A black, 12-foot fence topped by loops of razor wire surrounds a cluster of beige stucco apartment buildings at a busy intersection in Compton. Armed security guards patrol the premises around the clock.
But residents of the New Wilmington Arms apartments say the prison-like atmosphere is deceiving.
In the past year, police say, crime has plummeted in this housing project, which city officials once considered such a public nuisance that they wanted to demolish it. The landscape, once desolate and filled with trash, is now adorned with flowers and shrubs. Children play ball on a grassy stretch that used to be a dirt lot.
Police estimate that calls to the 11-building complex, once considered a haven for drug dealers, decreased as much as 50% in the past year. The project's security guards confirm a marked decline in assaults and other violent crimes.
"Now it's like a walk in the park," said guard Watkin Garcia, standing beside a security post dotted with dime-size bullet holes. "This is like a vacation from the way it used to be. Four years ago, it was like Vietnam down here."
Residents say they can almost pinpoint to the day when things began to get better. It was when Tonya Turner, a steady woman with a deep voice and piercing gaze, took charge of the ailing complex.
"There was immediate improvement after (Turner) came along," longtime resident Marie Taylor said. "Before she came, things were pretty bad. My apartment was shot at twice."
Turner, 51, arrived in February, 1994. She hired a new security firm, added more guards and ordered more patrols throughout the complex to discourage drug dealing and vandalism. She also ordered strict enforcement of a curfew requiring youths under 18 on the premises to be in their apartments after 10 p.m.
A $1.5-million cash infusion from the owners was used to overhaul the dilapidated units and repaint graffiti-coated walls. Turner also organized activities for the residents and their children.
She formed a drill team, after-school study groups and a church choir, which meets several times a week at the complex's Spartan recreation room.
Ida Richardson, who has lived in the complex for eight years, said she now allows her 11-year-old daughter to play and walk around the complex by herself. "I used to keep her locked up in the apartment," Richardson said.
Most of the households in the 164-unit complex are headed by single mothers receiving welfare or Social Security assistance. The average household income is $9,085. Residents pay up to 30% of their incomes for rent, and government subsidies cover the rest. The rent ranges from $724 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,240 a month for four bedrooms.
At least half a dozen families have been residents since the 1970s.
In addition to sprucing up the property, Turner said she seeks to establish programs that will encourage residents to become self-sufficient.
"This is the type of place one comes to to get yourself together, after which time you move on, hopefully to a better place," she said.
Turner has started job-training sessions, literacy classes and other programs for many unemployed adult and teen-age residents. She hopes the programs will break the chain of dependency that has ensnared generations of some families.
The complex's owner, Goldrich & Kest Industries of Culver City, provided funds to start the programs. Turner said she will seek donations from local businesses and other organizations to keep them going, and will ask for volunteers to help run them.
"What we're also trying to do is build a level of self-esteem," she said. "There is nothing that can hinder a person more than sitting back and waiting for someone to do for them. I want residents to realize, if they really want to accomplish something, really want to do something, then what they have to do is make the effort themselves."
Turner had planned to manage the complex temporarily and return after one year to her job overseeing housing rehabilitation for the city of Compton. But she has formed a nonprofit organization and hopes to take control of the complex from Goldrich & Kest, which is considering donating the property to such a group and taking a tax write-off.
The company has contacted a number of nonprofit organizations, including Le Group Foundation Inc., which Turner formed in September, and First AME Church. Company officials said the complex is worth about $10 million.
Robert Hirsch, a partner in Goldrich & Kest, thinks turning the complex over to a nonprofit organization would be "the best thing for the tenants."
"It requires somebody that can spend a lot of time with the complex and knows the community very well," he said.
Like a steady locomotive, Turner chugs through 10- to 12-hour days, poring over paperwork in her cluttered office, checking out renovated units and walking around the complex to talk with tenants.
"The residents really respect her because they know she cares," said her assistant, Carol Smith.
Turner had been Compton's housing rehabilitation supervisor for 17 years, overseeing grants for low-income residents, senior citizens and disabled residents to fix up homes. Last year, Goldrich & Kest officials asked Turner to take over as manager of the New Wilmington Arms.
Turner said she initially decided to manage the New Wilmington Arms as "my way of giving something back to the community as a Compton resident, a city employee and a former tenant of a housing project."
Observers say the complex's turnaround serves as a prime example of how a strong, dedicated manager can make a difference.
