Leeward Avenue is three blocks’ solid of apartment buildings, some built in the early 20th century and adorned with adobelike facades and Deco features, others contemporary and boxy. Leeward’s affordable rents, its exposure to bustling markets and restaurants on West 8th Street, and its proximity to the public transportation hub of Wilshire Boulevard and South Vermont Avenue has attracted thousands of immigrants from Central America.
Typical inner-city scenes play out — skate rats hit the rails of the First Baptist Church, an ice cream truck crawls along the broken pavement, immigrants sell fruit. But at night, rock dealers rule, and lookouts take advantage of the street’s closed-off, valleylike topography to whistle when five-oh creeps. Blistered-lipped zombies roam the cracked sidewalks and scan the ground for crumbles of cocaine.
It’s one of the city’s most notorious drug markets.
“It’s been a problem zone for many years,” says Lieutenant David Grimes, head of the Gang Impact Team and Narcotics Enforcement Detail at the Los Angeles Police Department’s nearby Olympic Division. “Crack is sold up and down that street. It’s such a well-documented location for users that they come from miles around.”
And it’s a short block south of where 17-year-old Lily Burk was abducted two weeks ago. It’s not clear if the suspect in the case, 50-year-old Charles Samuel, was there to score crack before he allegedly kidnapped and murdered the girl. Robert Nelson, the LAPD’s lead detective in the Burk homicide, says, “We can’t answer that question.”
Samuel, was, however, living in a drug-treatment facility on South Menlo Avenue in Koreatown, within walking distance of Leeward. He was arrested the day of the murder — and tied to the case the next day — because cops say he had in his possession a crack pipe.
Detectives have said Samuel was required to have an escort with him at all times as a condition of his freedom. He was paroled in February after being convicted and jailed for petty theft — a crime common for coke addicts looking to fence goods and score drugs. In April he almost went back to prison after authorities found another crack pipe on him. Instead, he was allowed to get treatment on the condition that anytime he went off campus, an escort from the program followed. On Friday, July 24, Samuel apparently shook his supervision and allegedly went on a crime spree that included a trip to the area near Leeward.
The Salvadoran-immigrant gang Mara Salvatrucha runs the drug trade on Leeward. It retails a unique form of rock: While most product in the area looks like macadamia nuts, the Leeward brand has the appearance of small wafers, says the LAPD’s Grimes. Despite three narcotics raids on the street since spring, which netted 58 felony arrests of alleged buyers and sellers, replacement “clockers” are abundant. The lieutenant says Mara Salvatrucha “shot callers” recruit young teenagers — some are in junior high school — to do its entry-level work on Leeward. They’re expendable.
“We have arrested actual gang members selling,” Grimes says. “That’s a problem with very large gangs: As soon as you arrest some, they have others to do the job.”
Leeward is sandwiched between Vermont Avenue and Hoover Street, in the shadow of Koreatown and the Wilshire corridor. Its middle block dips down low, and anyone can see cars coming from on high in both directions. It’s capped off on the west by Vermont Avenue, and on the east by Hoover Street. Its other feeder streets, South Westmoreland Avenue and Magnolia Avenue, are also narrow and alleylike.
While gentrification has been the story north of Leeward — the six-level Wilshire Vermont Station luxury apartments opened over a subway stop early this year — police and observers say Leeward is a depressed area although immigration from poor Central American countrires has tapered off, says Matthew Valdez, a member of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, which represents most of Leeward. “Those major streets are geographic boundaries that separate classes of people,” he Valdez. “You look at east of Vermont and south of Wilshire and it’s totally a different area from west and north.”
Four consecutive abandoned buildings line Leeward, and police and the City Attorney’s office are moving to force the owners to fix them up or face abatement orders. Mel Konian, the LAPD’s senior lead officer for the neighborhood, calls the apartments “crash pads” for criminals.
The recession has hit Leeward’s immigrants hard. Service-industry jobs such as washing cars, doing dishes and cleaning hotel rooms were some of the first to go last fall. Grown men and women walk the street. “I would venture to say the unemployment rate is 4 or 5 percentage points above the county rate,” Valdez says. “This area has been extremely hard-hit by the economy. It’s vulnerable to drugs and violence.”
MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council vice president Jennifer Gill is aghast over the Burk murder and the rampant drug dealing nearby. She says the council in September will likely ask the City Council to permanently cordon off Leeward to most vehicular traffic, a move that has worked to curb crime off Pico Boulevard in Pico-Union.
“Especially after the murder,” she says, “we can probably get the city to seal off that street with a gate.”
Still, as the drumbeat by LAPD Chief William Bratton will attest, crime is down. The addition of the Olympic Division to cover an area once split between the Rampart and Wilshire divisions has added more than 150 officers to parts of Koreatown, Wilshire Center and Mid-City. The zone covered by Olympic has seen two homicides so far this year — Burk’s included — compared to 10 in 2008.
Mortal enemies Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street, two of the two biggest criminal organizations in California, neighbor each other, with 18th Street’s epicenter mostly west of Hoover and MS’ mostly east. While in the 1990s the two used to put each other’s soldiers in the hospital on a weekly basis, today there’s nary a shot fired. Police and community activists have no proof of a truce, but the lack of violence, they say, suggests one. “They have to have some kind of understanding to conduct business,” says a community leader who did not want to be named.
“They’ve been quiet,” says the LAPD’s Grimes. “This year they haven’t committed any shootings on each other, at least in our division.”
Although, Grimes says, his Gang Impact Team and Narcotics Enforcement Detail will continue to put undercover sellers and buyers on Leeward, there’s only so much the police can do without the help of the community, particularly landlords.
“It’s a decent area, they just need to take care of the buildings so decent people will move in and the folks selling narcotics will go away,” he says.
Adds senior lead officer Konian, “It’s not just about the police making arrests. If people know it’s the place to buy drugs, you get a lot of people coming in and a lot of sellers coming in. The street needs proper lighting. And we need to put pressure on the owners of these buildings that are not being utilized.”
The neighborhood council’s Valdez agrees, adding that a little redevelopment south of Wilshire wouldn’t be such a bad thing. “Gentrification is always a huge issue, and people here want to maintain the cultural fabric,” he says. “I think some level of evolution is inevitable, as long as people aren’t just thrown out but are given resources and opportunities to change their current position in life.”
On a recent afternoon young skaters hanging out in front of the church on Leeward say it’s a decent place to grow up. Twenty-year-old Luis Contreras says gang members “don’t kick it like they used to.” And police officers, he says, eying a black-and-white, “pass by a lot.”
His friend, 18-year-old Jose Mejia concurs, even as he glances warily over his shoulder at a young gang member with a shaved head, perched atop the church’s front stairs: “It’s peaceful here.”
Note: Headline has been corrected to reflect that Leeward Avenue is not downtown.