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COVER STORY : NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE : A Community Activist Takes His War on Crime and Blight to the Street

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the harsh sunlight of a late summer afternoon Joe Connolly slowly drove through an alley near Pico Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He spotted two men breaking into the trunk of a car.

One ran away, but his partner angrily marched toward Connolly.

“You leave me alone, you crazy fool,” the man screamed, jabbing his finger in Connolly’s face. “You’re harassing me.”

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Connolly smiled, unperturbed.

“The best way for me to leave you alone is for you to leave the neighborhood,” Connolly said.

The man--who had been convicted of drug dealing and burglary in the neighborhood--continued to spit curses at Connolly, but walked away.

For Connolly, 38, such confrontations are commonplace in his “war” to keep the neighborhood clean.

He spends a lot of time driving through the area in his gray van, painting over graffiti and confronting gang members, transients who hang out in front of convenience stores and drug addicts. He threatens them with “eviction” from the neighborhood.

The LAPD says every neighborhood watch group seems to have a Joe Connolly, someone so fed up with crime or blight that they take matters into their own hands--sometimes ignoring the rights of others and endangering their own lives.

“Joe’s out there doing things he’s not trained to do,” said Los Angeles Police Officer Tony Jett. “If he doesn’t watch it, Homicide is going to be investigating his murder.

“He’s a vigilante. He’s been told to be careful.”

Connolly said he has received death threats from gang members angered when their tags--graffiti scrawls--are painted out. Some neighbors see Connolly as too strident and some city officials say he’s just another eccentric loudmouth.

But the sometimes affable, often irascible carpet salesman has a host of supporters in the Carthay Square neighborhood--Connolly’s private battlefield where he lives with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 6.

Since he began patrolling a year and a half ago--he got started after the 1992 riots when he joined volunteer cleanup brigades--graffiti has all but disappeared, residents and business people say.

“This area would look terrible if it weren’t for him,” said Tami Bennett, owner of Mo’ Better Burgers--once a frequent graffiti target--on Pico Boulevard. “It’s like he has this attitude, ‘This is my neighborhood, and no one is going to mess it up.’ ”

Connolly and other members of the Carthay Square neighborhood patrol have cut down shrubs which shielded the activities of drug dealers and prostitutes. He has also forged truces between himself and tag crews and rival gangs.

“They know the deal. They can’t paint. They’ve come up when I’ve been out painting. I talk to them like I talk to my kids. We have an unspoken deal, they can’t tag. I tell them it’s against the law, and it’s unsafe, and if you’re gonna stay in my neighborhood, you can’t tag. And the nicer the community is, businesses will come in, and you can get jobs.”

But just in case some didn’t get the message, Connolly said he left a note on the back of a billboard that had been repeatedly scrawled with graffiti. “I put a message. . . .'The next one of you bastards who tags here, I’ll push you off,’ ” Connolly said. “They never tagged that billboard again. This is war.”

*

Being careful is not part of Connolly’s approach. Day and night, he patrols the neighborhood, his tough demeanor his only weapon.

He has had his share of trouble.

A few weeks ago, Connolly’s van, which was parked in his driveway, was rammed by an 11-year-old named “Chucky” who had stolen a car.

Connolly was trying to “evict” him from the neighborhood. “He had been threatening me because I was cutting off his income, having his drug suppliers arrested, making his crime spree a little less easy,” Connolly said.

When he heard what sounded like an “explosion” outside, Connolly ran from his home and chased the boy. His neighbors, who also heard the car crash, followed in hot pursuit. The neighbors caught the boy’s partner, called police and had him arrested. Chucky was arrested a few days later.

“I’m still here, and Chucky’s gone,” Connolly declared. “That’s what happens when you don’t comply with the long-term community objectives.”

What does his family think of such exploits?

“On the one hand, I feel like I’m putting my head in the sand, thinking nothing would happen to him,” said his wife, Jeri, who figures Connolly’s zeal developed over the years through his job as a salesman.

“Then I thought,” she added with a laugh, “ ‘This would make a great ‘Movie of the Week’ if something did happen to him.”

Still, she admitted she was angry when he first started patrolling last year. “I thought, ‘Why is it only him doing all this stuff? And why isn’t he taking his family into consideration?”