"The key is the on-site management staff," said Malcolm Findley, director of the single-family division of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Los Angeles. "It is really critical to find the right person who can interact positively with the residents."
The owner's cash infusion and increased visits to the complex by HUD officials also contributed to the turnaround, Findley said.
The Compton City Council has also acknowledged the improvement, presenting Turner with a commendation. "This place has really blossomed under Tonya's management," said Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, whose district includes the property.
Many of Turner's improvements have been aimed at helping the project's large youth population. Of the 561 residents, 331 are children under age 18.
"Many of these children share a common disconnectedness from any larger sense of hope and purpose," Turner said. "I'm trying to change that. This cycle has to be broken at some point in time."
She has applied for a federal grant to pay for computers and books and to provide children with trips to museums or plays.
Earlier this month, Turner opened the youth recreation center with funds from Goldrich & Kest to provide youngsters with attractive alternatives to drugs and other temptations.
Turner recalled how a youth center helped keep her off the streets when she was growing up in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green public housing project, a series of decaying complexes on the city's north side. She spent afternoons at the center making friends, playing games and getting encouragement from adults who watched over the youngsters.
"It was my safe haven," she said. "I was involved in sports and other constructive activities. What got me through is that center and enough role models that were positive and supportive. And many of these kids just don't have that now."
Like many children at the New Wilmington Arms complex, 15-year-old Johnny Williams and 14-year-old Ellora Hicks did not have much to do before the recreation center opened.
Williams, a wide-eyed boy with a B average in a program for gifted students at Washington High School in Los Angeles, has lived in the complex for two years with his mother and twin sisters. He says he appreciates the new activities, such as basketball and football games, the after-school study groups, the Halloween and Christmas parties. "Before that, all I would do is stay in the house and play video games," he said.
Hicks, 14, a shy ninth-grader, is an avid reader who tutors her 11-year-old brother and others at the complex's after-school study program, held informally at the complex's recreation center for a few hours each day. Children can read books, work on puzzles and play board games while supervised by an adult.
Recently, Williams and Hicks appeared before the City Council and invited members to the complex's first public event, a celebration of Black History Month. The event featured speeches from community leaders, colorful performances by the choir and drill team, skits highlighting civil rights events, baking contests and fashion shows.
When the complex opened in the early 1970s, it was a quiet, well-maintained place where working-class families lived, longtime residents recall. But things took a turn for the worse in the late 1970s when drug dealing began to dominate the scene. In the 1980s, the use of crack cocaine became epidemic.
"It got so bad at one point that you didn't feel safe even inside your home," said Laura Whitsett, who has lived in the apartments with her husband, James, since the complex opened in 1973. "There were gangs of roving kids hanging out all over the place, causing trouble. Then there were the break-ins, cars being stolen, the shootings, assaults and the robberies. We could have done a Clint Eastwood movie here."
Tenants also complained that previous managers were lax in enforcing rules, such as curfews for minors and requiring visitors to sign in with security staff.
In 1985, the property was in such bad shape--with rampant drug dealing and other crimes--that some members of the City Council wanted to declare it a public nuisance and have it torn down. Goldrich & Kest officials pledged to clean up the property and get rid of drug dealers.
The company increased security, installed new lighting and removed carports that often concealed drug transactions, said Hirsch, the company partner.
But problems persisted.
The complex has been particularly difficult to manage because its multiple stories and interior hallways have hidden areas that are difficult to monitor, said Carmi C. Cohen, senior vice president in the firm's property management division. Goldrich & Kest, which owns 122 low-income housing projects in California, prefers complexes in which the apartments open to the outside, he said. The company purchased the Wilmington Arms in 1978 after the owner defaulted on loans.
In 1989, the company was on the verge of selling the property, Hirsch said, but the buyer's financing fell through. Goldrich & Kest then hired a management firm with expertise in turning around troubled properties to oversee the ailing complex.
When conditions continued to deteriorate, Goldrich & Kest fired the firm and brought Turner aboard.
Recently, Turner received a six-month extension on her leave from the city job. If Goldrich & Kest decides to turn over the complex to Turner's nonprofit group, she said she will resign from her city job and remain as manager of the property.
"Many people are quick to complain about what's wrong with a place, but not too many are willing to do anything about it," she said. "They said it couldn't be done. But I kept at it and things have changed. Hopefully, I can keep at it a while longer."