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A Complex Portrait of Rampart’s Redemption

Times Staff Writer

Big, bad Rampart is no more. Home to MacArthur Park, once home to the city’s densest murder cluster, the Los Angeles police division has undergone a transformation so broad that for the last two years, homicides per capita have fallen to the citywide average.

Measured in murder, Rampart is now safer than Boyle Heights and is nearly as safe as the harbor area, a Times analysis shows. Although a blue ribbon report on policing in Rampart credited the LAPD for the turnaround, Rampart’s crime has been falling in spurts for 15 years, with the most dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, before Chief William J. Bratton took over.

The change is especially striking because a high percentage of Rampart residents are poor minorities living in crowded and unforgiving circumstances -- conditions linked to large homicide figures elsewhere.

Bratton can take credit for “broken windows” policing in MacArthur Park and the installation of surveillance cameras, but the broader story of Rampart is one of intercontinental migrations, wars, real estate booms and stock market crashes.

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The protagonists are not just police, but tamale vendors and Orange County businessmen, draft dodgers and dry cleaners, big companies and small-time investors. Rampart’s history crystallizes just how much has changed in Los Angeles in the years since a corrupt gang officer made its name notorious. And it lays bare the way chance and economics interact with police.

The LAPD’s Rampart Division spans eight square miles of a once-graceful neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Normandie Avenue on the west and the Harbor Freeway on the east.

By the 1970s, Rampart was an entry point for Central American immigrants. In 1979, El Salvador’s civil war broke out, in part over arbitrary, brutal law enforcement, said David Pedersen, UC San Diego anthropology professor and an El Salvador expert.

Salvadorans’ distrust of police went beyond that of the typical immigrant. Det. Maritza Esparra, then a Rampart officer, recalled a high-risk felony traffic stop. Officers, following standard procedures, told a family to kneel. The family members wept and joined hands.

“They were saying to each other, ‘Goodbye, I love you!’ ” Esparra recalled. She and her partner exchanged mystified glances. Then they got it. The family believed they were about to be executed. “I will never forget it,” she said. “I felt so bad.”

A second wave of Salvadorans flowed north in the 1980s: the lost boys, teenagers who fled their country alone to avoid being drafted. These boys organized into street-fighting groups, then gangs, said Rick Ramos, a longtime Rampart gang detective: Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street, Temple Street, the Playboys and the Drifters.

The gangs ruled black market businesses around the park. By the time the Salvadoran peace treaty was signed in 1992, MacArthur Park was divvied up like a Risk board. Even poor tamale cart vendors were shaken down for “taxes.”

Police also heard stories of old political enemies meeting by accident, torturers meeting the tortured. People sought to do to others what had been done to them back in El Salvador -- a perverse twist on the golden rule, whose text looms over the park, inscribed on the face of the Park Plaza Hotel. Said Esparra: “They would just kill each other on the street.”

By the end of the decade, big corporate tenants, insurance companies and banks had fled the Wilshire corridor, buildings stood empty and investors were taking a beating. Transients squatting in abandoned structures caused much of the division’s crime.

Partners Scott Schwartz and Michael Kamen bought an office building on MacArthur Park in 1989 that proceeded to lose 80% of its value. Not knowing what else to do, they held on glumly, bleeding money.

By the early 1990s, MacArthur Park was becoming “almost ‘Blade Runner'-like,” said David Marquez, a former City Council field deputy who is now a consultant to the nonprofit group Carecen.

The park wasn’t merely the average open-air drug market. It was a regional crime emporium. Drugs, stolen goods, fake IDs and prostitutes -- “anything and everything” illegal was available, Officer Mike Wang said.

In 1991 and 1992, homicides in Rampart peaked at world-class levels of savagery, with 138 deaths in 1992 alone. Bodies were found floating in the lake. At one point, detectives made their own grid map of the park showing every rock and tree, just trying to keep track of all the murder scenes.

Police were defeated by what Lt. Paul Vernon called “the overwhelming-ness of it all.” Rampart officers were stretched to the limit. In 1991, they handled 50% more calls per officer than their counterparts would a decade later. It took them hours to respond to low-priority calls.

“I could never understand why the conditions I saw were allowed to exist in Rampart, where they wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute in West Los Angeles or the Valley,” said Lt. Brian Gilman, who worked in Rampart at the time. “Then it became obvious.... Nobody was voting.”

Away from Rampart’s embattled streets, though, a new set of geopolitical and economic forces were combining in the area’s favor.

For years, poverty, repression and restrictive university admissions had driven Koreans into exile in neighborhoods just west and south of Rampart. They didn’t have money, but they had education. They operated liquor stores in “the Korean way,” said LAPD Officer Jason Lee, the child of such entrepreneurs: 24 hours, seven days a week, with family members sleeping in shifts. In the late 1990s, their efforts were starting to pay off.

Businessman Simon Lee, 40, immigrated at the age of 10 when his parents opened a small grocery store. Eventually, he went to Harvard Law School.

In 1995, he bought one of the cheapest shopping centers he could find -- a mostly vacant two-story building on 8th Street east of Koreatown and just south of MacArthur Park.

The owner was so desperate to sell that he helped finance the deal. Three gangs were fighting over the shopping center’s turf. “The DMZ,” Lee called it.

The Harvard law graduate slept on the floor above the coin laundry to ward off burglars. Quarters shoved into detergent vending machines paid for security. Lee slashed the rents and painted the walls himself.

