Poverty, Pride--and Power : In Line for Federal Help, Pacoima Hides Problems Below Neat Surface

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The poorest community in the San Fernando Valley, and one of the worst off citywide, nevertheless hides its poverty well.

Few homeless people walk Pacoima's streets. Its major shopping center has no vacancies. And, for the most part, the houses are neat, their yards well-tended.

But Pacoima also is a place where the poverty rate hovers between 25% and 40%, where one of three people lives in public housing and where holding a job is no guarantee against being poor.

Those bleak statistics have led area Councilman Richard Alarcon and Pacoima's congressional representative, Howard Berman, to push for a two-square-mile section in the heart of Pacoima to be included in the city's bid for a federal empowerment zone, the centerpiece of President Clinton's urban revitalization program.

The designation would allow the area to share in tax breaks for businesses and up to $100 million in government funds for social programs.

Although the city will not formally decide which communities to include in its application until June, the proposed Pacoima area is virtually assured a spot on Los Angeles' wish list. Likewise, the city is considered a shoo-in to be one of six urban areas nationwide selected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Based on everything that's happened in Los Angeles over the last few years, I would be stunned" if the city was not picked, said Berman.

The proposed zone is home to about 13,000 people, who live in a section of central Pacoima and a southern sliver of Lake View Terrace. The area lies between Van Nuys Boulevard and Hansen Dam, the Foothill Freeway and San Fernando Road.

It includes the site where Rodney King was pulled over and beaten by police, an incident that led to the Los Angeles riots, and in turn to a national focus on depressed urban locales, and finally to the empowerment zones.

"This is a very neglected area, one that needs a lot of attention," Alarcon said.

Besides wanting a concessions business at Hansen Dam, Alarcon said he has no specific plans for the area if it wins empowerment zone status. He merely hopes the zone would attract commercial and industrial firms and, with them, well-paying jobs.

Residents say the political attention is coming none too soon.

"This community has been ignored for too long," said longtime resident Anthony Johnson, 68, who lives in a trailer parked off Van Nuys Boulevard, between the two sprawling public housing complexes that dominate the proposed zone. "Crime is bad, people's job status is worse than it's ever been. . . . We sure need something."

The last few years have been especially trying for the blue-collar town, which is dependent on employment at nearby factories. Pacoima was left reeling by deep cuts at Lockheed, which has dropped more than 8,000 jobs at its Burbank plant since 1990, and the loss of 2,600 more jobs when General Motors closed its Van Nuys plant in 1992.

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For years, those relatively high-paying jobs had provided families with a springboard out of the San Fernando Gardens and Van Nuys Pierce Park Apartments public housing complexes.

After the layoffs, many longtime residents simply left.

"So many people have lost jobs, they started selling their homes and moving out," said Oscar Williams, owner of Big "O" Realty, which has been located in Pacoima for 16 years. "They had to follow their jobs."

One who has stayed is W.C. Williams, a 26-year resident who now lives at the Pledgerville Senior Citizens Villa on Van Nuys Boulevard. On a recent spring day, Williams, 68, relaxed on his three-wheeled bicycle, taking in the sun and exchanging waves and hellos with friends driving by the center.

In Pacoima, he said, the bad old days are over, especially with regard to crime.

"Some of the old people used to get robbed in here," he said of the senior center that has since been equipped with a security gate. "The dope fiends used to run in through here with cops chasing them. It was bad."

Since he suffered a stroke a few years ago, Smoky, as friends call him, has ridden his three-wheeler daily for exercise. Williams says he rides without fear, even though in 1993, 10 people were slain within five blocks of the senior center, including one of Williams' longtime friends, Olivia Divers--a homeless woman who was gunned down in a drive-by.

Police say that although crime in Pacoima remains a major problem, particularly in the area encompassing the empowerment zone, the situation is far improved from the 1980s, when a dead-end street in San Fernando Gardens was nicknamed "Sherm Alley." There, drug dealers traded in a popular brand of cigarette--Shermans--dipped in the hallucinogen PCP.

But that crime surge was met by an unprecedented wave of activism.

Residents, led by churches, social service agencies and schools, began working on several fronts: They held rallies and marches; schools were opened on weekends and in the evenings to offer expanded recreation and tutoring programs; petitions were circulated to keep out liquor stores, and most significantly, residents began holding weekly meetings with a gang that had long been a neighborhood scourge.

The activism appears to have paid off. In addition to reducing major crime in the area by 6%, residents reached an accord with liquor outlet owners, who agreed to erase graffiti on their storefronts within 24 hours and to discourage public drinking by selling no cold individual beers. Additionally, meetings with Latino gang members have led to 143 consecutive days without a drive-by shooting.

"If I had to choose the major reason why crime is down, it would have to be the community involvement," said Officer Minor Jimenez, senior lead officer in Pacoima for the past 3 1/2 years. "More people are cooperating with the police and the bad guys know it."

Rep. Berman says that activism, joined with a true need, forms the perfect setting for one of the new federal zones. "Pacoima is an example of why there is every reason for the creation of empowerment zones," Berman said. "It has high unemployment, serious social problems, (but) a community leadership that wants to turn it around."

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The poverty rate in the proposed zone is twice that of the rest of the city. And even though indications of entrenched poverty are not obvious, hints are everywhere.

At Pacoima Elementary School, more than half the students eat federally subsidized lunches.

Though there are few boarded-up storefronts along the Van Nuys Boulevard commercial strip, many of the spaces are filled with pawnshops, storefront churches and auto repair shops. Check-cashing outlets abound, but the nearest bank is several blocks away.

The public housing complexes are relatively free of graffiti, but are home to nearly a third of the neighborhood's residents. Families on waiting lists for the complexes live out of sight, crowded in garages and converted tool sheds, often without electricity, heat or running water.