But now, she said, others in the patrol--there are roughly 70 members--are doing more, meaning Connolly is not out as much as he used to be.

Said Debra Grobman, another member of the neighborhood patrol: “I wish we could clone Joe.”

“Joe has heightened our awareness to the point that some of us have seen his ‘religion,’ ” she said. “Sometimes we have to take radical moves to get things done.”

Yet he is still out enough for his kids to be used to the routine. “The kids will hear a gun shot, and they’ll say, ‘Dad, did you hear the gun shot? Aren’t you going to do something?’ ” Jeri Connolly said.

For Connolly, who moved to the neighborhood ten years ago from Chicago’s South Side, apathy is an ally of urban blight. ‘If I was sitting at home in my living room, none of this stuff would be getting done,” he said.

In his paint-splattered high-top sneakers and shorts, Connolly is a familiar sight in the neighborhood, a mix of upscale young homeowners and less affluent Mexican and Central American immigrants who are concentrated in apartment buildings. A mish-mash of single-family homes, apartment buildings, Ethiopian restaurants, Indian sweet shops and sari boutiques line the streets.

Connolly’s T-shirt bears his personal manifesto: “When the going get’s Tough, the Tough kick BUTT.”

One minute, he can be as genial as Mr. Rogers, greeting folks in the neighborhood from behind the wheel of his gray van. “Hi Joe!” calls a child, waving as she walks with her mother down Fairfax Avenue.

Then, without warning, he jerks the van over to a curb, jumps out and runs over to a hapless transient.

“What did I tell you?” he snarls as the transient, a bony man with stringy blond hair and missing teeth starts to walk away quickly. “There is no trespassing in this neighborhood. Get out of my neighborhood!”

Connolly has no patience for bleeding hearts or political correctness.

“Transients are like parasites,” he said, as the man walked off. “They’ll steal from the neighbors. I don’t feel sorry for transients one bit. There are plenty of shelters.

“We’re gonna have a nice neighborhood, no matter what it takes.”

*

Neighborhood patrols have become the grass-roots response to crime and other problems threatening to undermine the safety and stability of urban neighborhoods. Since the 1992 riots, such patrols have increased tremendously, said Cal State Fullerton criminal justice professor James R. Lasley, a former adviser to the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Citizens patrols are an artifact of the lack of confidence in the service police provide to the public,” Lasley said.

The LAPD, said Lasley, “is the most understaffed police department in the country, given the size of the city.” The growth of community patrols, he said, “is a natural thing when people’s neighborhoods are deteriorating, and police are nowhere to be found.”

At least 325 people belong to three citizens’ patrols in the 10 square miles bounded by La Brea Avenue, La Cienega and Beverly boulevards and the Santa Monica Freeway--the area that includes Carthay Square, said Jett, who helps train the groups to patrol.

Police say the groups are effective in serving as the eyes and ears for busy officers rushing to a stream of radio calls.

So Connolly is always on the run.

Connolly, when not patrolling the neighborhood, competes in marathons and helps raise thousands of dollars for his children’s elementary school and the Westside Jewish Community Center. But despite the demands of family, work and other volunteer activity, he somehow manages to devote countless hours to his community patrol.

He seems obsessed, to say the least.

On a wall next to a vacant building burned during the 1992 riots--a hangout for drug dealers and transients until Connolly cleaned the place up and shooed them away--he sarcastically wrote: “Dear Mayor Riordan, Thank you for tearing down this eyesore within 90 days.” (Riordan never promised to raze it, a city official said.)

Every 10 days, Connolly updates the day count on the sign. Connolly said he told city officials that “if they’re sick of the messages on the wall, then tear down the building.”

“The owner has chosen not to engage in redevelopment,” said Tom LaBonge, director of the city’s Office of Field Operations. “Although the building appears to be a hazard and abandoned, it’s secured by a fence and it’s kept clean of graffiti by Joe.”

Ultimately, said LaBonge, “It’s the owners choice.”

The owner could not be reached for comment.

Connolly’s aggressiveness has put off some people.

Ruth Askren, who lives nearby, was so sick of the sign she decided to paint over it. But a friend of Connolly’s alerted him and he rushed to the scene. Connolly later agreed to repaint the sign to make it more attractive.

But Askren remains a little miffed.

