The Jordan Downs housing project in Watts looks like it was built to bum everyone out. The pallid yellow exterior, the unadorned grass, the cracked structure, the dying trees — instant day-ruiners.
Iron "burglar" bars, which cover windows and doors in L.A. bungalow and apartment neighborhoods, are all over Jordan Downs. The message to residents: You're trapped.
"The bars on the windows [and the] fencing has been an issue that is perceived by some communities of color as stigmatizing them," says UCLA urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.
She says many felt "jailed in." A $700 million renovation and construction project at Jordan Downs, however, could help end the era of outfitting low-income housing with prisonlike designs. Some of the 700 new units won't have burglar bars. If these "mixed-income" apartments work out, they could inspire planners in urban areas to forgo the bars.
"Obviously [a community] without bars looks better," says John King, planning policy director at the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which manages the city's public housing. But he says bar-less renderings of the new units, rolled out in early planning meetings, led to some sniping among attendees.
"Some people said, 'The bars are missing!' Then other folks said, 'Well, we don't need bars anymore!'" King says. The developers, eager to spruce up the project and make it look more like part of the community and less like a misplaced correctional facility, decided against bars.
It's part of a larger citywide discussion about gentrification, crime, race and poverty. As L.A. becomes less dangerous — with the exception of a startling, across-the-board spike in crime last year — the bars on doors and windows, physical markers of a violent, gang-filled past, make some Angelenos queasy.
Isela Gracian was raised in Norwalk. She bought a home there a few years ago in one of its highest-crime areas and removed the burglar bars. Her father wasn't crazy about her decision — even though his home, five blocks away, didn't have them either. He worried her home would be robbed or, worse, that she'd be attacked.
For Gracian, removing the bars was about power. She didn't want to give potential burglars control over how she lives. "Not putting bars on my home was about reclaiming that space and saying I'm not going to be afraid in my own home," Gracian says.
Gracian is president of East L.A. Community Corporation, or ELACC, a nonprofit that works to bring affordable housing to Boyle Heights and other mostly Latino communities. Critics say the homes ELACC builds are too nice — that yuppie types, already snatching up units in the area, will come and drive out residents.
Gracian balks at the notion that working-class people should have ugly things. "Even though people are lower-income, they still deserve to have quality products and live with dignity," she says.
That seems to be the philosophy of the North Long Beach Community Action Group, which has led a 22-year effort to remove bars from its area, according to Dan Pressburg, a community advocate and president of the group.
"It felt like jail over here," he says of the area immediately adjacent to Compton.
He says the push to remove bars really picked up steam after the 1992 riots — ironic, since violence and looting usually have the opposite effect. Pressburg estimates that his group, working in tandem with others, has gotten rid of 65 to 75 percent of the bars along main drags, using community outreach, political influence and federal block grants.
The bars make North Long Beach uninviting, Pressburg says, and can scare off banks and private investors.
"We haven't gotten rid of all the bars, but we're sure trying," he says.
It's tough to pin down when and how burglar bars spread so deeply into certain parts of Greater L.A. They're common in Latin America and much of the Southwest. Ironwork grilles found in L.A.'s swankier neighborhoods often reflect a Spanish Colonial Revival style that grew popular in the 1920s and '30s, after the 1914 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.
And during the high-crime 1970s and '80s, door-to-door salespeople canvassed neighborhoods, scaring the hell out of people with harrowing crime stories.
Then people started dying. Window bars trapped them inside during house fires. County law says all bars have to be built with an indoor release, but because of lax enforcement and penny-pinching landlords, many of these iron cages don't have the required latch. Gracian says ELACC's renovators regularly find permanently fastened bars when they first enter units on the Eastside.
L.A. Fire Chief Kwame Cooper says LAFD has not tracked how many people have died after being trapped inside homes by stationary burglar bars, but the bars definitely make it harder to rescue people. Poor Latino neighborhoods, he says, are most likely to have illegal bars.
Those terrible tragedies aside, window bars have not been a big deal in Los Angeles. Until fairly recently, people had made their peace with them.
Susanna Whitmore has lived on the border of Echo Park and Silver Lake for 26 years. She says there were "massive" gang issues when she moved in, and credits the bars with preventing break-ins at her home
"Yes, there have been robberies on our street," she says via email. "But nothing I'm aware of recently, and nothing consistent over the years. It seems to go in spurts." She says she doesn't know anyone in her area who doesn't like the bars.
Micki, who didn't want her last name used, moved to Echo Park nine years ago. She also owns a shop in the neighborhood.
She says that while the area now feels safer in many ways, there's still a lot of crime — including a recent wave of thefts at her own shop.
"It's gotten worse and worse in the past year or two," she says. "Noticeably worse."
She has burglar bars on her home and business, a precaution she says has helped protect some of the more valuable merchandise at her store.
Even so, she feels what others are starting to feel: She wishes she didn't have to keep the bars. "I can't say they look great, but for me the safety is worth it," Micki says. "This is my livelihood. If someone broke in here, I don't even know what I would do."
Rishi Shah made a different decision. His Echo Park house was broken into six years ago, despite the iron bars on his windows.
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"They basically crowbarred the back door," he says. Shah recently remodeled his home and removed his burglar bars. He says he "didn't feel compelled" to have them up, because the neighborhood feels sufficiently safe.
Realtor Imraan Ali may have some insight into what's spurring bar removals around town. They aren't merely ugly and disempowering — they ruin curb appeal. Ali focuses on Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park and Eagle Rock, all neighborhoods that have grown safer — and much more expensive.
He says window bars are a holdover from a meaner time, and that people moving into the area think they make homes look like prisons. Ali always recommends that sellers get their house's bars removed so that potential buyers don't perceive their block and their home as dangerous.
He sold a home recently in Glassell Park, once known for gang wars. "It has this beautiful arched window in front of their house, but it's got these bars that run along the whole thing," he says. "It feels like you're inside a cage when you're looking out of it. So the first thing they're going to be doing once they get settled is remove those."