Bleak Sight, Big Job : Task Force Tackling Zone of Crime, Blight Near Harbor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spiraling off the exit from the Terminal Island Freeway, drivers are funneled down a narrow dirt road--no turnaround--through stacks of stored railroad containers and makeshift shanties, and into the seedy center of one of Los Angeles' most neglected areas, the "Third World."

Except to visit one of the nearby container companies or auto dismantlers, police say, there is only one reason drivers knowingly take the obscure dogleg off the westbound Anaheim Street exit into this corner of Wilmington: to buy or sell at the open-air market of drugs and prostitution.

In what officials believe to be the first such move in state history, the state Department of Transportation--at the urging of police--plans to close the offramp early this summer to make would-be criminals and others take a winding route to the industrial area. At the same time, a variety of other city, county and state agencies are undertaking the most comprehensive cleanup effort in years of the severely blighted area.

Although Skid Row and some other areas of sprawling Los Angeles are more notoriously underserved, the Third World, as locals and officials alike call it, seems plucked from another continent.

Emaciated mongrels and German shepherds weave their way down dirt streets among transients who appear equally undernourished. On Foote Avenue, the four working street lights do little to fend off the night, heightening the sense that much here is broken. Rusted-out car carcasses, excrement, oil drums and needles are ubiquitous. And the only stroke of color on the area's palate of brown-gray comes from the bright yellow mountains: giant mounds of sulfur at the California Sulfur Co.

"You can't believe you're in the United States," said Domingo Sauceda, principal inspector at the city's Department of Building and Safety.

Department inspectors are visiting every business--legal and not--in the 15-block-by-3-block area bordered by the Dominguez Channel, Grant and Anaheim streets and the Terminal Island Freeway. They are citing property owners for violations ranging from illegal occupancy to illegal toilets. Health officials are providing the transient population with referrals to shelters and clinics. The Bureau of Street Maintenance and the Los Angeles Harbor Department are hauling ton after ton of refuse out of I Street and others that were literally barricaded by garbage.

"We're trying to undo 40 years of community neglect here," said Barry Glickman, spokesman for City Councilman Rudy Svorinich, who assembled the broad-based task force. "They don't call it the Third World for nothing."

Business owners and community leaders, tired of almost daily thefts, weekend cockfights, street brawls and brazen drug dealing and prostitution, hope that this time officials are serious about making a change, although they are concerned that the closure of the offramp may cost them customers. Having seen other such efforts fail, many are less than optimistic.

It will be difficult, they say, to clean up an open-air sewer, as some call it, when much of the area has no sewage system to begin with, many businesses have no running water and the area lacks such basic improvements as sidewalks and storm drains.

"Promises, promises," said Jessie Cadena, owner of Apple Auto Dismantling. "But we'll see, maybe something will happen."

Svorinich's office insists that something will happen this time, and indeed, already has.

"I cannot see anyone who knew what Far East Wilmington looked like six months ago saying it doesn't look better today," the councilman said.

Svorinich began assembling the task force early last year, gathering together a laundry list of city, county and state agencies to address problems that have persisted virtually since Wilmington joined the city of Los Angeles in 1909.

Funded with $350,000--the amount left from a $500,000 allotment Svorinich's predecessor, Joan Milke Flores, rounded up in the late 1980s for a short-lived cleanup effort--and a few hundred thousand dollars from city departments, crews began hitting the streets in December. They cleaned out tons of trash and installed concrete barricades to keep the transient population out of some private properties and off the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that twist through the area.

Building inspector Larry Kellogg, who oversees the 300 legal businesses in the area, has written more than 60 citations for building code violations. Another 60 have been handed out for plumbing and electrical transgressions, he said. And there are 30 to 50 more properties to visit.

"We're going through and every violation we find, we write it up," Kellogg said. "The object is to take and bring these people into compliance . . . and make them a viable business if they can."

The purpose of the crackdown is not to drive out legitimate operations, officials say, but the tattered area has long attracted shops that either can never meet codes or are illegal. So-called chop shops, which strip stolen cars for parts, dot the area, police say.

The most radical move has been the planned closure of part of the offramp that sends cars onto Foote Avenue, where the mid-street drug deals averaged one every few minutes one recent day. With the slow walk of impunity, vendors--many of whom perch on the city-erected barricades that line the street--sidled up to a newly arrived battered Volkswagen and spotless BMW, made the transaction and sidled back to await the next car.

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"We've tried all the traditional approaches: the buy-bust operations, the heavy deployment. It works for a while and then the problems come right back," said Capt. Robert Roupoli of the LAPD's Harbor Division, which has dedicated two officers full time to the effort. "If we shut down the offramp, the buyers will have to take another route that is totally inconvenient."

Those visiting legitimate operations will also be inconvenienced; they will have to take East Anaheim Street, clogged daily because of long-term bridge construction nearby. But many business owners support the planned 18-month trial closure anyway.

This is not the first time change has been promised. Various council members have taken a crack at the Third World--the last being Milke Flores. But officials have never been able to cobble together the big money or organize the myriad government agencies needed. Although business owners and several members of the current task force give Svorinich credit for getting farther than any of his predecessors, the cost of serious improvements--paving streets and installing curbs, sidewalks, street lighting and a sewage system--will be much more difficult. The councilman figures major infrastructure improvements would cost $18 million.

In the era of cash-strapped municipalities, the most likely source of such funds is property tax assessments on neighboring landowners.

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Although some of the business people in the area say they would support such an assessment, most properties are probably not worth their assessed value, Svorinich said. Also, the port, which was snapping up properties just a few years ago and owns nearly a quarter of the land in Far East Wilmington, recently gained approval to sell 215 acres.

Potential new tenants would be assessed for the improvements, and some city officials contend that the land could become prime industrial real estate because of its proximity to the Alameda Corridor rail project. Neighbors disagree, saying that selling the lots will be difficult at best until substantial changes are made.

"Anyone would have to be out of his mind to move in here," said Manuel Louis, owner of Louis Equipment Co. on East Anaheim Street. He, like other business owners, blamed the situation on decades of inattention by the city and the port.

His neighbor, David Stoll, decided that he was out of his mind for staying.

The owner of Stoll Engine Co., also on East Anaheim Street, sued the port for $6 million in 1991, accusing it of deliberately neglecting the Third World in order to drive down property values so it could acquire land at bargain prices--a charge the port denied. No damages were paid, but in a settlement, the port agreed to buy Stoll's property for $680,000--a price he said was probably double what he would have received on the open market, if he could have sold the land at all.

He is in the process of moving his company to Yorba Linda--farther from the sea, he said, but with all the trappings of a workable industrial site and a reduced likelihood of customers being accosted by drug dealers, prostitutes or car thieves.

Nonetheless, he wanted to stay in the place where his grandfather started the family business more than 60 years ago.

"I've been here so many years . . . but I'm being forced out," he said. "I'm bitter. I really am bitter about leaving because it's not my choice."

Others have no plans to leave, hoping this time that the job will get done.

"We come in each morning to see what got stolen," said the dispatcher at one local container company. "Something has to change."

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Cleaning Up the 'Third World'

A laundry list of government agencies is seeking to clean up a blighted corner of Wilmington, known to locals and officials as the "Third World." Plans include closing the off- ramp from the Terminal Island Freeway in an effort to combat drug trafficking.

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