Photo by Robert YagerIT HAD BEEN WEEKS SINCE ARTURO VISITED THE Pico-Union neighborhood in which he grew up. It was hard not to see his friends, but going back was risky. Before he moved away a couple of years earlier, the police had been stopping him every time they saw him. Even since then, no matter how careful he was to avoid trouble, things seemed to happen. Just a few months before, an LAPD officer had stopped to photograph and interrogate him while he ate lunch with his young son at a Salvadoran restaurant on Pico. Now, though, he'd started a job nearby, supervising a free-lunch program among the tall palms and graffiti-scarred benches of Alvarado Terrace Park. When he ran into a friend outside the program's one-room office, he agreed to drop by his place after work.
At around 5 that afternoon last July, Arturo found himself standing on the sidewalk outside the wrought-iron gate that surrounds an aging two-story house on Bonnie Brae just north of Pico. The way Arturo tells it, he was worried about his friend's dog, a “real mean” chow named Raider. He didn't know if the dog was loose in the yard behind the house, so instead of walking up to the porch and ringing the bell, he stayed on the sidewalk and whistled.
The next thing he knew, Arturo says, two LAPD officers were getting out of their car behind him. They searched him and, not finding anything, put him in the back of the patrol car. “They took me for a cruise. They wanted information,” nothing very specific, Arturo recalls. “They were like, 'You got anything for me?' I said, 'No, just take me in.' I thought it was a joke until they took me to Parker Center.”
Arturo had no outstanding warrants. He had never been convicted of a crime. He had done nothing that day that you or I could get in trouble for. Rather, as he puts it, “They arrested me for whistling.”
THE CHAIN OF EVENTS LEADING UP TO ARTURO'S ARREST last summer began in July of 1997, when LAPD officers submitted testimony to the City Attorney's Office that Arturo was one of the most respected gangsters in Pico-Union. He was, they said, a “rent collector” for the Hoover Locos clique of the 18th Street gang, the largest gang in Southern California, and was responsible for collecting about $40 a week in “taxes” from each of the many independent drug dealers who sold their wares in 18th Street's territory. Though he admits to having been a gang member, Arturo denies he was “one of the main guys.” But in August of that year, Superior Court Judge William Beverly chose to believe the LAPD, and Arturo became one of 50 gang members covered by what was then the nation's largest gang injunction.
Now, whenever they find themselves in the square mile bounded by Ninth Street and Washington Avenue to the north and south and by the Harbor Freeway and Hoover Street to the east and west, Arturo and 61 others (12 more names have been added to the list) are prohibited from publicly associating with each other or with any other known gang member, from being out after 10 p.m. (or after 8 if they're minors), from carrying pagers or cell phones or screwdrivers or felt-tip pens, from being on private property without prior written permission from the owner, from being within 10 feet of an open beer can, from climbing a tree, from using “abusive language” and, of course, from “whistling, yelling or otherwise signaling . . . to warn another person of an approaching law-enforcement officer,” Arturo's alleged sin.
They are also forbidden from a number of activities already proscribed by law, such as possessing drugs, selling drugs, writing graffiti, urinating in public, littering and “loitering for drug-related activity or for the purpose of engaging in graffiti activity.” Violating the injunction, and getting caught for it, means a misdemeanor charge that carries a six-month jail term. So a half-year in county lockup for tossing a candy wrapper in the gutter is a real possibility. For someone already on probation or parole, as many gang members are, one violation can mean a few years back in the state pen.
Arturo, after being held at Parker Center for a couple of hours, was released on $500 bail and charged with violating a court order. Five months later, he became the first 18th Streeter to stand trial for such a violation; 15 others had been charged, but all had accepted plea bargains. His case was dismissed on November 30 following a mistrial, a hung jury split 6-6.
THE ARRESTS OF ARTURO AND OTHERS LIKE HIM RAISE several questions. Are gang injunctions — a favorite tactic of City Attorney James Hahn, whose office has filed seven of them to date — effective? Have they lessened crime in the targeted areas? And, if so, have the results been sufficiently positive to justify the serious abridgement of civil rights they entail? Hahn insists that while the injunctions are not “a magic bullet to end the gang problem in L.A.,” they nevertheless provide communities with the breathing space to “get those resources into the neighborhood, and once you get those established the gang really can't come back and control everything.” Thus far, the only thorough analysis of the effectiveness of injunctions, written by Dr. Cheryl Maxson, a professor at USC's Social Science Research Institute, invites serious doubts. In her study of a 1995 Inglewood injunction, an injunction she acknowledged was poorly implemented, Maxson found that crime actually increased in the area. “There is no credible evidence of the success of this strategy to date,” she concluded, “yet its use in the Los Angeles region is expanding rapidly.”
