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Not Easy Street, but Blythe Sees Better Days

The signs are literal. Some say “No Parking at Any Time” and seem out of place on a comfortably wide street lined with apartment buildings. More distinctive signs can be found attached to light poles:

CURFEW

Only Residents Allowed

8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

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By Order of Superior Court

And beneath that, the Spanish translation.

More important, people here say, is what you can’t see. No longer do gang members crowd around cars with boom boxes blasting. No longer do drug customers cruise the street. No longer are stolen cars hustled behind apartments to be stripped for parts.

What a difference four years make. That was when the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and police teamed up for a crackdown on the notorious Blythe Street gang using the kind of creative, controversial tactics that only last Thursday were validated by the California Supreme Court. By a 4-3 decision, the high court ruled that cities can continue to use public nuisance laws to obtain injunctions against suspected gang members that, in effect, make otherwise legal activities illegal.

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“It’s wonderful good news,” says Jule Bishop, an assistant city attorney who has prosecuted many of the Blythe Street gangsters.

Bishop helped enforce injunctions that were placed on more than 100 members of the Blythe Street gang that made them liable for arrest for such usually lawful activities as gathering in groups of three or more, wearing pagers, carrying flashlights, standing on rooftops or carrying an auto part without a receipt. Prosecutors explain that pagers were used for drug connections, flashlights for signaling, and rooftops as lookouts.

Although the ruling directly addressed a San Jose case, it means the Blythe Street injunctions can stay in effect as well. But it would be a mistake, Bishop is quick to add, to think that Blythe Street was rescued by police and prosecutors alone. Other government workers played important roles as well, as did nonprofit agencies, some nuns and landlords and tenants.

The notorious blocks of Blythe Street are directly across Van Nuys Boulevard from the old GM Powertrain site, now vacant and awaiting development. Nearby is the shuttered United Auto Workers hall. This is a neighborhood of poor people, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Slumlords are still being prosecuted, some drugs are still sold, and young men still loiter and make people suspicious. “It’s a lot better now. . . . But they’re still hanging around,” says Gloria Padilla, Blythe’s letter carrier for the last five years.

To understand how far the street has come, consider that the injunction prohibited gang members from entering apartments without written permission of the tenants. In the bad old days, Police Det. Craig Rhudy says, law-abiding people were so fearful of the gang that nobody dared accuse them of trespassing. When officers made a drug raid, the gangsters would simply run inside the nearest door.

In early 1992, Bishop says, a teenage girl was gang-raped on the street. Residents heard screams but no one called police.

Law enforcement along Blythe Street was hit and miss then. Police considered it so dangerous that even routine calls were thought to require backup. There were occasional drug busts, and some slumlords were prosecuted.

A crime in October 1992, Bishop says, provided a catalyst for the crackdown. Don Aragon was a well-known and well-liked landlord. He had been known to give odd jobs to gang members who looked hungry. Still, a gang member shot and killed him.

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A few months later, the city attorney’s office brought the injunction tactic to Blythe Street. Building and Safety inspectors intensified their work, and a pair of two-officer foot beats were brought to the neighborhood. The busiest drug dealers split. Soon, residents and officers were on a first-name basis. Overcoming their fear, residents quickly called officers when they spotted trouble. Dozens of gang members were successfully prosecuted for violating terms of the injunction.

This was just a start. In the months that followed, groups such as Immaculate Heart Community and the San Fernando Valley Partnership brought youth programs and classes in English and parenting into the neighborhood. A striking 50-unit, $7.5-million affordable housing complex, financed partly by the city and by federal tax incentives, was built in a partnership of the nonprofit Latin American Civic Assn. and Nelson Network Inc., a private developer. It now houses a Head Start program and provides space for Senior Lead Officer George Flores of the LAPD.

Older children are encouraged to get involved in sports and tutoring programs provided by the LAPD and the Blythe Street Prevention Project.

The idea, of course, is to steer kids away from the gang life. Drive down Blythe Street and look beneath the No Parking signs and that’s what you see, a lot of children and mothers pushing strollers, all with so much potential to do right or wrong.

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number.


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