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It lies in the heart of the port. It sits atop a rich oil field. But it is a study in urban decay, and residents have begun to fight back. : Wilmington : Community of Contradictions

WILMINGTON: This is the start of a three-part series on this troubled community at the southern edge of Los Angeles. Today: Though rich in oil and next to a bustling port, Wilmington is plagued by problems that residents attribute to neglect by government and industry. Thursday: Despite its problems, Wilmington is proud of its rich Latino culture and strong sense of community. Next Sunday: A new generation--better-educated, more familiar with the system, feeling pushed to limit--is demanding change.

October 06, 1985|DONNA ST. GEORGE | Times Staff Writer

Three blocks and a world away from the bustling Port of Los Angeles, Maria Mendoza surveyed the street her family has called home for 23 years: a scattering of neat stucco houses and small apartments wedged among a trucking yard, an auto-wrecking operation, a lot stacked with rusty barrels and another bearing the sagging remains of a nightclub. Old tires littered an alley.

"Wilmington has been neglected for generations; our neighborhoods, our schools, everything," said Mendoza, a 35-year-old cashier and mother of four.

Anger swelled in her voice as Mendoza recalled when she and other parents signed petitions and sat through endless meetings, trying to get a cafeteria for a Wilmington school so their children would no longer have to eat in a schoolyard polluted by sulfur and cement dust.

School district officials, as they have for the past 10 years, say they don't have the money.

"The school district and the city should be doing more," Mendoza insisted. "Wilmington needs so much, but it gets nothing."

About a mile away, Teresa Huerta stood in the shadow of the oil refinery next to her home on M Street, watching her children play. The stench of rubbish emanated from the lot behind her house where tons of garbage are unloaded each day for compacting.

"The trash got so high at the garbage company that it was knocking down our fence," she recalled. "We get big roaches and rats from that garbage; the smell is terrible."

Huerta shook her head. "We have the refineries and the garbage companies--all these industries--but we don't see any of the money they make. It never comes back to Wilmington."

Wilmington is a community of contradictions.

It is planted atop one of the nation's most productive oil fields, and dozens of petroleum-related companies have interests here, but residents see few signs of the millions of dollars that those firms and other industries make. Instead, residents say, they see only industry's noxious fumes, noise and truck traffic.

Wilmington also lies in the heart of one of the country's most profitable and fastest-growing ports, but that prosperity has not rubbed off on the community. Instead, much of Wilmington is a landscape of urban decay.

With the millions in tax revenue the area generates, some say Wilmington's streets should be paved with gold. Instead, they are lined with rubbish.

To many, Wilmington's location is symbolic. Situated near the geographical bottom of Los Angeles, Wilmington also appears to be at the bottom of government priorities, many residents claim. Though officials deny it, many residents charge that the city of Los Angeles, its port authority and other government agencies neglect the nine-square-mile community of 40,000.

Evidence of Neglect

These residents see neglect in the absence of government planning for the community, a situation that has positioned dust-spewing industries next to homes and schools. They see neglect in Wilmington's debris-cluttered vacant lots and side streets, in its growing number of homeless people, in its withering business district. They see neglect in the junked automobiles--a police estimate puts the number at more than 400 on any given day--that lie rusting along Wilmington's back streets.

They see neglect in Wilmington's schools--each of its six public grammar schools is overcrowded--and in the absence of port-funded commercial or recreational development.

Moreover, residents say, Wilmington has become a regional dumping ground with 13 closed waste dumps--one of the largest concentrations in the city of Los Angeles--and six toxic-waste storage or treatment plants. It also is the proposed site of one of the largest hazardous-waste treatment facilities in the state.

"Wilmington is supposed to be one of the most functional and important parts of Los Angeles," said the Rev. Luis Valbuena, pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church and a highly regarded community leader. "Why is it that you never even see the basic services that a community is entitled to? . . . Elected officials and the machinery behind them have taken advantage of these people and their passiveness."

"I think Wilmington has been neglected by government," said Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach), whose district for the last three years has included Wilmington. "The central business district has declined; the roadways have not been maintained to any acceptable standard, the area is, quite frankly, very dirty."

Not Ignored

But some other government officials argue that Wilmington has not been ignored. Budget considerations limit what government can do for the area and Wilmington is treated no differently than any other part of Los Angeles, officials say. They say some of the problems simply stem from the area's industrial nature.

Many industry officials, though, agree with residents that government is partly responsible for the community's condition. And a few corporate leaders go a step further: They say both the public and private sectors have been remiss in their responsibilities.

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