And even if injunctions are, as Hahn says, useful tools for profoundly troubled communities, some in the Pico-Union neighborhood question his timing. By February of 1997, when Mayor Riordan asked Hahn's office to seek an injunction in Pico-Union, it was no longer a community in crisis. LAPD statistics show that crime had been dropping steadily in the neighborhood (as it had been in the city as a whole and, for that matter, nationally) since about 1994. While the city attorney claimed in his injunction filing, “The level and frequency of violent criminal gang-related activities is increasing,” a report included in that same filing revealed that in fact gang-related crime in the area had dropped by 28 percent in 1996 compared to the previous five years. Less than half as many crimes were committed there in the first quarter of 1997 as had been committed over the same period four years before. Pico-Union was still desperately poor and miserably underserved; it still had — and has — far more than its share of troubles. But gang-related crime was already on the wane. Residents were actively taking back their streets and becoming involved in the life of their community.
Hahn admits that the call for an injunction against 18th Street did not come from the community, or even from the police, as is usually the case, but from Mayor Riordan, shortly after the publication of a rather hysterical three-part series on 18th Street in the L.A. Times. (One community activist, a supporter of the injunction, says she didn't recognize Pico-Union as portrayed in the series; after reading it, “I was getting worried about living in the neighborhood, and I live here and never worried about it before. It's not that bad.”) That no one took the trouble to find out if such extreme measures were actually needed lends credence to Arturo's theory about the motivations behind the injunction: “It's politics — the D.A. wants to be D.A. again, Riordan wants to stay mayor.” Hahn disagrees. “Every time we've done [an injunction],” he says, “we've seen that the crime has gone down.” Hahn's office was unable to provide comprehensive figures in support of this claim although they were able to point to isolated examples of dramatic drops in crime.
If some activists are bothered by the city's claim that its gang injunction was responsible for Pico-Union's hard-won turnaround, more troubling still are some of the unforeseen — if not unforeseeable — results of the injunction. According to some in Pico-Union, the injunction has already begun to increase tensions between 18th Street and rival gangs, which may bring about disastrous consequences, as anyone who witnessed the violence of the early '90s can attest. By keeping 18th Streeters off the streets, as one activist who works with gang members puts it, the injunction “leaves the community virgin” for other gangs. In the meantime, even as the city claims success for having reduced 18th Street's visibility, many say that the gang's strength has gone unaffected, that it has merely moved its activities indoors and out of sight, ready to re-emerge when the crackdown inevitably ends. Perhaps most alarming, some argue that the city's near-exclusive reliance on suppression tactics like the injunction only further alienates the area's most embattled young, and makes going straight, difficult enough before, an almost impossible task. But the vast majority of activists who oppose gang injunctions agree that by not confronting the complex problems in the community that breed gangs in the first place, police and city officials “are not dealing with the real problems.”
JAMES HAHN DOES NOT TAKE CREDIT FOR HAVING PIONEERED the tactic of suing a gang as an unincorporated association and demanding a court order against them. Former District Attorney Ira Reiner, he points out, broke that ground by taking a gang named Dogtown to court to prevent them from writing graffiti. But it was Hahn who broadened the idea to encompass all of a gang's activities. He won his first gang injunction by a hair in 1987 against the Playboy Gangster Crips in the Cadillac-Corning section of West Los Angeles, the closest poor, black neighborhood to Beverly Hills and a convenient drug-buying spot for the Westside's affluent white youth. Hahn's proposed injunction was much more severe than any he's done since, including clauses forbidding the Playboy Gangsters from staying out in the streets for more than five minutes at a time or having visitors to their homes who stay for less than 10 minutes each. But a judge struck it down and harshly reprimanded Hahn, calling his proposal unconstitutional and “far, far too overreaching.” Hahn eventually reached a compromise, in which only the clauses forbidding already illegal behavior, such as trespassing and vandalism, survived.
