers said. From cracked sidewalks to peeling paint, the neighborhood still needs work. La Habra Neighborhood Housing Services has yet to make the first home-improvement loan. And no one knows how long Saturday's neighborly spirit will hold.
By early afternoon, Hancock had one broom left and 5 tons of trash. "It's hard to believe, but it happened," said the 29-year-old printer, who has lived here all his life.
For one day, the neighborliness was like old times for 66-year-old Tillie Lopez. The 36-year resident remembers when it was commonplace to visit next door for a chat or coffee. Before Saturday, "I hadn't seen a lot of my neighbors," she said. "We were like a family today."