‘There are a lot of people . . . locked down in their houses, afraid to go to the store, afraid to go outdoors.’
Devin Rene Cain was born and raised in this South-Central neighborhood, a hardscrabble stretch of land that straddles the Harbor Freeway south of Florence Avenue. It was never elegant, she admits, but in recent years it has gotten worse and worse.
“It’s bad,” said Cain, who raised three children here--two did just fine, the third ended up in prison. “It’s ugly, and I don’t like it.”
The plot of land along the highway is just one mile long and barely three long blocks across. And yet last year the two LAPD reporting districts in this neighborhood--known as 1256 and 1266--recorded some of the city’s highest violent crime totals.
Prostitutes regularly work the strip of Figueroa Street that cuts through the center of both districts. Merchants along Broadway and Vermont, the eastern and western borders of the zone, complain of robberies. And throughout the area, residents say it’s all too easy to end up dead.
“One third of these people are so sick,” said Arthur Lee Boone, who once lived on these streets, an alcoholic, scrounging for change and cigarette butts. Today, he is a pastor at the Free Speech Church of God in Christ on Figueroa Street. “The ones who are sick, who are addicted to the cocaine, they think you got a nickel on you, they’ll kill you. They’ll kill me.”
No community in the LAPD’s South Bureau saw more killings last year than Reporting District 1256--which has consistently ranked among the city’s most violent neighborhoods for the better part of a decade. Twelve people were murdered in that small neighborhood in 1993. Another eight were killed in the adjoining district to the south. Robberies also abounded, with Reporting District 1256 recording more than any other place in Los Angeles.
Those two reporting districts were identified by police officials in their soon-to-be-released study as the worst in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division. But that study only confirms what the statistics make abundantly clear: These communities are rife with violent crime.
To the west and east, two other nearby neighborhoods tallied South Bureau’s highest number of rapes--10 in each area. More than most, however, that crime is a difficult one to assess and to combat. It often goes unreported, and police concede that stepping up arrests seems to have little effect on the number of incidents.
“Our level of violence has always been one of the highest in the city,” said Capt. Larry Goebel, commanding officer of the 77th Street Division. “But we are starting to make an impact.”
Crime statistics for the first few months of 1994 show significant drops in violent crime, Goebel said. He attributes the recent progress to improved relations between the Police Department and the community. A new business patrol has worked with merchants to identify problem spots and eradicate them. As police have succeeded in pushing back street drug deals and open prostitution in a few areas, violent crime has receded as well.
Some residents see glimmers of progress and believe better times are ahead. Others are skeptical. They have seen too much decay in recent times to put their faith in promises or short-term progress.
“Over the past few years, it’s gotten so bad that we operate behind bars,” said Joanne McCafferty, whose family has run a hardware store on Broadway for 35 years. In the old days, people would wander in, browse the shelves, linger over the merchandise. Now they have to ring a bell, and McCafferty only lets familiar faces past the threshold.
“They (the robberies) get so bad sometimes you don’t even report it,” she said. “It’s terribly frustrating.”
A few miles away, in the heart of Watts, the problems are dishearteningly similar, as are the complaints of the people who live and work in the neighborhood. The Nickerson Gardens housing project dominates the LAPD’s Reporting District 1846, where 334 people were the victims of aggravated assaults last year. No other reporting district anywhere in Los Angeles logged as many.
Gangs are an overarching problem. Jobs are scarce. Drugs, especially crack cocaine, are the business of the streets. All that contributes to a rising tide of violent crime, and changing demographics have created points of tension as well.
“With the influx of Latinos into Nickerson Gardens, you’ve got the African American kids jumping on them,” said Mingo Durald, project director of the Community Services Center in Nickerson Gardens. “It’s an ongoing thing here . . . It’s people living in poverty.”
Michael Lockett, an LAPD officer at the Southeast station, has patrolled Watts for eight years, and he has watched the toll that crime takes on the daily lives of the people in the housing projects. Its effects, Lockett said, are profound and depressing.
“There are a lot of people who are locked down in their houses, afraid to go to the store, afraid to go outdoors,” he said. “They adjust, but they shouldn’t have to.”
‘The police don’t have much manpower, so we have to take care of ourselves.’
Just as Ventura Boulevard is known as the San Fernando Valley’s “Main Street,” so Sepulveda and Van Nuys boulevards have long been synonymous with prostitution and drug dealing.
So it seems logical, say police, residents and merchants, that the Valley’s most violent neighborhoods are situated along those north-south corridors in urban landscapes that stand in contrast to the area’s image as the pool-dotted granddaddy of American suburbs.
