L.A.'s Palms neighborhood has a median household income of $57,124, which is greater than the local and national medians. About 58 percent of residents have a college degree or higher. And it's 38 percent white and 25 percent Asian.
During this historic housing crunch, the once-tacky community of wall-to-wall postwar apartment buildings has become a hot spot for young renters with a little (of mom and dad's) money. A few decades ago only desperate UCLA students would venture so far south, where Westwood Boulevard ends at Venice Boulevard. Now the neighborhood is awash in Bruin blue and hand-me-down BMWs. Asian international students are particularly plentiful.
A two-bedroom apartment can run you more than $2,500. There are homes in the zip code listed at nearly $2 million. Last year the publication Niche Ink named Palms the “Best Neighborhood for Millennials” in Los Angeles.
It is against this backdrop that a series of recent shootings has absolutely startled the community.
On April 16 gunfire broke out at Woodbine Park. When it was all over three victims were down, and one of them was dead. Police arrested 35-year-old James Pickens and 37-year-old Antwaun Morrison in connection with the shooting that took the life of 27-year-old Justin Aguilar. A third, unidentified suspect was also one of the folks who was shot, cops said. He was taken into custody.
The exact turn of events was not revealed, but police said a fight preceded the murder, which they classified as gang-related.
About 20 minutes after that 3 p.m. attack two men were injured in a shooting just blocks away at a strip mall at Overland Avenue and National Boulevard. That was also designated as gang-related violence.
We were told the first shooting might have involved Blasten Fools Gangster Crips and West Side Locos members; the second, sources indicated, might have involved Sotel gang members.
A second fatal shooting took the life of 33-year-old Christopher John Paul on April 22. He had just purchased a cup of coffee and was walking home on Mentone Avenue when he was shot from behind, officials said.
Authorities are calling him an innocent and possibly completely random victim, and detectives are so far flummoxed. A $50,000 reward for information leading to the culprit was approved by the L.A. City Council this week.
Murders are indeed shocking. But the community has been in denial about the geography of local gang activity. After several tries, we couldn't connect with the neighborhood council president or other members of that body. But Carlos A. Chicas, the coordinator for Palms Neighborhood Watch, did speak to us. He claims there are no gangs in his neighborhood.
“I don't think we're in denial,” he said. “I've been here since I was born—34 years. I've never seen any gangs.”
Paul Koretz represents the area on the Los Angeles City Council. It's roughly bounded by Venice Boulevard to the south and east, the 10 freeway to the north, the 405 to the west. The community of Westside Village, the site of the strip mall shooting on April 16, is filled with $1 million-plus homes. It takes out its own slice of territory on the northwest side of what many people otherwise call Palms.
“Prior to this, the worse thing we saw in this neighborhood was some graffiti,” Koretz told us. “We don't know if that was building up to this or not.”
“These don't appear to be gang members from Palms,” he said. “I think they just found a couple spots where maybe they started to hang out.”
Lt. Paula Kreefft of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division Gang Detail argued that there are gangs in neighboring areas, but that they “don't claim territory” in Palms.
“It's a little odd for us to have that level of violence of the area,” she said.
“These are all gangs that loiter in our area, but that claim territory not in our area,” she said. “They're not gangs that are prevalent in our area.”
Pacific Division Capt. Armand Carranza said that his cops deal with a handful of gang hot spots, including Del Rey (home of the Culver City Boys), Oakwood (Venice 13 and the Shoreline Crips) and “even on the beach,” where cliques from around the region congregate on warm days. But Palms, he said, was largely off the map for gang enforcement.
“It's not what we would call a gang area,” he said. “The community there is very family-oriented, very middle-income. There's very little there in regard to violent crime. This is an anomaly.”
But Palms, born as fertile valley farmland in Rancho la Ballona, has had a long history of gang activity.
In 1993 Snoop Dogg and his bodyguard were charged in connection with the murder of 20-year-old Philip Woldemariam, a reputed member of the By Yerself Hustlers. That gang is said to have been founded in Palms.
Woldemariam was fatally shot in a place that might be familiar to those shocked by this month's gang violence. It's called Woodbine Park. He allegedly had beef with Snoop and the bodyguard over the rapper's reputed Long Beach gang ties. Snoop and his bodyguard were acquitted of murder charges.
That was a long time ago, but it appears the gang is still around.
The Venice Shoreline Crips, another African American set, has been known to roam around Palms since the 1990s.
In the last few decades, at a time when much of Los Angeles became more Latino thanks to a wave of immigration, more Latino gangs moved into Palms. A clique of 18th Street was known to call the area around Westwood and Venice boulevards home.
West L.A.'s Sotel gang, born in the Sawtelle Japantown community after World War II, moved in with graffiti. The Blastin Fools Gangsta Crips and the West Side Locos/Halm Avenue gang both claim turf in Palms, says Alex Alonso of StreetGangs.com.
In 2006, 17-year-old Rene Jose Sansaricq was fatally shot on Glendon Avenue, right across the street from a California Pizza Kitchen. The spot where he was gunned down was marked with Sotel gang graffiti.
The area has been no stranger to violence in more recent months, particularly along Venice Boulevard. Not all of it appears to be gang-related, but the consternation expressed by residents in recent days seems fueled by a lack of knowledge.
About a year ago a man was injured in a shooting at Super Pho & Teriyaki at 10953 Venice Boulevard. On April 6 a man who had been shot walked into Bamboo restaurant in the 10800 block of Venice Boulevard to seek help. He survived.
East of Palms, along South Robertson Boulevard and near Hamilton High School, there are occasional bursts of gang violence. It's not unheard of.
Police are beefing up patrols in Palms as they try to calm nerves.
“In an abundance of caution and in case of potential retaliation, which we don't anticipate, as well to instill a sense of calm, we have augmented police presence,” said Capt. Carranza.