At the south end, potholes in the rutted streets go unfilled for years. In the center, there are long lines of homeless and hungry people at the area’s only soup kitchen, while residents of one north-end neighborhood are so fed up they want to join nearby Gardena.
According to street signs put up by the city of Los Angeles, the area is officially Harbor Gateway. But residents call it “The Strip” and complain that this four-block-wide, eight-mile ribbon of Los Angeles is long on need and short on government services.
The city must have the strip of land to remain linked to the Port of Los Angeles and the wealth it brings. But residents and social service providers say little of that money has made its way to the Gateway, an area where police service is so spotty that residents say officers often take twice as long to respond as they do in neighboring cities.
“The need here is overwhelming,” the Rev. Dick Haddon, a Methodist minister and United Way spokesman, said recently. “This is a politically neglected area, and nothing’s going to change that until . . . the people in power take more ownership of the problems here.”
This geographic oddity is home to 36,000, yet the area has no post office, no police station, no library, no welfare office and no community center to pull neighborhoods together. Ethnically it is a hodgepodge, with growing numbers of blacks, Latinos and Asians, census data shows.
The strip’s Latino population, which increased 60% from 1980 to 1990, includes many recent immigrants struggling to stay afloat.
“We were paying $650 a month for a two-bedroom place,” said Juan, a recent Mexican immigrant who didn’t want his full named used. There were 16 in his family, and even with four workers scrabbling for jobs, they don’t make enough to survive without help. But help is hard to come by in the Gateway.
The shortage of social services, health care, and police and fire protection are so acute that United Way designated the strip an “underserved geographic area” in 1987.
Since then, the charitable organization has funneled $100,000 to the few private charities serving the area, including a small free medical clinic, a job center and an ad hoc coalition helping the homeless.
Even with this help, little has changed. Unemployment is high, and signs of urban decay are everywhere.
Governmental budget cuts and the recession have hit the area hard, said Eleanor G. Aguilar, United Way’s regional vice president. The most pressing needs are jobs, health care, affordable housing and shelter for the homeless.
In Harbor Gateway, extended families crowd into single apartments, and the homeless sleep under freeway overpasses. In the early mornings, unemployed workers stand on street corners hoping to get work.
In the absence of a government safety net, a church group founded the Harbor Gateway Center in the 100-year-old Methodist church on 165th Street. Haddon, church pastor and a leader in establishing the center, said the goal is to help the needy get by.
When Herbert de la Cruz, 52, lost his job as a security guard at an aerospace firm a year ago and his unemployment benefits ran out months later, he turned to the center because he didn’t have enough money to feed his family and pay the rent. He received groceries and help with the rent.
“It’s really hard with two little ones to care for,” said Janet de la Cruz, who also lost her job in a fast-food restaurant in Gardena. Without the center, the family “just couldn’t get by,” she said.
In addition to giving out food and clothing, the center runs a job referral program and advises illegal immigrants on their rights. Each Saturday, the center opens its soup kitchen and feeds the homeless, as many as 1,000 a month. Every Thursday, as many as 25 families stand in line for boxes of free groceries, center Director Orlando Rivera said.
Health problems are referred to another United Way-supported service in the area, the South Bay Free Clinic, a private, nonprofit health-care provider on Gardena Boulevard.
The center serves only the poorest part of the Gateway, a two-mile area between Rosecrans Avenue and Artesia Boulevard. To the north are blue-collar neighborhoods squeezed tight between Gardena and Carson. South of Artesia, the strip is a mix of industry, apartments and neighborhoods that border Torrance.
Realizing that the strip lacked an identity, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores decided a name would help, and in 1982 the council christened the area Harbor Gateway. Flores opened a district office there and helped residents form neighborhood watch groups.
She also spearheaded a $1.2-million project to install street lights throughout the Gateway, and she helped secure $400,000 to resurface some streets and $120,000 for improvements to two local parks.
Although disgruntled homeowners welcome the improvements that Flores helped them get, these efforts are a case of too little, too late, they said.
“This is a difficult area to serve” because of the geography, Flores explained recently. It costs more to serve the area because it is so far from service yards or police stations.
“It’s more expensive to give the same kinds of service” because city crews that sweep streets, trim trees and repair potholes are based miles away in other parts of Los Angeles, making service to the Gateway difficult, she said. She encourages residents to report problems directly to her office.
Crime and a perceived shortage of police are among the top concerns of residents.
