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Wilmington Starts Pulling Itself Together

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Times Staff Writer

Everyone in Wilmington knows the dividing line. It slices this pocket-sized community in two, marking east and west. Flowing straight through the center, Avalon Boulevard is etched on the harbor town’s psyche like sea-green tattoos on the biceps of some of its men.

It is the unofficial border that back in the 1950s separated whites from Latinos, the well-to-do from those living hand-to-mouth. The east-west divide endured for five decades, even as the population turned overwhelmingly Latino. Residents say they are from the east or west side of town. Gangs define themselves by the geography, calling themselves the West Side Wilmas and the East Side Wilmas.

In recent months, however, the generations-old boundary has begun to blur.

The impending opening of a long-fought-for recreation center will help bring parity to the underserved east, where residents often feared crossing Avalon into rival gang territory.

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On both sides, common problems are under attack. After years of rampant illegal dumping, new anti-nuisance laws are being enforced. And the largest gang injunction in Los Angeles has brought a newfound sense of security to the thousands of residents menaced by gang life.

The results are evident. Graffiti are minimal and crime is down. Gang members rarely gather in public view. Families and children play in parks until sunset.

Wilmington’s first farmers market began peddling produce and serving up crepes in September, and a new park dedicated last week marks the first step toward waterfront redevelopment.

“I’ve worked here for the last 25 years, and I’ve never seen such a surge of community pride and optimism and activism,” said Patrick Wilson, an officer on the Wilmington Neighborhood Council and president of the local chamber of commerce. “I think Wilmington’s headed toward a renaissance.”

To outsiders, little distinguishes the east from the west. On one side of Avalon are Mexican restaurants, pupuserias and strip malls. On the other side of Avalon, more Mexican restaurants, pupuserias and strip malls. On the east side of town, large families crowd small, colorful houses. On the west side, it’s much the same.

Looming over it all are the massive cranes and walls of containers of the Port of Los Angeles. The economic engine of the region, the port also is this town’s nemesis, burdening it with the byproducts of world trade: industrial junkyards, heavy truck traffic, noise and air pollution.

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Wilmington, annexed to Los Angeles in 1909 along with San Pedro for the port, has long served as an entry place for Latino immigrants. About 80% of its 56,000 residents are Latino, according to the 2000 U.S. census. The median per capita income is $12,435, about 40% lower than the city’s average. About one-third of children between 11 and 17 live in poverty, and 55% of the community’s adults have not finished high school.

Both sides of town share a recent history of hard times, including the closing of major employers. Along with the port, canneries in San Pedro and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard had long provided immigrants and others with decent jobs. The shipyard closed in 1997, taking 3,000 jobs with it. Several canneries also closed in the 1990s.

That one community, which can be driven from north to south in four minutes, could subdivide itself doesn’t make much sense -- unless you grew up there. Lucy Moreno, a sixth-generation Wilmington resident raised on the east side, speaks of the west side as if it were a prettier twin. The west has better houses, the teen post, the Boys and Girls Center.

“The west side had everything where we had nothing,” said Moreno, whose first name is for Lucy Banning, the daughter of Wilmington’s founder. “When I was a little girl, the only thing we had was Banning Park.”

“I don’t know why, but no one ever fought for the east side, so you don’t know what this means to us now,” she said of the new community center. “This is the most important thing that has happened for the children on the east side that I can remember.”

The east side waited 50 years for a recreation center. Longtime activist Donna Etheridge, like Moreno and others, said gangs would not have had such an enduring grip on generations of youth if there had been other recreational opportunities.

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“People died while waiting for this center to be built,” Etheridge said.

In 1996, $3.3 million was approved for Wilmington as part of a citywide parks bond measure. After a dispute over the size and location of the project, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn guided it to a 1.2-acre parcel at Sanford and Opp streets. The 6,500-square-foot building -- with a gymnasium, full basketball court and meeting rooms -- is scheduled to open early next year. The new center may eliminate a sore point between east and west, but many communitywide issues remain, Hahn said.

“The pollution doesn’t stop between east and west,” Hahn said. “This onslaught of crime and pollution and trucks and crummy streets affects all Wilmington.”

City-installed cameras in notorious dumping zones now catch scofflaws on both sides. “Regardless of whether it’s done in the east or west, the message now is that we’re watching,” Hahn said.

Along with increased code enforcement is intensified law enforcement. Last March, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo obtained the toughest permanent gang injunction in Los Angeles, making it illegal for 250 gang members to congregate in public. Though some say police often target Latino youths with tattoos, police say that overall crime in September dropped 20%, compared with the same month last year.

Homicides fell by a third and car theft dropped about the same. Officers made record numbers of arrests, 1,000 more than the previous year.

“The East Side Wilmas and West Side Wilmas gangs really were very much of a plague, ruining things,” said Harbor Division Capt. Pat Gannon.

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In 2000, 39 of the 45 homicides in Wilmington were attributed to the gangs.

“But if you put the right bad guys in jail, your crime is going to go down,” he said

Police also attribute the drop in crime to the demolition of the Dana Strand housing project in 2002. It had become a stubborn source of drug-dealing and other crime, Gannon said.

Art Zepeda, a former gang outreach worker, grew up in east Wilmington, lives on the west side and has always floated between both. In the 1990s he helped broker a peace treaty that lasted two years. This is not the first time, he said, that gangs have been brought under control. The enduring problem, however, is the lack of jobs for youths who try to leave gang life. An injunction, he said, will not affect gangs’ recruiting in Wilmington schools.

But Zepeda and many residents said Wilmington feels safer. “Before the injunction, by 6 or 7 p.m., the families would be going home,” Roger Jangaou said as he coached a girls’ softball team at Wilmington Park. “The gang members would be out there sitting around while the girls played,” intimidating them.

The menace has not entirely disappeared. Shortly before sunset, Sgt. Michael Porter cruised past three suspected gang members lounging in a driveway. One looked at Porter and raised a beer to his lips in a bold salute. Porter kept going but radioed the violation to other officers, who later swung by the house.

Blocks away, however, children ran to greet him, surrounding his car and peppering him with questions. A girl asked how she could become a police officer.

“First thing you do is you have to stay in school,” Porter said. “You have to listen to your parents, and when you get older, then you come work with me.”

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