School is out for most of the kids of Langdon Street. Some flank their mothers as they push listing shopping carts down the block to the store on the corner. They pass the 6-foot, black iron fence that surrounds the church and community center where mobs of other children chase a soccer ball on sparse patches of grass. Nearby stands an empty gym, where one neighborhood boy, about 12 years old, is shooting a basketball by himself. He’s one of Evelio Franco’s pet projects.
“Where’s your brother?” asks Franco, a community organizer who’s been working in the area for five years — new enough to have to keep earning trust.
“I don’t know.”
“He’s with the guys, right?” Franco asks, and the silent response is enough of an answer. “Stay out of trouble.”
Franco slaps the kid on his back and walks away. “He’s a good kid. Smart. But I still worry. His brother just got his tattoos the other day.”
Evelio Franco and his painstaking, personal-touch style of social work is one version of a solution in this crime-racked working-class neighborhood of North Hills that straddles the 405 freeway in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Another is the one imposed in late May at the request of City Attorney James Hahn: a gang injunction that imposes strict prohibitions on the behavior and association of 31 named members of the Langdon Street gang, which has dominated community life for years.
But while Franco is making friends and contacts, the injunction has encountered strong and growing resistance. Community groups are organizing residents to challenge the injunction when it comes up for review in September. And last week, the Orange County district office of the League of United Latin American Citizens issued a statement denouncing the Langdon Street injunction. “We are encouraging positive programs for the community rather than oppressive actions,” said Manuel Marroquin, the organization’s deputy director. “Gang injunctions simply do not produce positive results.”
The Rev. Jim Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Sepulveda, says the crackdown has alienated local youth and is making his job harder. “It just seems to undermine everything we were doing,” Hamilton said in an interview. “We were pulling the community together.”
Doris CastAneda recalls her confusion when she first heard the term “gang injunction.” It was just another strange phrase in a questionnaire distributed by the city. Little did she know two years later she’d be spending so much of her time fighting to get rid of one in her hometown.
It was in the fall of 1997 that the city’s nuisance-abatement program sent a small team of representatives out into the neighborhood to conduct a door-to-door survey asking people who live and work there — mostly natives of Central America — “What are the three most urgent problems in your neighborhood?” About 250 people responded, most selecting drug activity, gangs and crime. Many were reported too afraid to answer at all.
Castaneda remembers those days, and now calls the survey “a complete lie.” Through a translator, she says the survey asked residents if they wanted to get rid of drugs and crime, and interpreted their affirmative answers as support for a gang injunction. Castaneda says if those same residents knew what they were endorsing, they would have opposed the injunction.
The mother of eight — one of her sons is listed on the injunction — Castaneda was already working on the gang problem. She had formed Familias Unitas, a neighborhood group of about 30 residents, a year before to help rehabilitate the neighborhood. When they learned of the city attorney’s decision, Castaneda says, the group approached Connie Rodriguez, a former Head Start schoolteacher at Langdon Street who had also taught at Blythe Street, where an injunction had been in place since 1993.
Rodriguez was an early and ardent critic of the gang injunctions. She points to a 1997 study of Blythe Street conducted by the ACLU, which found that crime actually increased with the injunction in place.
Beyond simple measures of crime, Rodriguez is concerned with the impact the Langdon Street injunction will have on personal freedoms.
“You have 31 named gang members here. The majority of them are in jail right now, and of the remainder, half of those aren’t even gang members,” Rodriguez says. “So based on maybe seven or eight alleged gang members, the city attorney, James Hahn, is proposing to hold the community under siege.”
Officials dismiss such opposition. They argue that people who warn about an impending police state don’t understand how the injunction works, or are overreacting in their defense of gang-connected relatives. Marty Vranicar, an assistant city attorney and supervisor of the gang unit, says the injunction is needed to allow other social services to operate.
“We feel the tool, properly used, provides enough of a suppressive effect such that the other resources that are needed in the community can be brought to bear on some of the social problems that have caused the problem to begin with,” Vranicar says.
For community organizers like Evilo Franco, that sort of work was being done years before the injunction.
Franco is guiding a tour of what police call “drive-thru drug boulevard,” also known as Orion Avenue, where shoppers are only a 405 exit away. Officials describe this stretch of the San Fernando Valley as drug-dealing heaven. Several major highways lie within five minutes, surface streets are long and flat so lookouts can spot approaching cops from blocks away, and the crowded apartment buildings have enough nooks and crannies to hide several Langdon Street gangs.