From murders in Pacoima to robberies in North Hills and rapes and aggravated assaults in the LAPD’s Van Nuys Division, the Valley’s hot spots share a proximity to liquor stores and low rents, industrial parks devoid of greenery and boarded-up businesses. All abut the hurly-burly blocks of Sepulveda and Van Nuys.
In the southeast corner of the Devonshire Division, LAPD Reporting District 1799 documented 119 robberies last year, more than any other Valley community. The North Hills area lies between Sepulveda Boulevard to the west and the flood control channel on the east, Roscoe Boulevard to the south and Nordhoff Street on the north.
To the south, a neighborhood along the railroad tracks is known as Reporting District 936. That community recorded 14 rapes, more than any other place in the city.
Next to it lies a barren industrial area crisscrossed by the Southern Pacific Railroad line and the Valley’s notorious Blythe Street, which last year inspired a controversial court order barring gang members from carrying pens, tools and flashlights allegedly used in crimes and intimidation tactics.
Flip Smith, a Sepulveda Boulevard businessman who has organized other merchants to fight crime, speculated that Blythe Street gang members slip across the railroad tracks to commit rapes and other crimes in a bleak area with few residents to witness them. The Van Nuys Division report on violent crime noted that in 62% of the patrol area’s rapes, the victims knew their attackers.
In another 16% of those cases, the report said, the victims were working as prostitutes when they were attacked.
But Smith, a tire store owner and founder of the group Business Watch, also maintained that crime along Sepulveda Boulevard is decreasing and that merchants, buoyed by their efforts, feel optimistic. Bob Jewell, whose auto body shop lies farther north on the boulevard, agreed, saying he was surprised to hear that his garage’s North Hills neighborhood in District 1799 led the Valley in robberies.
Fed-up merchants have begun calling the police whenever they spot a suspected prostitute or drug dealer, Jewell said, and they no longer hesitate to shoo them away.
“We absolutely don’t permit these people to function on or about our properties,” he said. “We had prostitutes soliciting johns in our driveway, drug dealers doing deals on the pay phone in front of the hotel across the street on a regular basis. Now it’s down to one or two prostitutes a day instead of 20, and I haven’t seen a drug deal in weeks or months.”
Just outside the city of San Fernando lies another Valley hot spot, a small community nestled between San Fernando Road and Paxton Street in the Foothill Division known as Reporting District 1635. Six murders were recorded there in 1993.
“What you have here is a combination of extreme poverty and over-concentration of liquor outlets,” said Pacoima activist Xavier Flores.
The deaths were unrelated--one involved a Glendale victim whose body was dumped in the area--but several stemmed from brawls aggravated by drugs or alcohol and at least one occurred outside a liquor store, said Lt. Gary Hallden of the Foothill Division.
“It’s historically been a problem location,” Hallden said.
In recent years, community activists such as Flores have worked to curtail the number of liquor licenses granted in the area. But bars and alcohol-selling convenience stores remain prolific along Van Nuys Boulevard. Flores’ nonprofit organization, Pueblo y Salud, has documented a higher concentration of liquor outlets there than elsewhere in the county.
“The fact is, there’s a lot of alcohol available in Pacoima,” said Marianne Haver Hill, executive director of the charity Meet Each Need With Dignity, which has joined the anti-alcohol effort.
“In more affluent neighborhoods, you never see the number of liquor stores and billboards advertising liquor,” Haver Hill said.
Within the triangle of Panorama City known as Reporting District 909, a devastating combination of crime and recession has driven out once-thriving businesses and in turn led to more crime. Last year, it topped all other Valley neighborhoods with 208 aggravated assaults.
In recent years a nearby GM plant and a Robinsons department store have shut down, taking restaurants, a landmark bowling alley and mom-and-pop shops with them, said Officer Tim Bergstrom, who works in the community policing unit of the LAPD’s Van Nuys Division. Drug-trafficking gangs have replaced those establishments, scaring away legitimate businesses and their customers.
The result is a spiral of violence that landed Reporting District 909 on the Van Nuys Division’s list of that station’s 10 toughest neighborhoods, where it joins Reporting District 936.
Valley residents and merchants are determined to fight back. In some cases, they say they are making progress. Community activist Paula Rangel, who manages an apartment house nearby, said that fighting spirit has enabled law-abiding residents in her Parthenia Street building--the Tropicana--to maintain the upper hand.
That community changed its name from Sepulveda to North Hills to erase the stigma of crime, but the area still is plagued by drug dealers who attract addicts desperate for cash.