Since then, other judges — including four of the seven California Supreme Court justices, who upheld a San Jose gang injunction in June of 1997 — have been friendlier to the idea of injunctions, which have become a popular tool wherever there's a gang problem. D.A. Gil Garcetti has enthusiastically pursued injunctions throughout L.A. County, and his office has helped bring them to cities all over Southern California. Until the Pico-Union court order, most injunctions just named a dozen or so gang members in a relatively small area. Since Pico-Union, which covers more than a square mile, Hahn has sought three additional large-scale injunctions, the broadest of them, also against 18th Street, covering 92 named gang members in an area stretching from Normandie Avenue to the western edge of downtown.
Despite the state Supreme Court's decision, the rapidly multiplying injunctions continue to pose a wide host of civil rights concerns, particularly given that thus far they have been used only in black and Latino communities. The breadth of the behaviors prohibited by gang injunctions gives police probable cause to stop named gang members almost every time they see them in the neighborhood. “The orders are so broad,” says Alex Ricciardulli of the L.A. Public Defender's Office, “that every time they detain these people there's going to be something they're doing wrong”; it's nearly impossible not to be in violation. (How long could you get by without associating publicly with friends, carrying a pager, visiting friends without their landlord's written consent, or venturing from home at night?) The assessment of one police officer interviewed on the street in Pico-Union will do little to assuage the fears of civil libertarians: “It gives us a little more freedom to work on gang members. We have a lot more probable cause to stop them . . . If I see a couple of gangsters together, then I have a whole lot more leeway. It gives me the freedom to be more creative in my arrests.”
Because injunctions result from civil suits, standards of proof are not nearly as stringent as they would be in criminal cases. Like Arturo, a number of the people named in the Pico-Union court order have never been convicted of a crime and are included only because police officers and community members (whose testimony is under seal, and therefore not subject to scrutiny) have identified them as gang members. It is certainly worrisome when the generally unchallenged statements of a handful of cops can alter the course of a young man or woman's life so drastically. Gang members assert that the police regularly lie about them and set them up. Given that one of the officers who submitted testimony for the injunction has since been arrested for stealing three kilos of cocaine, their fears are perhaps not entirely unjustified. And the alleged gang members named, who are generally not well informed about the niceties of civil procedure, are not entitled to court-appointed counsel, as they would be if they were charged with a crime — though the L.A. Public Defender's Office has been fighting, thus far unsuccessfully, to change that.
On the other hand, law enforcement's frustration with gangs like 18th Street is understandable. “Many times we know that gang members are engaging in narcotics activity,” Officer Mark Cohan said in an affidavit, “however, we are unable to locate any contraband due to the gang's size and sophistication in their sales methods.” Many of the clauses in the injunction prohibit otherwise legal activities that gang members use to evade arrest; lookouts do whistle to alert dealers of approaching cops, gangbangers do hop fences and climb trees to get places where police cars can't follow, and gang members in some areas (though not in Pico-Union) have been known to demand entrance to private apartments and intimidate residents into telling police they were there all along. Very few neighbors are willing to testify against gangsters who live right down the block, who know where they live.
And generally speaking, it's hard to find many people who sympathize with gangbangers. While the hysterical rhetoric employed by many politicians and journalists (most of whom set foot in neighborhoods like Pico-Union only when some particularly gruesome or picturesque crime has been committed, and who, based on that experience, assuredly speak of gangs as “occupying armies” establishing “reigns of terror”) overstates the situation by quite a bit, gangs do make communities a whole lot less livable. One woman who lives in the same building as a few 18th Streeters puts it simply: “It's very dangerous. We're afraid. We have children.” Bullets fired by nervous 14-year-olds rarely go where they're supposed to; the presence of dealers implies the presence of addicts, who are generally desperate and often violent; and while many residents come to an uneasy “I don't bother them, they don't bother me” truce with the gangsters on their block, most are anxious when they're around.