So, despite the gang injunction, guys still have their corner staked out and are standing around in the middle of the day as cars from other, whiter, wealthier Valley suburbs stop by for a visit.
“They see their parents struggle, and there are no jobs for them,” Franco says. “They get into the gang to sell drugs for easy money. This community has always been neglected, and that’s why these kids fall into the gang.”
In post–Rodney King–era Los Angeles, the United Methodist Church was looking for solutions to these inner-city blues. They picked up on an idea from Philadelphia, where “zones of peace,” dubbed “Shalom Zones,” were designated around churches, and created the Sepulveda Shalom Zone around the church and community center on Langdon Street. The Rev. Hamilton arrived from Redondo Beach, then Evelio Franco, who works for Bridge Focus, a community-support program funded by public agencies. The basketball gym, which the police were using as a holding cell for gang members, went back to being just a gym.
Hamilton says that when he first arrived, you couldn’t drive down the street without 12 guys trying to sell you drugs. Within his first month a kid was shot down. Hamilton and Franco recall the day in 1997 when a 6-year-old came home with a crack rock in his hand. The pair decided to stake out a corner in front of the local elementary school, across the street from a small contingent of the Langdon Street gang, and stay there. They got death threats, had graffiti sprayed all over the walls of the center. After three days, an older member came over to them and said it would end.
Now some of those older gang members are working at the Sepulveda Shalom Zone. Guys in their early 20s, on the tail end of gang life, some of them with kids, trying to find real work to support their families. Franco says the older members are receptive to the computer classes and job training going on in the Shalom Zone, but the younger cliques — the “pee-wees” — resist.
Since the injunction started in late May, Hamilton says, there’s more fear and distrust in the air from gang members — old and young. Hamilton says police have warned that if there are two or more gang members at the center, they can come around and arrest them. Mike Reyna, Franco’s assistant for the past four years, says he has seen similar obstacles being placed between the center’s efforts and gang members.
“We had a teenage kid looking for some work, and we had some applications for the job program through the city parks department, and we told him he had to get a work permit from the school,” Reyna said. “He was off track, in Track C, which wasn’t even in session. He didn’t even make it around the corner when an officer stopped him on the street and asked why he wasn’t in school.
“It was before 3 o’clock, and they just told him to get off the street: ‘You need to go home. If we see you out here again we’re going to pick you up and cite you . . .’ It’s those kind of abuses that take place here.”
Officials at the City Attorney’s Office dismiss these critics as simply paranoid. Once residents understand how the injunction works, officials say, they’ll see the community is not under a state of martial law. They said no arrests have been made as a result of the injunction. No names have been added to the injunction, although it does leave room for an additional 200.
“What a gang injunction is designed to do is give the area a breather from the gang activity,” says Vic Kalustian, the deputy city attorney overseeing the injunction. “When you have gang members hanging out and a student walks by, they might see a gold chain and they take it. It’s those crimes of opportunity that an injunction prevents against.
“There are a number of different instances that show the gang’s relationship with the community as not a good one — store owners being extorted, gang members taking over apartment houses. The Langdon Street gang has such a strong presence, and the injunction is designed to break that hold the gang has over a community.”
How strong is that hold? According to the survey taken in 1997, 22 percent of those asked said they had been threatened by a gang member in the last year, and 25 percent said they had been a victim of crime in the neighborhood in the last year. That’s from about 250 respondents out of the approximately 11,000 residents estimated by both Franco and the city.
Crime is off markedly since then, but the drop came before the injunction was ordered — leaving residents wondering why the gang injunction has come along now. North Hills crime statistics compiled by Senior Lead Officer Ernie Jimenez show a drop in crime from the last four months of 1997 to the last four months of 1998: Robberies went from 37 to 24, and aggravated assaults dropped from 112 to 62.
To critics of the injunction, these figures argue for moderation. They see older gang members having their rights taken away when the problems are coming from a small group of hardcore members. Where they saw a community making progress, they now see growing tension in the face of a stronger police presence.
At the same time, the original city survey found that most residents of Langdon Street don’t even know what an injunction is. Opponents of the injunction see potential allies in that group, and supporters see more backers. But that’s for the adults to sort out. Right now some kids just want to get away from the cops and the gangs and play basketball while they still can.