|Photo by Vince Valladolid|
On a recent afternoon a Latino woman and her son wearily shuffle past a makeshift shrine in front of a shabby apartment complex on the 700 block of Vendome Street. The shrine, nearly obscured by a discarded mattress and other litter, is dedicated to Valentin Rangel, a member of the Silver Lake 13 gang. He died there in a hail of bullets over Labor Day weekend, two months shy of his 26th birthday. A half-dozen Mexican religious candles, a few still burning, decorate the scene. A photo of a smiling Rangel is propped up next to them. Scattered alongside the photo are personal mementos two skateboarding magazines, a pair of black sunglasses and a Holy Bible. RIP Val is spray-painted on the street in front of the memorial. Across the street, on the corner of Vendome and Marathon, a small bouquet of wildflowers and one Mexican candle mark the spot where Rangels brother Mario was gunned down 13 years earlier by rival gang members and where Valentin himself was shot before stumbling across the street to his apartment complex.
A deep fly ball from there, the type of urban hipsters who have earned Silver Lake its bonhomie-boho image obliviously sip café con leches at the Tropical Café and discuss Tsars latest show at Spaceland. The two scenes illuminate the stubborn contrast between Silver Lakes chic main drag and the neighborhood south of Sunset Boulevard. In the streets abutting Vendome and Marathon, a spate of gang violence that started on Labor Day weekend has been responsible for several drive-bys, a car bombing, two deaths, and the rattled nerves of longtime residents and more recent arrivals who hoped the checkered neighborhood had made the transition from barrio to bourgeois.
Though gang activity has long been a part of the landscape in Silver Lake, particularly south of Sunset, residents say the recent violence, which has sent at least 40 gunshots echoing through the neighborhood, is unprecedented. On August 29, the first six shots took the life of Rangel. Another gang-related shooting possibly tied to Rangels murder only a week later and just blocks away on Bellevue left an Angelino Heights gang member injured and his friend, 28-year-old Juan Monsivais, dead. More recently, members of La Mirada gang unloaded a hail of bullets across a busy park at an SUV they believed to be carrying enemy gang members.
The level of gang violence occurring in this area, while far from the citys worst, is happening at the same time property values have gone up 33 percent this year alone and bargain homes are selling for more than a half-million dollars just north of Sunset. The unexpected rash of violence here illustrates a gangs-versus-gentrification drama thats likely to play out in other neighborhoods across the city as the overheated housing market pushes prospective new homeowners deeper into the fringes of long-held gang turf.
I think that people thought the property values would automatically help with a problem like gangs, and I guess thats not necessarily the case. They can still come into the neighborhood and do what they want, said Linda Froiland, who moved here three years ago from Minnesota and who is co-president of the Silver Lake Improvement Association.
Police are unsure how or even if the recent violence is connected. Locals, though, point to a heated graffiti-tagging war between rival gangs in the area, one headed by Rangel, as the spark.
By all accounts, and judging from the audacious way hed sign his name to his tags, Rangel was the main provocateur in the graffiti battle that at first presented locals with more of a nuisance than a threat when it flared up six months ago. His signature tag, SL13Val, sprayed on the cars, homes and businesses in streets around Vendome and Marathon became a common sight in the neighborhood. It was often scrawled over 18th Street gang graffiti. A former gang member familiar with the area says Rangel was asserting control of the area for recruiting, to sell drugs and claim the street.
The gang member, who asked not to be identified, believes that four gangs are currently vying for the drug trade that has been going on in the area since the 1970s, when the 18th Street gang ruled the streets. At one time, a dealer could make $800 a night selling dope on the corner of Vendome and Marathon with little threat of being arrested. Recently, the Aztlán gang had controlled the drug trafficking there, but neighborhood activists and cops worked with a local landlord this past spring to evict the last remaining active Aztlán member, who dealt out of his apartment on Vendome.