At an impoverished housing complex, a reflection of South L.A.

Pueblo del Rio, one of the oldest and largest public housing developments in Los Angeles, has been beset with crippling poverty and gang violence for much of its 67 years. Audio slide show >>>
Pueblo del Rio, one of the oldest and largest public housing developments in Los Angeles, has been beset with crippling poverty and gang violence for much of its 67 years.
Audio slide show >>>
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Alex Vargas sprinted across the grass to the front of an apartment. He leaned ever so gently against the door. “It’s open,” he said, and his breath quickened. He locked eyes with another officer who was standing across the stoop, gun held tight against his thigh. “I’m going in,” Vargas said.

The gunshots had erupted in a courtyard at Pueblo del Rio, one of the oldest and largest public housing developments in Los Angeles, a place beset with crippling poverty and gang violence for much of its 67 years. It was late on a Friday, and it had been a quiet night. Now it looked as though someone had kicked over an anthill.

Looky-loos streamed in. So did police. There were obstacles everywhere: shell casings you weren’t supposed to step on; old-timey wire clotheslines, neck-high, that you didn’t want to run into. A police helicopter banked overhead; everyone winced at its burst of white light, then pushed on through the dark.


Witnesses shouted out stories that could not all be true. The shooter had fled east, toward the old flour mill. No, west, toward the tracks. It was a handgun. No, a rifle. They agreed on one thing: The victim had been shot in the back and stumbled into one of these apartments. Vargas, a 16-year LAPD veteran, had found the right place. He had no idea what he’d find on the other side of the door.

Gang violence has fallen in this corner of South L.A., and civic leaders are laboring to secure some semblance of lasting peace and community -- through new police tactics and city-funded gang-prevention, job-training and other programs.

Defusing Pueblo del Rio is a less daunting proposition than it would have been in years past. But it still comes with complexities: the three gangs that call “the Pueblos” home, the insular families who’ve been here from the start. The community reflects what lies ahead for South L.A.: an unlikely sense of quiet and optimism most days, tempered by startling episodes that threaten to plunge the neighborhood back into the more familiar narrative of violence.

A ‘garden city’

Vargas pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The bullets had crashed through the windows, past lace curtains above the washing machine and a fly swatter hanging over the stove. One had ripped through the side of the fridge, landing in a colander full of russet potatoes. Another had found the pantry and become lodged inside a canister of pink sprinkles, the kind you put on cupcakes.

A third slammed into Nicole Horne’s shoulder.

Horne, 25, was born and raised here -- the third generation of her family to live in this apartment. She’d been in the courtyard when a fight erupted; the bullets were not meant for her. She’d stumbled inside, then collapsed onto the bare tile floor of the living room.


“It burns!” she screamed. “Where is the ambulance?”

Horne’s wounds were not fatal. Vargas helped soothe her until paramedics arrived. He needed to get back to the streets, and there was nothing more he could do here anyway. But as he steered his cruiser away, he suspected this wasn’t the last he’d hear of this. The area where Horne had been shot was controlled by the Pueblo Bishops, the community’s dominant gang.

“They’ll kill each other for this,” Vargas said.

To understand Pueblo del Rio today, it helps to understand what it once was: a monument, when it opened in 1942, to the West’s World War II-era can-do ingenuity.

The concept was lofty: housing for the masses, not fancy but functional, occupied largely by workers drawn by the nearby defense yards; a “garden city” on 17.5 acres at Alameda and East 55th streets, where 390 apartments would open front and back onto green space. The architects were recognized visionaries, men such as Paul Revere Williams and Richard Neutra, the Vienna-born designer who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

From the start, Pueblo del Rio’s fate mirrored that of South L.A.

Demand meant expansion; in 1954, 270 more apartments were built on an additional 16.6 acres. Jobs and opportunity meant diversity; Pueblo del Rio was almost entirely African American at a time when white families in L.A. were beginning to look elsewhere to make their homes.

The downward spiral began soon enough. The factories shut down and jobs became scarce. Communal housing for the poor no longer looked ingenious; it looked naive. Some politicians began calling such housing “socialist.”