“One day, I told him he comes on like a Nazi, and that writing on the wall makes this community look like a police state,” Askren said. “He has a big chip on his shoulder.”

Other neighborhood critics say Connolly’s tactics are rooted in an us-against-them mentality.

Alex Hartley, a Los Angeles school administrator who lives across the street from Connolly, said he watched one day as Connolly confronted a transient.

“Joe had his finger in the guy’s face, and the guy was pushing a cart,” said Hartley, 57. “The next day I told him, ‘You can’t talk to people like that.’ ”

Hartley said a “smugness, an arrogance. . . .a class thing” exists in the neighborhood association, whose members tend to be better off financially than many other residents.

Association members, who tend to live in single homes or expensive duplexes, can be condescending to the poorer immigrants in the apartments on Fairfax, he said.

Alan Ross, president of the Carthay Square neighborhood association, said he believes some Fairfax residents may not want to get involved “because of their fear of the gang presence, fear of being harassed if gang members knew they were painting out graffiti.”

Nevertheless, he said, the group has tried to reach out to Fairfax residents with Spanish-language fliers announcing the monthly alley clean-ups. A couple from that part of the neighborhood will join the civilian patrol next month, Ross said.

Although he has received complaints about Connolly--"People will say that Joe needs a muzzle"-- Ross defended his tactics, which he contends have kept the neighborhood 98% graffiti-free.

“I think the taggers have a healthy respect for him because they know Joe isn’t going to accept anything less than clean walls,” Ross said.

He wages war with taggers by painting over graffiti, sometimes minutes after the vandals have fled the scene. His assessment of taggers: “They’re not rocket scientists.”

He keeps half a dozen tubs of paint that he gets from Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, rollers and a ladder in his van, and he estimates that he has saved the city a lot of money over the past two years by painting over graffiti.

He bombards city officials with calls and letters demanding to know why so much money is being spent on anti-graffiti campaigns when he and a small band of neighbors are taking care of a 5-square-mile community by themselves.

Yet Delphia Jones of Operation Clean Sweep, the city’s anti-graffiti program, said that its $1 million budget isn’t enough to clean up all the graffiti in a city that covers 462 square miles.

“Our logo is ‘Government can’t do it all,’ ” Jones said. The Operation Clean Sweep crew is made up of people sentenced to do community service. The agency, she said, relies on citizen reports of vandalism via a graffiti hot line: (213) CLEAN-UP. It usually takes three to five days to get a crew out to paint out graffiti.

“We applaud people like Mr. Connolly,” Jones said. “We want to encourage more Joe Connolly’s--people who take responsibility for keeping their neighborhoods clean.”

Last year Connolly painted a message to taggers on a billboard on Pico, just east of La Cienega Boulevard: “Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job.”

Except for Connolly’s message, the billboard has remained graffiti free.

Connolly knows many of the gang members and taggers whose work he so diligently expunges. While chatting recently with a group of teen-agers he described as gang members, one warned him: “I know someone who wants to get you, ‘cause you keep painting over him.”

Another youngster in the group--a tall, good-looking boy with a sweet smile--chided Connolly. “Mr. Connolly, why do you like to ruin our tags?” he asked, smiling and shaking his head.

“ ‘Cause I get permission,” Connolly replied.

“You insulted me,” continued the tagger. “You wrote, ‘Get a day job.’ ”

The others laughed.

As Connolly drove off, he mentioned that the “insulted” boy had threatened him once.

“He left a message at a tag I had painted out. It said: ‘I’m going to get Joe Connoly ‘ “

“Well, I left him a message too: ‘If you’re gonna threaten me, at least spell my name right.’ ”

On a recent evening, Connolly was back on patrol on San Vicente Boulevard, spotting one of his favorite targets: a transient--the same one he had earlier warned to stay out of the neighborhood.

The man was asking another young man with a knapsack for spare change.

“Sir,” yelled Connolly to the man with the knapsack, “do not give this man money. He uses it for drugs.”

The man with the knapsack smiled and nodded his head, and the transient, frustrated again, walked off down the street. “Everybody who doesn’t live here has a cockamamie story as to why they’re here,” Connolly said.

“People at the neighborhood watch meetings say, ‘Joe, you oughta just mellow out.’ But I don’t care who likes me. We’re out to fight crime.”


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