Where gangs ruled, children now play
On a street where gangsters have notoriously ruled for generations, Rosa Recinos lounged in a plastic chair on the sidewalk Saturday morning and soaked in the scene.
“The children are laughing and playing outside,” she said. “This is something you would have never seen here before.”
After nearly 30 years of living on Drew Street in Northeast Los Angeles, the 50-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, like many of her neighbors, has lived through it all on these two blocks.
The Drew Street clique, an Avenues gang run by five interrelated families, wreaked havoc on the neighborhood, turning it into an open-market drug bazaar and turf zone where bullets regularly blasted through cars and apartment buildings. Rarely did families step outside, day or night.
But Saturday, a year after police stormed the Glassell Park neighborhood, rooting out many leaders of the gang with a federal racketeering indictment, Drew Street celebrated with a block party.
Evenings are no longer pierced by the sounds of screeching tires and whirring helicopter blades, residents said. Graffiti that once scarred homes and trees is rare and telephone wires are free of dangling tennis shoes, a signal that drugs were sold nearby.
As of May, violent and property crime in the area had fallen about 45% since early 2008, said Capt. Bill Murphy of the LAPD’s Northeast Division. Despite the dramatic changes, the work is not over.
Police, along with city officials, are working with the neighborhood council and neighborhood watch to unify the community and gain confidence, a difficult task given decades of distrust.
“It’s not a perfect neighborhood, but it’s much, much better,” Murphy said. “It took us a long time to build trust with residents, and we are not going to let it go.”
Following the raid last year, police maintained a daily presence for several weeks with a mobile command center and regular foot patrols.
It was around this time many residents say the neighborhood began to feel safer. More neighbors called police when they saw suspicious activity, unlike in the past, when they feared retaliation.
“No more bullets,” said Luis Ku, as he stepped outside his lavender stucco home to pick up the morning newspaper. He pointed across the street to an apartment building, where one shot left a hole the size of a half dollar, and to his driveway, where a bullet once crushed the side view mirror of his car.
Although things have calmed down, the 53-year-old father of two thinks drug sales are still rampant on the block. He said cars come and go throughout the day and he has seen men down the street negotiate with clients.
“One woman came up to me the other day while I was sitting in the frontyard, looked right at me and said, ‘Hey, you sellin’ marijuana?’ ” Ku said. “I laughed and thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Though gang activity dates back to the zoot suit era in Northeast Los Angeles, Drew Street gained attention last February when a drug-related shootout erupted, leaving two men dead.
At the center of the violence was Maria “Chata” Leon, a mother of 13 with a lengthy arrest record. Her son, Daniel Leon, was one of those killed in the shootout. During at least two raids on her Drew Street home, officers found guns and drugs, along with surveillance cameras and laser trip wires.
Her home was razed after it was declared a public nuisance. Leon was recently imprisoned on federal charges.
Several of her sons who had gang affiliations were killed or locked up.
On Saturday, it was all history as dozens of children bounced on a jumper not far from the plot of land once occupied by the Leons.
Ignacio Ramirez, 62, and his wife, Maria, looked on with relief from the shade of a tree. Over the course of 40 years of living in the neighborhood, their garage was burglarized, their son’s bike was stolen and once, a bullet ricocheted off the pavement and landed in their front door.
They raised three sons who graduated from college. A decade ago, one bought a home on the same block.
“We made an investment when we chose to move here,” Ramirez said. “We never had problems with anyone and had no reason to run away, especially now that things are better.”