A cold wind was blowing and a darkening sky threatened rain as Hawthorne City Councilman Charles Bookhammer rang the doorbell of a stucco home on Doty Avenue in Moneta Gardens.
"I'm Chuck Bookhammer, one of your councilmen," he said to the woman who answered the door. "We're going around the neighborhood today telling people about Neighborhood Watch. Have you heard of it?"
Carolyn Lee said she had not heard of the organization. But when Bookhammer explained that it was a neighbor-looking-out-for-neighbor crime prevention program, she said it sounded like a good idea.
"We need this on our block," she said. "I saw a purse snatch across the street and the woman died of a heart attack right there. I've only been here since July, but when I lived around the corner, there was a murder right across the street."
Similar conversations took place all over the sprawling Moneta Gardens area last Saturday morning as more than 40 Neighborhood Watch volunteers--augmented by City Council members and uniformed police officers--went door-to-door in an attempt to involve people in combating crime on their own doorsteps.
"We have to get things organized," said Clifton Pearson, a Neighborhood Watch block captain in the heart of Moneta. "The gangs out there have more organization and discipline than we do as taxpayers."
Moneta Gardens in southeastern Hawthorne--where apartment houses are now sprouting as readily as crops once did when it was an area of truck farms and nurseries--has the highest crime rate in the city.
Last year, according to police, there were 152 residential burglaries, 55 business burglaries, 110 auto break-ins, 126 stolen cars, 38 street robberies and 15 business robberies. And on top of this, police say, there were rapes, assaults and drug busts. Statistics on crimes against persons are not listed according to neighborhood in Hawthorne.
A concentrated police effort in January and February reduced crime, but Chief Kenneth Stonebraker said it will still take police and residents working together "to get this thing won."
But with all of this crime to combat, Neighborhood Watch--which is entrenched in many other parts of the city--is non-existent in about half of Moneta Gardens. Even when there is an organization, Pearson said, it is difficult to keep people interested.
"This is just the opposite of a homogeneous neighborhood," police Capt. Davis Barnes said. "There are all kinds of structures, manufacturing is spotted throughout the area, and there are lots of transients. It's difficult for people to maintain much of a sense of identity with their neighbors when they live in a single-family residence and there's a 104-unit apartment next door."
Eleanor Carlson, Neighborhood Watch coordinator in Moneta Gardens, underscored the problem at a rally before the volunteers took their hikes into the neighborhood. "I was on the phone until 11:30 last night trying to round up people for this and I got so many excuses," she said.
The volunteers divided into groups and covered a total of 17 blocks where there is no organized Neighborhood Watch. Several said two things were consistent: People knew nothing about the program, but once it was explained to them, their interest shot up.
They were told that Neighborhood Watch members meet regularly with police officers and learn about home security and how to be alert to people and automobiles that seem out of place in their neighborhoods. They use the 911 emergency number to report crimes or suspicious activities.
"We went to three houses in a row that had been burgled," said Jacquie DeBity. "They all said, 'Why didn't you come around a month ago?' "
Connie Herbst, a block captain whose group talked to about 20 people, said, "People were sure happy we were out. They want something done. They've had cars stolen by people who have unbolted garage security doors."
Flyers, in both English and Spanish, were distributed urging people to join Neighborhood Watch by attending a 7 p.m. meeting next Thursday at Zela Davis School Cafeteria, 13435 Yukon Ave.
"People seemed receptive," said Mable Bond, "but we'll see how much they meant it on the 14th."