A few farsighted Korean business people were starting to see the potential of entrepreneurs like Simon Lee and his tenants. About 1994, another Korean-born entrepreneur, Dr. David Lee, decided to buy offices along Wilshire Boulevard, betting on immigrants to fill vacancies. Lee, 51, wasn’t put off by the killings to the east. “I am used to this area,” he said. “It doesn’t scare me.”

Dr. Lee was to show the city a model for reviving commercial real estate in the core. His company, Jamison Properties, would come to own some 6 million to 7 million square feet of Mid-Wilshire office space.

Koreatown banks were also on the rise. Nara Bank, for example, made small-business loans that no conventional bank would touch. In the mid-1990s, the bank had only $80 million in deposits and was roughing it. Bonnie Lee, chief credit officer, remembers a bullet zinging through a boardroom window during a meeting in a Rampart office.

But in July 1997, the Thai currency was devalued. By fall, the stock market in Seoul had crashed. Investors fled. A new wave of Korean immigrants, this time with money, combined with the old, Bonnie Lee said. Nara Bank’s deposits would eventually swell to their current heights -- $1.65 billion. People started using a new trendy nickname: “K-Town.”

Also by the late 1990s, Rampart officers weren’t as busy and responded more quickly. The immigrants had changed too. El Salvador had peace and police reform. The open-air drug markets gave way to pagers and car deliveries.

The decade had seen considerable effort by community groups, police and government agencies to clean up Rampart. The city aggressively wielded nuisance laws to address problem buildings and clear abandoned ones.

New buyers found Rampart’s prices bargains.

In 1998, news broke that Rampart Officer Rafael Perez had stolen cocaine from an evidence locker.

For the next few years, the wider scandal would dominate headlines.

Esparra, the former Rampart officer, recalled that people on the street would threaten to call police as an intimidation technique -- like calling in thugs. “You lost momentum, and an opportunity to work more strongly with the immigrant community,” said Marquez, the consultant.

But earlier police-community ties held. As the 1990s closed, a group called the Institute for Urban Research and Development began organizing the tamale vendors in the park. Eventually, the vendors opened Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe on the south side of the park. Boats and children’s soccer leagues also replaced drug dealing.

Larger market forces were beginning to close in on Rampart. The area was now lodged between two of the hottest development markets in the region: downtown and K-Town. A subway ran through it. It had new schools, classy old buildings and newly restored neon signs. Home Depot opened in 2001, then a Starbucks.

There was also the park -- the mirror lake, the curving paths, the long shadows of palm trees striping the grass and the red-tailed hawks bathing at the crown of the fountain. In 2000, Schwartz and Kamen, long-suffering owners of the white elephant office building on Wilshire Boulevard, decided to turn the building into the American Cement Building Lofts.

Lofts were just catching on. This one had views of the park, and a hip, midcentury design. Schwartz and Kamen had looked like dupes. Now they look like geniuses. “One of the coolest buildings in the city,” said Dan Rosenfeld, principal at Urban Partners, which is building a $105-million development to the east.

Other loft projects followed. People began to buy apartment buildings and renovate them. Apartments that once went for $500 a month were renting for $1,200.

“This area got battered by a 40-year cycle of neglect,” Rosenfeld said. “But when people dusted it off, they found the bones were still good.”

The tenant mix was changing. Evictions, renovations and higher rents brought new, commute-weary professionals. They reported crime. They voted. Rampart remained largely poor and Latino. But now the poor were being sorted and sifted.

Dennis Llanes, building manager of an apartment on Lucas Avenue, said new owners in 2000 slowly fixed the place up and evicted problem tenants. Now, he says, the occupants are mostly students at Loyola and USC.

In late 2002, Bratton became police chief. In New York, he had been credited with a turnaround. Now, “he wanted to put his name to something,” said LAPD Officer Mike Wang. MacArthur Park was in the spotlight.

Wang was made one of three senior lead officers overseeing the park in 2003 under then-Rampart Capt. Charles Beck. Constant, consistent enforcement for all violations of the law were the marching orders, Wang recalled -- classic “broken windows” policing theory.

But Beck also believed in giving officers more discretion -- a risky strategy in a department that had moved steadily the other way in the wake of the scandal, tightening controls and standardizing.

Wang, a former accountant who was educated at UCLA, was among to whom Beck gave more rein.

He and other officers marshaled federal grants and secured a private partnership to install surveillance cameras.

The park was lighted. Trees were trimmed. Police conducted “reverse buys” to catch drug customers, arrested people over stolen shopping carts, wrote loitering tickets and enforced probation terms.

“We changed what was viewed as acceptable,” Beck said.

Jerry Fink of the Bascom Group, which has bought Rampart apartments, put it differently. “What really turned around that area is not a magical force,” he said. “It was that people saw they could buy properties, renovate them and make money.”

Not too long ago, Donna Wong, formerly the city attorney’s neighborhood prosecutor there, saw an astonishing sight: A jogger. He was white and was wearing athletic shorts and headphones, she said.

“He looked like a graduate student,” she recalled with wonder. “He was jogging laps around the park in the evening.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A new rampart

Rampart Division, which at one time had one of the city’s highest homicide rates, has experienced a dramatic drop in killings since the mid-90’s. This year the homicide rate is nearly equivalent to the rate for the rest of L.A.

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Demographics

Rampart

Population: 231,282

% poor: 36%

% Latino: 72%

Rest of L.A.

Population: 3,461,506

% poor: 21%

% Latino: 45%

Sources: Los Angeles Police Department, 2000 Census. Data analysis by Doug Smith


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