That the area is free of the overt blight found in other low-income neighborhoods is no accident.

"It is a very poor community, but there's a tremendous amount of pride here," said Cecilia Costas, principal of Maclay Junior High School. "You can be poor, but that doesn't mean you have to grovel or look like you are poor."

Ana Alvarez, who grew up at San Fernando Gardens and now manages Pierce Park--a federally subsidized but privately owned complex--also emphasizes the positive. "The important thing is to have a positive living environment no matter where you live."

To that end, Alvarez has expanded youth recreation programs, admonishes tenants not to refer to their home as "the projects" and also has tried to soften Pierce Park's look. "We have a small fence because we don't want to encase the area with wrought iron and concrete," she said. "And we plant lots of flowers."

Outside, Leticia Fuentes, a 32-year-old single mother of four, sat and watched her children play. Nearby, a group of young men stood smoking cigarettes and drinking bottles of beer. Every few minutes, a police car passed, the officer and the group of men exchanging long stares.

"It's not an easy life, but with a little luck, maybe we can get enough money to buy a house," Fuentes said, pulling out two old Lottery tickets, neither a winner.

An immigrant from Mexico two years ago, Fuentes said she can't work because she has no green card or anyone to care for her children. She lives at Pierce Park in a two-bedroom apartment, with her aunt and her aunt's two children, whom Fuentes also watches.

"It's not a bad place to live here, but it's too small," she remarked.

According to census data, most of the residents of the two tracts that make up the proposed empowerment zone live in crowded homes and nearly 40% are under 18.

The unemployment rate was nearly 14% at the time of the 1990 U.S. census, compared to 8.4% citywide, and even many of those who work bring home less than $14,000--the official poverty rate for a family of four.

Further, more than 40% of the residents were born outside the United States, and nearly two of three people speak Spanish at home, a fact borne out at Pacoima Elementary, where three-quarters of the school's students speak only limited English.

Pacoima has traditionally been a first stop for immigrants to Southern California escaping rural poverty. First, it was African Americans fleeing segregation in the South after World War II, who settled there because of racially discriminatory covenants elsewhere in the city. Eventually, the area became the center of African-American life in the Valley and, by 1960, nearly all of the Valley's 10,000 African Americans lived in Pacoima and nearby Arleta.

But by the late 1960s, the area began to be transformed again as immigrants--this time from rural Mexico--came to Pacoima, drawn by its low housing costs and proximity to manufacturing jobs. As the African Americans who could afford to moved out, they were replaced by a growing population of even poorer people.

The percentage of African Americans in Pacoima's population went from 75% in the 1970s to 10% in 1990. Meanwhile, the Latino population rose to 71% in 1990, as Mexican immigrants were joined by Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

Though Pacoima's Latinos and African Americans have not always gotten along, the mood has shifted from conflict to conciliation as the town has become increasingly Latino. An African-American hairstylist specializing in black women's hair now advertises in Spanish. Several African-American churches have added Spanish-language services.

"They need each other right now," said Williams, the real estate broker. But the bottom line, he added, is that Pacoima "is

a transitory place where people have tended to stay only until they can afford to move someplace else."

Proponents of the empowerment zone say its creation would help buck that trend by attracting new businesses--and jobs--to the area.

Under the guidelines, if Pacoima receives empowerment zone status, businesses inside the zone would receive tax incentives, including payroll tax deductions of as much as 20% of the wages paid to workers living in the zone. Additionally, businesses would get significant tax breaks for buying new equipment and machinery.

Also, the Pacoima zone could share in $100 million set aside for programs ranging from substance abuse to child care to job training.

Another neighborhood in Pacoima, this one south of the Golden State Freeway, has been part of a similar city enterprise zone since the late 1980s, but has had only limited success in luring new businesses. The problem, critics say, is that for the most part, only existing businesses benefit from any of the government-sanctioned zones--and people who want to open up new places are ignored.

Take Carlos Orrelas. At 58, Orrelas is the would-be owner of Esquina Market--the full-service grocery store he wants to start inside the proposed federal zone. But Orrelas is about $8,000 short. While he tries to save, he sells fruits and vegetables out of boxes inside an otherwise empty store.

"We don't need a tax break. We need a loan," said his son, Gerardo Orrelas, 30.

However, Lake View Terrace Village, a shopping center just south of the Foothill Freeway on Foothill Boulevard, is the kind of place the zone might benefit.

When the center's major draw and anchor for more than 16 years, Phil's Food Queen Court supermarket, closed last October, fewer people came to use the center's other stores.

The decline can be traced through notes left on store windows. "Dear Customers, we are closed. Please come and pick up your clothes. . . . We are not responsible after 15 days," reads one at Janek's Cleaners and Laundrys, where all that's left inside are racks of laundered white shirts. A similar message greets visitors to a now-closed soul food restaurant.

Reynoso's Donut shop has survived, but a note might appear on its window any day now. Before the supermarket closed, the bakery sold $160 to $170 a day in doughnuts. Now, the shop is lucky to sell $40.

"The only ones making money are the liquor stores," said store clerk Tony Santiago, 14, nodding to a bustling liquor store at one end of the shopping center.

Meanwhile, life goes on in Pacoima. Gang members and ex-gangsters meet the rest of the community each Wednesday night to hash out their differences. Residents at Pierce Park are collecting $600 for a Mother's Day mariachi concert to honor the complex's moms. And with a little luck, tomorrow might be the 144th consecutive day without a drive-by shooting.

Though hope is eternal, there is also the recognition that residents can't do it alone.

"The hardest thing is that there are no jobs here," said Veronica Rodriguez, director of the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center. "That's what's keeping them in the streets: They have no jobs. We need (help) before we become another South-Central."

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