Federal Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros got a three-hour lesson in urban affairs Saturday, touring the Cypress Park neighborhood where a 3-year-old girl was killed and holding a summit with Lincoln Heights youths caught between gang violence and tough police tactics.
As part of a series of neighborhood-level, fact-finding missions that the housing secretary has undertaken in cities nationwide, Cisneros visited a dilapidated former fire station that he has promised to help renovate as a community center and Los Angeles Police Department substation in Cypress Park.
The 1920s-era building, at Cypress Avenue and Maceo Street, is less than a mile from the site where gang members opened fire on a car that had turned the wrong way down a dead-end street, killing Stephanie Kuhen and wounding her brother Joseph, 2, and the vehicle's driver.
Although Cisneros was in the region to speak to a publishing group in Orange County, the shooting spurred him to detour to Cypress Park.
With his entourage, the Housing and Urban Development secretary strolled the dead-end alley where Kuhen was killed Sept. 17, stopping to talk--often in Spanish--with residents, and running his hand along a bullet hole left by the deadly attack.
"I don't understand Los Angeles gangs," Cisneros said. "I'm from Texas, and I know the Latino community, and I know Latino gangs, but I don't know anything quite as organized or as intimidating or controlling as the Los Angeles gangs have become."
Cisneros offered no federal panacea, although he pledged to squeeze more funds from federal programs for the kind of community-based groups he met later at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lincoln Heights: United Neighborhood Organizations and the archdiocese's Hope in Youth anti-gang program.
Three weeks ago, after talking to both groups, Cisneros promised to return to Lincoln Heights. Once there, he got an earful from about 30 youths and parents in a classroom at Sacred Heart.
Cisneros listened quietly as one Salvadoran youth described, in Spanish, how Hope in Youth got him back in school. Another told of gang members beating him up for a bicycle. A parent described swapping rooms with her children so they would be farther from the stray bullets whizzing through the streets at night. A young man told of police searching and threatening him because he looked like a gang member.
"This neighborhood needs a lot of help, and it needs it from the federal government," Hugo Pacheco told Cisneros. "It doesn't need a trickle-down program that doesn't trickle down."
And then Maria Ana Gutierrez spoke. Her son was the 14-year-old shot to death in July by an LAPD officer who said the boy pointed a handgun at him.
"He wasn't a member of a gang," Gutierrez said. "I was upstairs and he was crossing the street. The police came and shot him down. . . . I was there when this happened. They shot him in the back."
Cisneros listened quietly before responding in general to the speakers. "I was very concerned with what I was hearing from Washington about the gangs here," he said. "I wanted to come to the neighborhoods and hear from the people living the problem."
Cisneros said he sent a memorandum to President Clinton about his last visit to Los Angeles and has spoken with a Clinton adviser charged specifically with dealing with California problems.
He also has urged Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to visit some of the city's gang-infested areas during her next visit to the region.
"Obviously, that's no way to have to live in America," Cisneros said. "There's no way we can call ourselves a civilized society when parents have to change bedrooms with their children because they're afraid they'll become victims of crimes."