The LAPD has divided the Gateway in half. The Southeast Division handles the north end of the strip, from El Segundo Boulevard to 190th Street. The Harbor Division has the south end, from 190th to Sepulveda Boulevard. Because they are shorthanded, the divisions assign only one patrol car each to the Gateway and send in more help when needed, officials said.
“We’re spread thin,” Sgt. Larry Cox of the Harbor Division acknowledged. “If one of our units gets in trouble up there and needs a backup, we may have to come as far away as San Pedro, and that could take 10 to 12 minutes.”
Records show the average response times on emergency calls in the Harbor and Southeast divisions are just over seven minutes, officials said. No times are kept for response times in Harbor Gateway, they said.
In Gardena, a city of 50,000 bordering the Gateway, police have up to six cars on patrol and response times average three to five minutes, officials report. In Manhattan Beach, a city with 32,000 people, there are at least three police cars on the streets, and response times are three to four minutes, officials there said.
Parts of the Gateway are the turf of warring black and Latino gangs, police say. In recent weeks there have been drive-by and at least one person has died in the last month, police said.
Racial tension isn’t limited to gang wars, say police and school officials. Last fall, black and Latino students at Gardena High School clashed after a multicultural program in the school auditorium. Although no one was seriously injured, police from three agencies were summoned to quell the violence, according to school reports.
The LAPD tries to make up for its lack of personnel and equipment in other ways.
When a dozen small industries along 184th Place complained that a dead-end city street was a trash dump, Officer Mark Caswell went to work. Using county jail trusties and the voluntary services of a commercial trash hauler, he cleaned up two large loads of old couches and other debris from the area.
Caswell agrees that the city has been slow to respond to the area’s needs. He has asked that a stoplight be placed near the 135th Street Elementary School to control fast-moving traffic.
“The kids are at risk there,” he said. He reported his concerns, but so far, nothing has been done.
Angry over the lack of services and slow police responses, residents in a neighborhood of tidy, older homes just north of Alondra Boulevard want to break way from Los Angeles and be annexed to nearby Gardena, where they say they would be better served. Gardena officials are encouraging the annexation.
“We would be a lot closer to all city services,” said Rosalie Preston, a librarian who heads the drive. Gardena would provide weekly street sweeping, trim palm trees at least once a year, repair streets and pick up trash regularly, she said.
“The Gardena cops are only a mile away, and they respond right away with up to four cars,” she said. The LAPD’s closest station is the Southeast Division, six miles away, and the response times are unpredictable, she added.
So far, 700 residents of the area have signed petitions supporting the annexation to Gardena, but Preston concedes that the effort is an uphill fight.
Flores said she would support such a move if the majority of residents in the area want to join Gardena, but she noted that the chances of City Council approval were “slim.” Not only would such an annexation set an unwanted precedent, it would reduce the city’s tax base and could sever the geographic connection to the port, she explained.
Not everyone in the strip believes that annexation to Gardena would solve the area’s problems. Rather than join such an effort, residents of some Gateway tracts have formed neighborhood watch groups that give them a bit more political muscle at City Hall. Responding as a group recognized by Flores gives them a stronger voice before the council, they say.
“We’re a forgotten area, that’s true,” said Louise Dobbs, president of the 135th Street School Neighborhood Watch group. “But with the neighborhood organized, we’ve got some things done.”
Residents in this area have raised the money for street sweeping, paid for a stoplight at a dangerous intersection and planted trees. They plan to paint the badly run-down 135th Street Elementary School, with the blessing of the financially troubled Los Angeles Unified School District.
Not far away, in the Rosecrans Park Neighborhood Watch area, Betty Anderson had a slightly different way of expressing their opposition to cutting ties with Los Angeles.
“We don’t feel all of the problems are going to be solved by joining Gardena,” she said. “They have just as much crime and such over there.”
THE HARBOR GATEWAY:
This narrow eight-mile strip of Los Angeles connects the city to the revenue-rich Port of Los Angeles. Despite its financial importance to the city, residents complain Harbor Gateway is short on government services, from pothole repairs to police patrols. The area was christened “Harbor Gateway” in 1982 in hopes of giving the strip a sense of identity, but residents still feel forgotten.
Population growth from 1980 to 1990: 1980: 30,238 1990: 36,009
Current population by ethnicity: Latino: 44% Anglo: 22% Asian: 19% Black: 14%
Source: 1990 U.S. Census