A contractor hired by the state Department of Transportation is nearly finished installing a prototype fence designed to keep people from living under the Santa Monica Freeway beside the Hoover Street off-ramp.
"We were aware of the problem but it was the people in the neighborhood who really brought the magnitude of it to our attention," said Russell Snyder, a spokesman for Caltrans, which is responsible for maintaining the area. "The crime there really elevated the magnitude of the problem."
For the past several years, neighborhood residents watched as the area became a base for transients and the center of the local drug trade. At one time, as many as 25 people lived there, some with appliances powered by auto batteries, neighbors said. Neighbors suspected some of the under-the-bridge dwellers in local auto thefts, burglaries and other property crimes.
"People are afraid to walk by," said one neighbor last winter. Another resident said he was threatened with bodily harm after he complained to some people under the bridge about their activities. The police have made numerous narcotics-related arrests at the spot.
The campaign to address the problem was pushed along by a neighbor who requested anonymity. For two years, he called and wrote letters to Caltrans and city officials proposing that the area be sealed off, requesting action and monitoring responses.
A regular chain-link fence proved ineffective as people climbed over it or cut it. A Caltrans maintenance crew occasionally evicted the transients but they returned each time.
At one point, Caltrans tried an organic deterrent. "We spread some manure under the bridge and then wet it down," Snyder said. "It was kind of ripe, and it worked for a while. But that wasn't a long-term solution."
Last year, Caltrans decided to install the security fence, which, at about $70 a foot, is more expensive than chain-link fencing, which costs about $10 per foot. The new fence will be as high as 10 feet at some points, higher than the standard six-foot chain-link fence. Caltrans officials estimated the project will cost $28,500.
The new fence is thicker than a chain-link fence, with smaller openings in the mesh. It is harder to cut or climb.
"You can't get your fingers into it and you can't get wire cutters in between the spaces," said Conrad Loera, the Caltrans project engineer who drew up the initial plan.
Similar fencing has been used in other states and in some prisons, but never before in a Caltrans project.
Since the installation began in January, the people who lived under the bridge and most of the alleged drug dealers have moved away, residents said.
While no one expects the fence to eliminate crime in the area--another auto burglary near the bridge was reported last week--it does give residents a chance to reclaim their neighborhood.
"I've noticed a tremendous difference," said the self-described "concerned citizen" who spearheaded the campaign for the fence. "The neighborhood is a lot quieter, and people who live here seem more at ease walking around."
A newly formed Neighborhood Watch group promises to keep an eye on the fence to see if it works.