The streets and alleys of the labyrinthine San Fernando Gardens housing project transform at night: They become drive-through drug markets, gang war zones, speedways where drunk drivers crash into parked cars.
So Rosa Roman and other tenants are pleased that the Los Angeles Housing Authority has begun constructing an eight-foot fence to enclose the 30-acre, 2,000-resident public housing complex in Pacoima. Along with the steel fence--initially proposed four years ago--about a dozen entrances at streets and parking lots will be closed and vehicle traffic redirected through a single main gate on Van Nuys Boulevard and Lehigh Avenue.
Planners and residents hope that that will keep out drug dealers, drug buyers and other outsiders who do business and exchange bullets among the blue, flat-roofed buildings. They also hope to discourage resident drug dealers and gang members.
"It's a good idea," Roman said in Spanish on Monday. "This used to be hell. The problems have decreased. We will never be able to eliminate the problems totally because we have people living here who create some of the problems."
Continuing crackdowns by police have reduced drug and gang activity since a violent peak several years ago, according to residents and police. The $350,000 fence comes as part of an effort to reclaim a community that includes a new social service center, officials said. Both the fence and the center will be complete in about two months.
"When you put up a physical barrier, it protects people," Housing Authority architect Salvador Jiminez said. "The fence is going to be 60%. The other 40% is going to be the tenants and the work they are doing."
But reconfiguring the geography of poverty can be difficult. There are limits and potential drawbacks to the plan, Housing Authority spokesman Marshall Kandell said. He said officials will study the impact of fences being installed at San Fernando Gardens and Mar Vista Gardens before going forward with similar requests from tenants at six other public housing sites.
"We don't know that it will do what it is supposed to do," Kandell said. "It will be interesting to see whether it cuts down on crime, or creates complaints from residents about inconveniences, or both."
Complaints could hasten the second phase of the plan, which calls for tenants to be given electronic card keys for the vehicle gate and 14 pedestrian gates that will be left open during the day and closed at night. The second phase is to go into effect in about a year because tenants need an "adjustment period," Jiminez said. Fire and police officials will have keys to open gates at 12 emergency vehicle entrances.
Tenants, however, said officials should go further and provide permanent security guards to monitor the main gate. Housing Authority guards now conduct sporadic patrols, they said.
In a tour of the perimeter where installation of the fence began two weeks ago, a group of residents pointed out a gaunt man seated on a lawn; they identified him as a known drug dealer. They also pointed to crevices in patio walls where rock cocaine and PCP are stashed, and bullet holes in car windows.
"What we don't like is the fact that the gates will be unattended," said Ester Vargas, vice president of the San Fernando Gardens residents council.
The fence has taken four years to complete because of an agonizingly slow process of getting it approved by the city bureaucracy and residents, Kandell said.
But some people the fence is designed to discourage expressed disdain Monday. In chorus, a group of youths in T-shirts, who identified themselves as members of a local gang, said: "It won't work!"
"What are they going to do, turn this into a prison?" said Joe, a gang member with a tattoo on his neck. "They gonna put in guard towers, too?"