Alfredo Pacheco sat in his living room amid tables covered with family photographs and talked fondly of Wilmington, his lifelong home.
"People plant their roots here and they feel secure here," said the 51-year-old retired police officer, who lives just nine blocks from the house where he grew up.
"You go to the market or the cleaners, and there is always someone there to greet you and ask how your family is--your parents, your brothers and sisters, your offspring. It is a very stable area. When there is a death in the family, especially with one of the old-timers, there is tremendous support."
Pacheco paused. "A lot of people have misperceptions about Wilmington," he said. "We have our share of problems here, but there is a lot more to Wilmington than most people think."
A community long overshadowed by its imposing industrial landscape, Wilmington appears to be an unkempt, nine-square-mile sprawl of oil refineries, factories and auto-wrecking yards. It has other visible problems: heavy truck traffic, haphazard land-use patterns, pollution, litter, commercial decline.
It is often perceived, residents say, as a place where industry stays but people come and go, or as an impoverished, high-crime district where no one would want to live.
"My sister is a beautician in Torrance and people ask her, 'Gee, aren't you scared out there?' " said Ramon Madrigal, a community social service worker whose family lives in Wilmington. "Crime and Wilmington's negative aspects are always highlighted."
But Wilmington residents--perhaps bound by adversity--say a sense of pride and community spirit perseveres in spite of the area's problems and rough reputation. Residents see Wilmington as a hub of family-oriented traditions, where churches are avidly supported, Latino culture colorfully celebrated and education emphasized as a way for the next generation to do better.
Now residents are organizing to combat Wilmington's longstanding problems and they are drawing attention to a community they say has long been misunderstood or unnoticed by outsiders. Indeed, many say they are trying to protect a community they don't want to leave.
A mid- to low-income enclave of 40,000 at the southern tip of Los Angeles, Wilmington is mostly a mix of recent Latino immigrants and old-timers of various ethnic backgrounds. It is a place to which most people first move out of economic necessity--housing is less expensive than in neighboring areas--but where many remain by choice.
"Now we can afford to move out," said Barbara Guajaca, 59, a resident for 36 years, "but we decided not to. All my children and grandchildren live here. This is our community. I have nothing against the people in Palos Verdes, but I have nothing in common with them either. With the people in Wilmington, I went through what many of them are going through: I was poor and I raised a family and I struggled."
"People have long-term affairs with Wilmington despite its problems," agreed Edmundo Fimbres, 35, an optometrist who lives next door to the home in which he was raised. "It's actually a nice place to live. It's home. This is a phenomenon that happens to a lot of people: They have the money to move out and they don't, or some move out and come back."
What keeps people in Wilmington, many say, is its sense of being a cohesive community, a distinct niche in the sprawl of Los Angeles where people know one another. About 45% of Wilmington's 11,518 dwelling units are owner-occupied homes; the Los Angeles average is about 40%.
"I have fallen in love with Wilmington," said Alicia Moreno, 53, who bought a house in Wilmington three years ago when she married. "When my husband had cancer in March, my neighbors were so kind. We hardly knew them, but they came over and mowed the lawn and were there and willing to help. . . . Before we had said we'd move anywhere but Wilmington and here you have nice people like this."
If Wilmington's small-town flavor brings people together, though, it has also spurred dissension. As in many urban areas, Wilmington's changes and problems--the recent and steady growth of its immigrant population, for example--have drawn disparate reactions.
An old community that dates back to 1863, when founder and developer Phineas Banning named it after his birthplace, Wilmington, Del., this harbor town has long had its own identity. Wilmington was an incorporated city until 1909, when residents voted to become part of Los Angeles.
"Wilmington has a strong sense of identity" in a way that other Los Angeles communities do not, said Scott Hanlon, chairman of a city-appointed community advisory group that is studying the area for possible rezoning.