Money ran short. Rats moved in. In the 1970s, even the playground got paved over. At the height of the crack epidemic, dealers and junkies roamed the grounds.


Violent outbursts became routine -- in 1988, when gangsters got into a full-fledged shootout with rifles and Molotov cocktails; in 1991, when two teenagers, one just 14, were arrested after a firebomb killed a woman and her 11-month-old daughter inside one apartment.

Tensions between police and the community boiled over too -- in 1991, when SWAT officers wearing balaclava hoods barreled into one apartment in the middle of the night, searching for a man who did not live there; in 2003, when residents threw bottles and batteries at officers who had shot a man who’d fired at them.

Pueblo del Rio became a deeply impoverished place; the average family income of $17,405 is less than a third of the Los Angeles County average.

Gangs took root: the Bishops, which formed in the 1970s to protect against outsiders; then the Oriental Boyz, a small gang composed mostly of Cambodian Americans raised by refugees from the Khmer Rouge. Most recently, Florencia 13 has begun inching in as Latinos have come to constitute 78% of the Pueblos’ population of roughly 2,100. All three gangs are among the targets of a new police injunction restricting the movements and activities of members across a 13.7-square-mile area of South L.A., including Pueblo del Rio.

Fear of retaliation

Today, some residents say the aroma of meth labs fills the courtyards; they dare not tell the police, they say, because they would be killed. There are new playgrounds, but some parents say gang members have charged them $5 to bring their toddlers there. Gunshots can still erupt without warning.


“When it pops off here, it pops off,” said LAPD Sgt. Art Silva.

Lifelong residents often seem dismayed over their circumstances -- and, at the same time, proud of what they’ve managed to do with the place.

“We ain’t looking for 40 acres and a mule,” longtime resident J.D. Price said one recent afternoon as he gave a neighbor’s son a haircut on his front porch. “We’re just looking for a chance -- to live and to work, not to sell drugs to our own to get by. A lot of people here would be surprised if they ever made it out. So it’s a city within a city. That’s how I look at it.”

After emigrating from Guatemala, Zoila Hunt raised her son here. She worked hard, packing hot towels and bulk shipments of plastic bags at downtown factories, which left her fingers knotted with arthritis. She’s lived here 18 years; her son is now a Border Patrol agent, and she has become a U.S. citizen.

“I love this country for what it gave to my son,” she said. Asked about raising a boy in the Pueblos, she said: “I never let him out of my sight. Nunca. Never.”

A young place

These days, most of the time, Pueblo del Rio works -- in its own way.

The tiny garden plots the architects insisted on installing in front of the 109 low-slung apartment buildings are full of roses and baby palm trees. Overhead, sycamores planted during the Truman administration are now mature and shady.

Recent years have brought numerous improvements: new plumbing and wiring in some apartments, a resurfacing of the basketball court. There are three preschools, two of them Head Start programs. Officials recently added new lights with bullet-resistant shields.


The Pueblos is a young place -- nearly half of its residents are under 18 -- and each day after school, children race to apartments where residents open their living room windows and, through the burglary bars, sell chips and candy, even kites.

In the courtyards, old Cambodian American men sit cross-legged on the grass on sunny afternoons and play ouk chatrang, which is similar to chess.

On a recent weekend, the tight-knit Asian community celebrated the Cambodian New Year, traditionally marking the end of the harvest season.

In a scraggly courtyard next to an abandoned rail yard, residents erected an altar with palm fronds, coconuts and sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. Under a canopy, they danced and played traditional games, one akin to duck-duck-goose, with the added component of a weighted scarf with which they would playfully whack friends on the backside.

Asians had invited over African American and Latino friends -- no small gesture here -- and served them heaping plates of chicken and beef skewers.

“When I first got here, I was very scared,” said one of the celebrators, 62-year-old Sroeung Kov. His family, like thousands of others, fled Phnom Penh when Khmer Rouge soldiers seized the city in 1975. After a harrowing six years on the run and in refugee camps, he landed at Pueblo del Rio in 1981.

“Year by year, it’s gotten more peaceful here,” he said. “Now, it is not like it was before. We still don’t have money. No one here has money. But we do the best we can.”