IT MIGHT BE EASIER, OF COURSE, TO GET PAST THE civil rights issues if it could be shown that gang injunctions are truly effective. Malcolm Klein, former director of USC's Social Science Research Institute, says that there is still too little research on the subject to draw firm conclusions, but he nonetheless has his doubts. Two studies have been conducted thus far: his colleague Maxson's look at the Inglewood injunction and an ACLU report on a 1993 court order against the Blythe Street gang in Panorama City. Maxson's study was, Klein says, “pretty discouraging.” The ACLU report found that the Blythe Street injunction had not significantly reduced crime in the targeted area and that it had caused crime to rise in neighboring communities. But Klein notes that that study was “fairly minimal” in scope, relying entirely on aggregated crime statistics.
In the absence of solid evidence in their favor, Klein is skeptical about the efficacy of injunctions as used thus far, grouping them with other “suppression approaches” — including Daryl Gates' infamous Operation Hammer, in which 1,453 alleged gangsters were arrested in one night, and the STEP Act, which criminalized gang membership. All these techniques, he says, tend to backfire by further alienating gang members and unintentionally tightening the bonds that hold gangs together. At the same time, suppression techniques fundamentally fail to address the underlying causes of gangs and gang violence, which he says include a segregated minority population, lots of young people with few employment opportunities, weak parental control and inadequate social services. “That's the recipe for gangs,” he says. “The problem is not the gang, it's the community, and until you deal with that, you're going to continue to have gangs and other kinds of problems.”
While Hahn insists that the purpose of an injunction is to give a community the opportunity to improve itself without having to contend with gang activity, Klein and others question whether this in fact happens. “That's fine,” Klein says, “if you have somebody who's gonna help the community regroup, but it ain't gonna happen by itself.” Klein sees the solution as being “genuine community policing, where the community has as much to say about the allocation of police resources as the police. Then it's the community's community. It doesn't belong to the cops.” But he cautions that such a change would be difficult. “I'm enormously pessimistic about our ability to pull this off, so in some sense I suppose suppression and injunctions are really the best we can do. I would hate to think that's true. That's a terrible statement about our society.”
“I DON'T SEE ANYTHING NEGATIVE ABOUT THE INjunction,” says Detective Steve Sena, a 21-year LAPD veteran who's been with Rampart Division's CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit for the last five years. During an interview, he points with pride to a series of papers taped to one wall listing all the murders in the division, year by year. 1995 takes up two full sheets, each one a couple feet square. 1996 gets a sheet and a half; '97 fills just one and '98, through October, not even one. “It feels good,” he says. “Feels like you're doing something.”
A few minutes later, driving me around the injunction area, Sena stops his patrol car at the corner of 11th and Park View and points to the recently repainted restaurant on the corner, which, he says, used to be filled with gangsters at all hours. The restaurant's security guard, Sena says, had to pay them off to avoid trouble. Across the street is a long cement wall, freshly spray-painted “EST” (for 18th St.) in 4-foot-high letters. “This used to be inundated with drug dealers,” he says, gesturing at the empty blocks in front of us. “You would see wall-to-wall homeless along this wall.”
But even Sena doesn't give the court action full credit for the improvement. “I don't put everything on the injunction,” he explains, driving on. “I put it on everyone being involved, everyone meaning probation, parole, INS, the state, anybody and everybody. Community leaders even came onboard.” All of those groups, he elaborates, began to coordinate their efforts beginning about three years ago, in a series of drug crackdowns.
Later, driving up Burlington back toward the police station, we pass a few new 18th Street tags. “They're still here,” Sena says. “They're not here in the numbers they used to be, though.” In the early days of the injunction, he says, “They were so confused about what the injunction was, they really didn't know what to do, and crime dropped. Whoom! Now they understand what it's about, so they're going slightly underground.” But even now, he says, the court order has made his life easier. “It's always nice to see someone do three to six months rather than three to six days,” he says, adding that it enables him to arrest kids he otherwise couldn't touch.
CARLOS PAIVA HAD BEEN IN THE UNITED STATES FOR eight years when he was asked in 1989 to take over as pastor at Angelica Lutheran Church in the heart of Pico-Union. He was shocked, he says, at what he found. “We were surrounded by gangs . . . I was involved just to bury them.” Paiva learned that most of his congregation lived in overcrowded, decaying buildings, had little access to health care, had to spend all their time working, “and they find their kids just raised alone.” There were next to no after-school programs, no libraries and very few jobs to hope for. And he found a generalized, mind-numbing neglect on the part of all city services: He says he was put on a 12-year waiting list when he called to complain about a broken streetlight and told he'd have to wait 14 years for the city to trim the trees that were blocking the lights that did work. Graffiti stayed where it was painted; trash stayed where it was left; the police were understaffed and unresponsive.
