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Fear still lingers for many in Harbor Gateway

Times Staff Writer

Two blocks from where 14-year-old Cheryl Green was shot to death a year ago stands a symbol of the Harbor Gateway neighborhood where she died.

The fourplex on 204th Street is one of many apartment buildings erected in this small and crowded neighborhood during the last 20 years. The building has a new coat of yellow paint, yet faintly visible beneath its surface is the graffiti that a year ago covered the building.

It was the work of 204th Street, a Latino gang that terrorized the neighborhood and was known to attack blacks. An upstairs unit in the complex was its unofficial headquarters, police say.

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On Dec. 15, 2006, two members allegedly gunned down Cheryl as she stood talking with friends. Police say the youth accused of shooting the black teen had used a gun acquired at the fourplex.

A year later, building and neighborhood improvements are evident. Members of 204th Street no longer hang out at the apartment complex. Many are in prison or jail. Two await trial on murder and hate-crime charges in Cheryl’s death.

Following her killing, intense police pressure on the gang “drove them underground,” said Dan Robbins, the Los Angeles Police Department officer who investigated 204th Street. “We’d go for days without seeing a gang member.”

But police and residents say the gang lurks like the graffiti beneath the yellow paint, ready to reemerge when public resources are directed elsewhere.

“It’s like a weed,” said Charlene Lovett, Green’s mother, who has since moved. “If you don’t get it from the ground and uproot it, it’s going to regrow.”

Uprooting it will be difficult. During the last 20 years, private developers and Los Angeles’ declining industrial economy weakened this once-strong neighborhood, leaving it poorer, cramped, transient and more fertile turf for gang activity. The lesson from the Cheryl Green case is that “we need to think long and hard about our land-use decisions” and how they help gangs flourish, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said. “What that geography looks like is important.”

Few local gang crimes in recent years have generated as much media attention as Cheryl’s killing.

Within weeks of the fatal shooting, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and other officials stood at the Del Amo Market that the 204th Street gang had declared off-limits to blacks. They vowed to crack down on gang violence.

“We are coming with everything we have,” Villaraigosa said.

The 204th Street gang was tiny by L.A. standards, with about 100 members. But its activities reflected a reality that has emerged in L.A. County in the last 15 years.

Latino street gangs, while feuding with each other, are now also the chief perpetrators of hate crime, especially against blacks, according to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Black residents of Harbor Gateway told reporters that the 204th Street gang terrified them. Gang members shot at them, yelled racist insults and sprayed racist graffiti on walls, they said. Since 1997, roughly one black person a year has been killed in what appears to be a race-related crime, police say.

Members of 204th Street said they were feuding with a black gang known as the 208th Street Crips. But police and black residents said that the black gang had long faded away.

Black residents said they feared walking outside. They closely watched passing cars of Latino youths and they didn’t use the Del Amo Market, the neighborhood’s only store.

Cheryl’s killing brought the neighborhood’s problems to light.

The Los Angeles Police Department formed a list of the city’s 11 most dangerous gangs that included 204th Street, along with powerhouses such as 18th Street, Grape Street Crips and MS13.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn promised more resources for the Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

The LAPD promised more patrols.

Delgadillo vowed to seek an injunction against the 204th Street gang.

A year later, the promises have been kept.

There are more street lights in the neighborhood, along with regular street sweeping and graffiti removal. Abandoned furniture is hauled off more quickly. And the LAPD’s Harbor Division now stations a patrol car in the area.

“There’s less violence. We see more patrols. That’s good,” said John Mendoza, a neighborhood resident since 1999.

This fall, Hahn announced that a real estate management company donated land for a community center. The City Council approved money to build the center, slated to open this summer.

This month, Delgadillo asked the court for an injunction against the 204th Street gang to prohibit its members from congregating in the area, or face a year in jail. A Feb. 6 court hearing is scheduled.

Difficult to overcome “is the psychological fear that people lived through in the last 10 years,” said Najee Ali, a black community activist, at a candlelight vigil for Cheryl on the one-year anniversary of her death.

Still, black residents report less intimidation. Members of 204th Street haven’t been seen at the Del Amo Market in months.

“If you get afraid, it’s like they win,” said one black resident leaving the market on a recent afternoon, who nonetheless requested anonymity.

Built in the 1950s, the 12-square-block neighborhood is still struggling with overcrowding, poverty and rising rents. The community is made up mostly of working-class Latinos.

From 1984 to 1992, about 75 single-family homes were torn down and replaced with apartment buildings -- adding more than 500 units, according to city planning records.

Many of the new residents were black and recipients of federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Their arrival sparked tensions among gang members and longtime residents.

At the same time, the city added no parks, schools, libraries or retail stores.

Today, the neighborhood is made up mostly of families crammed together paying at least $1,200 a month for two-bedroom apartments. The result is a community full of renters that is vulnerable, fragmented and in need of more city services.

“It’s saturated,” said Loretta Smith, who lives in a three-unit apartment building. The other two units house a combined 13 people, she said.

Police say the apartments bring in many youths who, with parents working, are potential gang recruits. Plus, when a house or duplex is about to be redeveloped, the owner often keeps it empty for months -- while it can become a new hangout for gangs.

Also, densely packed apartments make policing difficult.

“In terms of patrolling the area, that’s probably one of the biggest issues, the density and the way they’re laid out,” said LAPD Sgt. Paul McKechnie, Harbor Division’s gang-unit supervisor.

And in the last year, more homes have been torn down and replaced by four-unit town houses.

Such issues make Cheryl’s mother wonder whether all that has been done in the last year can change the neighborhood where her daughter died.

“There is still a sense of fear over there,” Lovett said. “Who has the money to just get up and go find somewhere else to live?”

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sam.quinones@latimes.com


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