Parents take turns walking their children to school lest their knapsacks get stolen. Women at bus stops are warned not to carry purses. And a steady series of meetings and barbecues lets neighbors get to know each other.
“The police don’t have much manpower,” Rangel said, “so we have to take care of ourselves.”
‘My problem is figuring out where to get the resources . . . and basically it boils down to robbing Peter to pay Paul.’
Subway riders who come out of the shiny tile portals of the MacArthur-Westlake station emerge into a neighborhood that police say had more homicides than any other in the city during 1993. But the raw numbers say as much about the sometimes deceptive nature of statistics as they do about the level of brutality in the crowded, battered apartment buildings near there.
Reporting District 246, which includes the subway station, was the scene of 15 murders in 1993. But 10 of those resulted from an arson fire set in a nearby apartment building last May. The fire raced through the three-story building at 330 S. Burlington Ave., aided by fire doors that had been wedged or nailed open, creating a chimney for the deadly smoke and flames.
Yet that tragic event was but one of many in an area where day-to-day life moves to the cautious rhythm of fear, dictating that children play their games behind 12-foot-high iron gates and that only the foolhardy and the criminal dare walk the streets after dark. Recently, community leaders have tried to disrupt that disheartening reality by sponsoring nighttime anti-crime marches and graffiti paint-outs and by establishing Neighborhood Watch groups.
“The community here is no different from any community in any large city . . . in that crime ranks very high as a concern in everyone’s mind,” said Richard Booth, vice president of corporate affairs for St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which is at the northeastern corner of the reporting district and is helping organize many of the community efforts.
Even so, drug dealers operate openly along Alvarado, 6th, 7th and other streets in the area. Prostitutes hustle business while groups of glowering gang members control much of the territory like an occupying army. And the largely poor immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador who reside there are the victims of the second-highest number of assaults and the third-highest number of robberies for the entire Central Bureau.
But it is just one of several communities in the Rampart area where violence seems to be a fact of daily life. The Police Department’s still unreleased violent crime analysis--copies of which were reviewed by The Times last week--states with a note of resignation that patrol officers in Rampart are so overworked that they are able to do little more than react to crime.
“We know that 80% of our violent crime occurs in public and we know that uniformed police presence . . . can deter that,” Rampart Area Capt. Nick Solicos said. “My problem is figuring out where to get the resources . . . and basically it boils down to robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Rampart Area Reporting District 241, an area of newly built and stately but faded apartments between 3rd and 5th streets and Vermont and Normandie, puts a heavy demand on those limited resources. The area, where large numbers of Korean immigrants, whites and African Americans mix with a growing Latino population, last year recorded the highest number of assaults in the Central Bureau.
Although several residents said the streets there seem safer as police make progress against drug dealing and gangs, others remained worried.
Maria Murillo, 35, said she is afraid to go out, even during the day. Over a year ago she was attacked at 11 a.m. near her home at 5th and New Hampshire streets by a gunman who tried to snatch her purse. She resisted and was dragged through an intersection before her assailant gave up.
“When I fell I thought this was my last day,” she said. “He was standing over me with the gun and I don’t know if God saved me or what but he left . . . and I ran as fast as I could home.”
Lillia Castillo has managed an apartment building at 5th and Catalina streets for 11 years and she said that gang graffiti, rather than assaults, are the area’s most nettlesome problem. Still, she said she warns her tenants to “always look to see if anyone is there before you get out of your car when you come home from work because someone might try to hold you up.”
The greatest concentration of rapes in the Central Bureau, 10, occurred in an area just north of the city boundary with Vernon that is patrolled by officers from the Hollenbeck Division. But the reported incidence of that crime seemed almost random, with a few being reported in most districts.
In some areas, police believe they are gaining the upper hand. Chinatown had the unwelcome distinction of reporting the highest number of robberies in the Central Bureau last year, with 221. But with the help of bicycle patrol officers deployed in February, police arrested four gang members who they believe were responsible for a large number of those crimes.
Typically, said Detective Lt. Dave Rock, the thieves would spot a vulnerable pedestrian, confront the victim with guns, demand jewelry or a purse or wallet and then jump into a car and drive away. Robberies are down 70% in the past two months, he said.
Annie Jeng, a Chinatown merchant for the past 15 years, remains wary. She knows of many elderly people who have been robbed at the bus stations in the area and she was attacked two years ago on Hill Street by two young men who ran past her and grabbed a gold necklace purchased on a trip to Italy.
Now, she said, she never walks the streets after dark and she “wouldn’t dare to wear any gold jewelry. It’s just too dangerous.”