“We have already paid our taxes. We are human beings, we don't have to plead. In Beverly Hills [do they plead]? No. Why do we have to do it? Is this a different country . . .? I came to the point,” Paiva says, “this is an extreme analysis I have — somebody wants Pico-Union to be like this.” No one, in city government at least, was trying very hard to make the neighborhood anything other than what it was. Pico-Union is not just poor — a high percentage of its residents are recent immigrants. Many are undocumented, which keeps them not only out of the aboveboard job market, but out of the voting booths, and gives officials very little incentive to be responsive to their needs.
Paiva's frustration was apparently shared by others in Pico-Union, who, the day after the Rodney King verdict, took to the streets. Much of the neighborhood was left in ruins. “When we tried to invite other companies to invest and to reopen over here, nobody wanted to open,” Paiva recalls. But from the neighborhood's ashes, a movement grew. In June of 1992, more than 40 local nonprofits began meeting to coordinate their efforts. Some groups staged cleanups, picking up the trash that the city wouldn't, washing off graffiti. Others struggled to provide decent housing, child care, after-school programs for troubled teens. Neighborhood Watch groups grew braver. More patrol cars roamed the streets, and in the post-Gates LAPD, to some extent at least, the police made an effort to address the neighborhood's concerns, meeting monthly with community members.
It took a few years, but, Paiva says, “Things are calmer now.” The gang presence began to taper off in '96, a full year before the injunction. The neighborhood is cleaner, safer. About the city's action, which Paiva supports, he says, “Of course it's nice to feel recognized . . . but they're coming after the show.”
Though 18th Street is much less visible now, Paiva cautions that the real show is far from over. “We need more in this area,” he insists, more child care, more housing, more educational opportunities, more job training, more jobs. “I don't plead today. I demand.”
ALMOST EVERYONE IN PICO-UNION AGREES THAT CRIME, and 18th Street's presence, have dropped remarkably in recent years. And most of them — community activists, cops, gang members themselves — are willing to take credit. What is not at all clear, though, is whether the injunction had anything to do with that drop.
One thing, however, is certain about the injunction: It has kept Saul Valdez off the streets for the better part of the last year. A quiet kid, Valdez, one police officer testifies, “is a prime example of why we need to break the gang's stranglehold on the community and its residents. Valdez has a strong mom who maintains two jobs and keeps a clean house. He appears to be a very intelligent individual who has joined the gang mostly because he lives right in the heart of the gang's activities.” Living where he does has been keeping him behind bars of late.
Valdez found out about the injunction when he was 17, while serving time in juvenile hall for selling cocaine. “The cops took the paperwork up there, told me to ä sign it,” he says. He'd been jumped into 18th Street when he was just 13. Though Valdez's docket records, Deputy City Attorney Nicole Bershon's memory and his own account differ slightly in the details of his subsequent arrests, in broad strokes they tell the same story. Just a month after being released from youth camp, Valdez was picked up “for hanging around with my homeboys and for being on a bike.” He made the papers for being the first 18th Streeter in Pico-Union to be charged with violating the injunction. He served 20 days for that, this time in county jail, having come of age just two and a half weeks before the injunction took effect. “The second time,” Valdez says, “I was out for one day and they picked me up. Again I was just hanging around with my homeboys.” According to Bershon, as he was being arrested he told the police, “This injunction don't mean shit to me. I only got 20 days the last time.” He served four months. Once released, in an effort to preserve his freedom, he moved in with a sister who lives outside of Pico-Union. But three weeks after getting out, he found himself back in the hood. “They busted me with a beeper.” (Bershon remembers that bust as also being for littering.) That time he was sick of it. He tried to run, but for his efforts was charged with resisting arrest as well. “I just can't stay out of the neighborhood,” Valdez explains. “All my friends are there.”
Not surprisingly, Valdez finds the injunction effective, a little too effective for his taste. Even on the streets, he says, “It's changing everything. It's all quiet.”
