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A community kept at a distance in its own city

Times Staff Writer

Iglesia Park feels like a neighborhood without a town.

Stuck on the northern tip of master-planned Aliso Viejo and up against the walled-in retirement city of Laguna Woods, the community of 450 one-story duplexes is mostly working-class Latinos, surrounded by the wealthy, white and retired.

When Luisa Perez moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, she and her husband, Jose, both Mexican immigrants, were among a handful of Latino newcomers, and they didn’t get a warm reception.

One of her white neighbors said they didn’t belong and told them to “go to Santa Ana.”

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Since then, the neighborhood has undergone a huge demographic shift as white residents have given way to Latinos.

The economic disparity and language barrier between residents of Iglesia Park and the rest of Aliso Viejo have kept many residents from feeling a part of the city.

Iglesia Park is the only neighborhood that does not belong to the influential Aliso Viejo Community Assn., because it was not part of the original master-planned development. When Aliso Viejo became Orange County’s newest city six years ago, Iglesia Park came with it.

Most of the residents’ kids attend public schools in neighboring Laguna Hills. Half their mail still gets addressed to bordering cities, a remnant of the old days. Many of them work at restaurants and stores in wealthier communities nearby that other Aliso Viejo residents patronize. The neighborhood is majority Latino in a city that is almost 80% white.

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“There are many things that are out of our reach,” said Perez, a preschool teacher and mother of five.

Her family can’t afford to pay for Aliso Viejo’s soccer leagues, and they balk at the cost of family outings in a city with a median income of nearly $80,000; a family trip to the city’s Ice Palace skating rink would run them nearly $100.

The city of 45,000 has worked to claim Iglesia Park as its own, locating its first community center there, and holding bilingual self-help classes for residents. The Boys & Girls Club operates an after-school program for neighborhood youths.

Aliso Viejo Mayor Carmen Cave said the city had made a significant effort to reach out to Iglesia Park. “When we went through the incorporation process, we knew we would need to do some extraordinary outreach,” she said. “We knew we would need to make sure to have programs that would make them feel they were part of Aliso Viejo.”

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But many residents feel left out.

“They just wanted the park,” Amanda Gonzalez, a 20-year resident, said of the shady strip of hilly land that holds a playground, baseball diamond, tennis and handball courts that gives the neighborhood its name.

Built in the early 1970s as housing for workers and relatives of seniors living at the massive retirement complex then known as Leisure World, the neighborhood, with its relatively low cost of living and proximity to service jobs, became an anomaly in southern Orange County, where bedroom communities and spacious homes are the norm.

While many families came for the neighborhood’s quiet streets, park and affordable housing, some are thinking of leaving now that crime, noise and overcrowding are moving in.

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“People know it as the ghetto of Aliso Viejo,” Gonzalez said. “The police are here all the time.”

Although crime has decreased in the last year, the Sheriff’s Department is receiving more calls, a sign that residents are being more watchful, said Sgt. D.J. Haldeman of the Aliso Viejo station.

According to 2000 Census data, the neighborhood population is about 1,700; but residents think it’s nearly twice that. Dumpsters are always full, parking is hard to find even though every home has a detached garage, and there are more people on the streets walking and biking.

That frustrates Gonzalez, a Colombian immigrant who came to this country legally and bemoans the fact that many of her neighbors are undocumented.

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“I’m cordial, but a lot of my neighbors are illegals and all have several renters living with them,” she said.

Some of the remaining whites, such as Sheila LaNier, say the language barrier has prevented them from getting to know many of their new neighbors.

“I don’t speak Spanish well, but I’ve noticed a huge change, and it just doesn’t seem as close-knit as it used to be.”

Gloria Vega, who rents out two of her three bedrooms, lamented the fact that a once quiet neighborhood has become crowded and noisy, and the park sometimes is used by drinkers and marijuana users.

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“When I would tell people I lived in Aliso Viejo, they would think I was rich,” she said. “But now all the Americans have left, and now there is trash, beer cans and clothes hanging outside.”

When a rash of gang-related graffiti hit the park’s tennis and handball courts about two years ago, the city organized a well-attended meeting to inform parents what they could do to stop their kids from getting caught up in gangs.

An artist painted over the graffiti with an idyllic mural made by children’s thumbprints, in an effort to beautify the handball court, which had become a canvas for taggers. But that, too, was partially covered with white paint after the graffiti reappeared.

Other efforts to help the neighborhood blend with the city have also been frustrated. Luisa Perez, who works at the community center, learned English by taking community college classes and wanted to help others do the same.

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But others have not shown the same enthusiasm, she said. When she tried to organize three-times-a-week English classes, no one came.

Now she is considering moving.

“I moved here because I could walk in the park at midnight,” she said. “Now I’m afraid to.”

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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