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One Community’s Victory Over Gangs : Renewal: The Springdale West Apartments were once a haven for criminals. But then residents, the property owner and government officials put a stop to the violence.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Residents of a government-subsidized apartment complex in North Long Beach celebrated a victory over gangs on Saturday, as rap music thumped and giggling children swarmed the playground where a young father was shot to death one afternoon three years ago.

On the day that Lathern Walton was gunned down in front of 20 children and teen-agers, the Springdale West Apartments were a maze of shabby, graffiti-scrawled buildings where gang members ruled so boldly that the security guards were afraid to confront them.

But Walton’s murder galvanized the people who live in the complex, a sprawling gated community of 1,400 residents, most of them single mothers and their children. With the help of the property owner and government officials, the residents reclaimed their neighborhood from about 50 members of the local Crips affiliate.

In doing so, they created a close-knit community and transformed what had been a near-slum into an urban oasis in one of Long Beach’s toughest neighborhoods, along west Santa Fe Avenue north of Spring Street. The National League of Cities rewarded their efforts with an Innovation Award in May.

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“This is our community,” said Karen Rosser, 36, a mother of three. “We wanted to change it. And we did.”

Last weekend’s celebration found jubilant neighbors in the complex’s park, now planted with flower beds and shade trees, feting the triumph with a party. Barbecued chicken and ribs sizzled on the grill. Kids tumbled and shrieked on the new playground equipment. A local merchant sold dashikis, while officials in suits and ties sang the praises of the joint effort that salvaged the neighborhood.

In the weeks after the shooting, residents formed a committee and sought help from the property’s owners and city and federal housing officials. Working together, they ferreted out gang members, improved the deteriorating buildings, planted and maintained gardens, organized sports teams and found jobs for idle youths. Residents policed their children, cooperated with law enforcement officials and stopped vandals in the act.

Rents remained subsidized for eligible families--$656 for a three-bedroom apartment--but residents were held accountable and evicted if they or their guests committed crimes or destroyed property, said Michael K. Parker, the city’s neighborhood services bureau manager.

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This year, crime in the complex has decreased by about half, according to Long Beach Police Department Cmdr. Melvin B. Gallwas, and Mayor Ernie Kell noted that the city plans to use Springdale West as a model project for other gang-plagued neighborhoods in the city.

Three years ago, the grounds of the complex were so decrepit, and the buildings so dilapidated, that the prospect of reclaiming the neighborhood seemed unlikely, Parker said.

Graffiti covered the walls, and crime was so widespread that most parents refused to let their children play outside.

Local gang members, including some residents, used the gated complex as a personal fortress. Stolen cars turned up regularly on the grounds, and “gang members would do drive-bys and run back here,” Parker said. Inside, residents reported burglaries, stolen cars, gambling, drug dealing, occasional stabbings and shootings.

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“The situation got so bad the Police Department refused to send officers out here alone,” Parker said.

It was Walton’s death that “pushed everybody over the edge,” Rosser said.

“I saw Springdale going down, and I thought, ‘If we don’t do something, we’ll be living in the slums.’ That’s what turned it around. The parents starting to get involved. It was the threat of losing our homes.”

In a happy convergence of circumstances, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp was looking to launch a pilot project involving government and the private sector, Parker said. The city joined forces with the federal government and enlisted the support of the property owner, Security Management Inc., which was undergoing a renaissance itself.

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When Security Management first developed the property 15 years ago, it intended to create low-density housing for those receiving government subsidies. For many years, the buildings were well-maintained, said resident Gladys Ross, who moved in when the complex opened. “But then everything started going downhill about five years ago.”

Jed A. Zimmerman, property administrator for Security Management, acknowledges that the complex had become run-down.

“Things were let go,” Zimmerman said. “Furnaces, water heaters, landscaping, lighting, the common areas, the playground--it was let go because it was continually vandalized. There were graffiti on the wall, and the light fixtures were always broken, day in and day out. After a while, you just give up.”

After the Walton murder, the company’s philosophy changed, Zimmerman said. “It’s the new philosophy of the ‘90s: Satisfy your customers.”

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The company hired as security guards off-duty police officers with the authority to make arrests and carry weapons, initiated Scout troops, Bible study groups, senior citizen potlucks and monthly meetings for neighbors to chat and air grievances. They put teen-agers from the complex to work doing painting, cleaning, landscaping and clerical work. A social worker is on staff and the residents work with school officials to offer special programs for children.

“Now it’s all shiny,” Zimmerman said. “We’re real proud of it, and so are the residents.”

While there is some disagreement about the number of gang members living in the Springdale complex (estimates range from none to about half a dozen), everyone agrees that none show their colors anymore.

“They blended in,” Rosser said. “They want to be part of the community because they see there’s something to be part of. We don’t see any (gang signs) anymore. Or doing graffiti.

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“We caught this one kid, a good kid, writing on the trash can, and we made him clean it up. He won’t do it anymore because he knows next time he’ll have to clean it up again. The parents are sticking together on this stuff.”

While public and private officials provided the means for change, it was parental vigilance that made it a success, said Daniel Hall, 18, a 10-year resident of Springdale.

“My cousins are Crips, and it was obvious there were gangs here; we all grew up together. . . . But I never thought about joining. It’s not for me.”

Besides, he said, “My father was very protective. I woulda got killed if I joined a gang.”

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