WHILE MOST OF THE ADULTS CONTACTED for this story agree with Valdez that things are quieter, shockingly few had heard about the injunction, suggesting, perhaps, that the city attorney's enthusiasm for community involvement has been largely rhetorical. The vast majority of those who know about the court order support it. As one neighborhood activist puts it, “I'll take anything that'll help out to better the community. Anything's better than nothing.”
But there is little uniformity of opinion in the neighborhood, and the differences break down evenly and dramatically along age lines. With the sole exception of Saul Valdez, those in the neighborhood under 25 interviewed for this story, and most of the adults who work with them, have little faith in the injunction's effectiveness. Laura, a slight girl of about 16 with wide, silent eyes, agreed to talk at a nearby community center. She was put on probation about a year ago following a minor scrape with the law involving a few friends from 18th Street. But she doesn't get along with her mother and has run away twice to move in with 18th Streeters, although she says she no longer claims membership.
Laura insists that while the gang is less visible, its activities have continued. “They try to kick it where they won't get caught. For selling drugs it's harder. But it's still the same.” And they have no trouble collecting rent. As much as the injunction and the increased police presence may have inconvenienced her friends, “They say 18th Street's never gonna die out. There's new cliques coming out. There's more youngsters coming in.”
Other youths at the center are equally convinced the injunction won't work. “They just get more and more people in. If two leave, five more come in,” one says. The only effect they allow it might have would be to weaken 18th Street in relation to its rivals. In one kid's words, “The other gangs are gonna get more street.”
FOR WEEKS I HAD BEEN TRYING TO FIND 18th Street members willing to speak to me about the injunction. Things were too hot, I was always told. There was too much pressure, from both police and rival gangs. Then finally I get a call from Al Ortiz, who runs a legendarily successful gang-intervention and job-training program out of an office in Boyle Heights. Two of the guys in his program are willing to sit down. A police officer named Filbert Cuesta has been shot to death at a party in Crenshaw, and the suspect is from 18th Street. Things haven't gotten any cooler — they've reached a boiling point. 18th Streeters all over the city, Ortiz says, are being picked up and questioned. His kids are feeling increasingly trapped, and they want to get their story out.
When I walk into Ortiz's windowless, bare-walled office, Luis and Mike are already there, sitting in plastic chairs in adjacent corners of the narrow room. Luis, skinny and intense, at times almost jumping out of his seat with excess energy and bottled-up anger, is from Columbia Little Cycos, a clique from Westlake whose members mingle extensively with the nearby Pico-Union sets — a few of them are even named in the Pico-Union injunction. Luis is not among them, but he's one of the 92 18th Streeters named in the Westlake/MacArthur Park injunction announced last May. Mike, in his mid- to late 20s, a few years older and calmer than Luis, had been a member of a now largely defunct Hollywood clique. Luis immediately begins protesting the level of police activity in his neighborhood. “They're just taking people out,” he says, his voice filled with urgency. The injunction has only made things worse. It's “just giving police more authority to harass people. Everybody's panicked, paranoid.”
While police pressure has been growing, he says, pressure from rival gangs has not been any less constant. “There's been problems already,” Luis admits, somewhat cagily, reluctant to provide specifics that might incriminate anyone involved. He's not as shy about predicting more trouble when currently incarcerated 18th Streeters get out of prison to find strangers on their streets. “It's gonna create a big war. You'll hear about it.”
I ask Luis and Mike what they think about James Hahn's answer for 18th Streeters unhappy with the injunction (“If they want to go back to enjoying all the activities that everybody else enjoys in the neighborhood, they can get out of the gang. They can stop being gang members”). “That's impossible,” Mike answers, shaking his head. “You're still labeled,” Luis jumps in. “Even if you don't associate no more, you don't claim membership, they still label you.” It's hard for people to go straight, and the struggle is made more difficult by police who, Mike says, “don't care if they're working, doing positive for themselves.” As for those whose names are formally included in an injunction: “They have no chance. They're just gonna be in the system,” Luis predicts, outrage rising in his voice. Mike mentions having spoken with a minor named in the injunction and asking him how long it would be in effect. Excusing his language, Mike recalls, “He said, 'Homey, I'm fucked. It's forever.'”
(Deputy D.A. Lisa Fox says that a few gang members have had their names removed from the injunction, “because they've been killed or because they've been sentenced to life in state prison.” She adds, however, that the injunction could be modified if an individual provided sufficient evidence that he or she had stopped gangbanging.)