‘Painting out graffiti sounds like a simple chore, but in the Yucca Corridor it’s still a dangerous chore.’
When the 70-year-old retired legal secretary takes her dog for a nightly walk in her Hollywood neighborhood, she takes along a companion: An ice pick.
“A police officer told me to do that,” says the woman, who lives near Las Palmas Avenue and Yucca Street, the vortex of criminal activity in the place the Police Department calls Reporting District 636.
It tops the entire western part of the city in aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes.
The only violent crime in which it did not lead the West Bureau last year was murder. That dubious distinction was jointly held by Reporting District 1414 in the Oakwood section of Venice, where there was a gang war late last year, and Reporting District 667 in the southeastern part of Hollywood. Both had seven murders.
Ask residents and police what accounts for all the crime in the Yucca Corridor, and they tend to give the same answer: gangs and drugs.
Some victims are drug buyers getting assaulted and robbed, said Mike Shea, a senior lead officer in the Hollywood Division. Others are youthful, weekend cruisers from nearby Hollywood Boulevard who get into fights, which “pumps up the statistics,” said Detective Bernard Rogers.
The Yucca Corridor has been dominated for several years by the 18th Street Gang, according to Sharon Romano, leader of the Hollywood Beautification Team, a community organization that has been battling the gang for years.
On Saturday, representatives of the Beautification Team were out painting over gang graffiti in an attempt to clean up the neighborhood and to remove--if only temporarily--signs of the gang’s hegemony.
“They’ve harassed us on the streets, pulled guns on us and kicked our paint cans over,” Romano said. “Painting out graffiti sounds like a simple chore, but in the Yucca Corridor it’s still a dangerous chore.”
A week ago, a Beautification Team painted over all the graffiti on the corner of Wilcox and Yucca.
“It was immaculate,” said Officer Shea. “But it lasted just 36 hours. If you don’t repaint it, dumb as it seems, it will get worse. That’s the whole idea behind community-based policing. You at least have to keep it in check.”
On Thursday night, LAPD representatives told about 60 residents that they are about to launch a concerted push in the corridor.
“Starting May 5 through the first week of July, you’ll see more police in this area than you ever have before,” Officer Mark Severino told those gathered at the Las Palmas Senior Center.
This will include added patrol cops, officers from the anti-gang CRASH unit, members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as undercover narcotics agents.
“I am the case agent for your problem,” but hardly the sole solution to the problem, said Severino, who works with FALCON, a multi-agency narcotics abatement task force comprising personnel from the LAPD, the city attorney’s office and the Department of Building and Safety, which tries to link up with community organizations.
“You don’t have to tell me about the drug dealers on Las Palmas and Yucca. I can see them,” Severino said. “But I don’t know what goes on in your apartment corridors. You do. If you don’t tell me or my officers, we don’t know.”
He told the residents that if they don’t band together, they can’t win, and that it takes hundreds of small gestures, including replacing burned-out light bulbs, to make it harder for criminals to operate.
City officials at the meeting got an earful from the residents about muggings of the elderly, inadequate security in their densely packed apartment buildings, too much city money spent on palm trees and not enough on protection.
As the police were preparing to launch their major push, they learned of a new problem. On Thursday night, Joe Shea, leader of a local Neighborhood Watch group, told two LAPD officers in a squad car on Yucca that some 18th Street Gang members of his acquaintance had seemed particularly edgy lately.
The officers said that in recent days, a rival group, the White Fence Gang, had been spray-painting over 18th Street’s graffiti with its WF symbol. That could be a sign of a gang war in the making, officers said. It is too early to tell for sure.
Hot Spots for Violence
No Los Angeles neighborhood is a stranger to crime, but there are parts of the city where the four most serious types of violent crimes--murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault--are particularly acute. The map below show the neighborhoods in each of the LAPD’s four bureaus that registered the highest totals in 1993 for each of those crimes. Those neighborhoods, known as “hot target reporting districts,” have come under special scrutiny in a new LAPD study, which is intended to identify those districts and craft strategies for thwarting their crime problems. Each reporting district is identified by its number in bold type.
1799: 119 Robberies
909: 208 Aggravated Assaults
1635: 6 Murders
241: 180 Aggravated Assaults
246: 15 Murders
111: 221 Robberies
497: 10 Rapes
1258: 10 Rapes
1846: 334 Aggravated Assaults
1804: 12 Murders
1256: 12 Murders
1266: 249 Robberies
1241: 10 Rapes
1414: 7 Murders
667: 7 Murders
636: 183 Robberies, 13 Rapes, 243 Aggravated Assaults
936: 14 Rapes