As the interview draws to a close, Luis talks — the muscles in his jaw growing tenser, his eyes and gestures expressing increasing frustration — about growing up in a neighborhood with no Little League teams, nowhere to go with your problems, no jobs to hope for, where “All [you] see is gang members. They need more programs that give help to kids instead of putting them away like dogs,” he says, on the edge of his chair. “There are guys who have done bad things. Punish them. Don't just wipe the whole youth out. Some of us are gonna make it.”
MARIA SANABRIA OWNS A GROCERY STORE in an old brick building on 11th Street. Its windows, like those on the first floor of almost every structure within sight, are protected by metal bars, in her case painted white to match the color of the bricks. Above her door, a sign boasts of “productos latinos” and Salvadoran breads as well as help with income tax, immigration proceedings, marriages and evictions.
A small Salvadoran woman in her 50s, her hair dyed black to hide the gray, wearing glasses and a palpable air of exhaustion, Sanabria, like many adults in the neighborhood, hasn't heard about the injunction. From behind the desk in the front of her store, below a shelf sparsely populated with boxes of birthday candles and brightly colored party favors, she recounts in Spanish that there used to be a lot of gangsters around (cholos, she calls them). “From 18th Street?” I ask. With raised eyebrows — dumb question — she responds: “It's their barrio.” A bunch of them lived in, and sold drugs from, the apartment above her shop, and it was always crazy: noise at all hours, people coming and going, drinking, fights. It was bad, she says, shaking her head at the memory. Fear kept her indoors at night, but they treated her well. “They respected me, they called me 'Tia.'” They would even warn her to close her shop when they expected trouble from other gangs.
A minute later Sanabria reverses herself: “They don't care about anyone, they don't respect anyone, they're not afraid of anyone.” And after another minute's digression — the problem with this country, she explains, is that parents aren't allowed to discipline their kids — she turns around again: “I don't have any problem with them. They looked out for me.”
A little over a year ago, the gangsters were evicted for fire-code violations having nothing to do with the injunction. The windows on the second floor have been boarded up. “Now the street is empty,” Sanabria says, almost nostalgically. The dealing, she observes, has just moved a block away, but no one comes into her store anymore, and, she says, pointing defeatedly at a stack of unpaid bills on the desk in front of her, she thinks she'll have to sell it. And she's still afraid, not of 18th Street, but of the homeless addicts who roam the newly quiet streets, who have already robbed her twice.
SANABRIA'S REVERSALS ARE NOT NECESsarily contradictory, or no less contradictory than 18th Streeters' relation to the neighborhood, as thugs, but also as neighbors; as a constant source of danger, but also as sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, friends or friends of friends, people with whom one has to forge a relationship in order to get by. And that relationship — like the twisted economy of the streets, in which a drug dealer's eviction can mean failure for a local grocery store — is considerably more complex than the simple equation of victim and perp envisioned by Jim Hahn and the LAPD. Get rid of the most obvious perpetrators, and you still have a whole neighborhood of victims.
Last year 54 percent of Pico-Union's population was living in poverty. In 1990, the per capita annual income for Latinos in the neighborhood was $5,099, less than one-third the county average. While Pastor Paiva and others — Arturo among them — are hoping the construction of the nearby Staples Center will bring jobs and investment into the neighborhood, thus far the much heralded economic boom of the late '90s has made very few inroads into the community. The crime rate, despite it all, is still higher than almost anywhere else in the city. The Latino dropout rate at Belmont High, which serves Pico-Union, is 65 percent higher than the dropout rate for the district at large. A handful of community groups do run after-school programs that aim at gang prevention, but although there is now, through the city's L.A. Bridges program, more money available than ever before, they are still radically underfunded and can reach only a small fraction of the kids who need them. Almost no money goes to the few existing gang-intervention programs, which try to reach kids once they're already deeply involved in gang life.
Every time I asked a gang member how he got involved with 18th Street, the answer was the same. One simple sentence: “I grew up in the neighborhood.” Unless the political will is born to listen to the voices coming out of that neighborhood, to register their existence, to heed their demands, then, like the kids say, 18th Street will never die.
The names Arturo, Laura, Luis and Mike in this article are pseudonyms. No other names have been changed.
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