With placards, an array of demands and the fever of years of frustration, 60 Wilmington residents confronted officials at the gate of a local trucking company last spring, insisting that the firm curb its traffic and noise in their neighborhood.
The company's manager was taken aback.
"No one's ever complained before," said George J. Michelback, regional manager of Express Intermodal Transport, who later granted most of the residents' requests. "I was surprised when 60 people showed up and started making demands."
He is not the only one.
Though Wilmington has faced problems for decades, residents have only recently begun fighting back. They have protested high-density apartment developments at zoning hearings; they have voiced opposition to toxic waste plants with state licensing agencies; they have called meetings with school officials to demand improved facilities.
"We are fed up with being the trash heap of the greater Los Angeles area," said resident and organizer Amber Crooks.
Indeed, in the last three years, at least 10 activist efforts, each organized around a specific issue or goal, have been launched in the previously passive community. Many say these efforts represent the biggest effort for change ever launched in Wilmington, a mid- to low-income community of 40,000 near the southern tip of Los Angeles.
"The momentum is here now. I have never seen this much activity," said Jo Ann Wysocki, a 42-year resident and community activist.
"Right now if you wanted to move a trucking firm into Wilmington, there would be a group to protest it," said Ramon Madrigal, a Wilmington social service worker. "In earlier years, there was no one to protect the community."
The efforts have reaped some successes. For example, residents prevented the opening of a halfway house for prison parolees and helped to eliminate the storage of sooty, dust-generating coke in residential areas of the harbor-front town. By filing a lawsuit, they also have blocked for two years the development of a major hazardous-waste treatment facility.
Many residents say Wilmington needs more.
The activism, many maintain, is diffused and narrowly focused around specific issues. They say Wilmington needs central leadership to surmount its longstanding problems.
"There is a lot more activity now," said resident Abelardo de la Pena, "but each group has its issue. If these groups would get together, then their pull would be stronger."
But recent activism has already attracted the attention of agencies from local government offices to the U.S. Department of Justice. Observed Ada Santiago Montare, a Justice Department conciliator: "Wilmington has become a squeaky wheel. It is wakening as a force. The residents are really coming together. In my view, this has political implications: Their elected officials are going to have to start answering to them."
That is what it will take to solve Wilmington's problems, residents say. They blame community problems on longstanding neglect by the city of Los Angeles, other government agencies and some of Wilmington's 800 to 900 businesses and industries.
A community planted atop one of the nation's most productive oil fields and in the heart of the country's most profitable harbor, Wilmington should reflect some of its natural riches, residents argue. Instead, the nine-square-mile area has 13 closed dumps, 200 salvage yards, a withering business district, overcrowded schools, hundreds of junked automobiles and dozens of mounds of litter scattered along side streets and vacant lots. Lack of planning has positioned homes near toxic-waste plants and schools next to pollution-spewing factories. The already-sizable homeless population is growing.
But until recently, there was little rumble in this quiet town of tradition, save for the purr of its hundreds of oil pumps and the clunk of its numerous shipping industries.
At scattered times in the past, Wilmington did protest the siting of certain facilities deemed undesirable by the community. There was a ruckus about nine years ago, for example, over the proposed location of a major county garbage transfer station. The station was not placed in Wilmington.
Wilmington saw perhaps its biggest effort for change, residents say, about 15 years ago with the creation of the Citizens Council to Improve Wilmington, a group of about a dozen residents who for three years lobbied for community improvement with some success.
The group eventually died, however, of weariness and members' time constraints, members said. Afterward, there was little widespread activism until three years ago, when three separate issues began rousing the community.
The activism began with the proposed halfway house for prison parolees. The facility was to be located near an apartment building beset by gang activity and vandalism, in a community that felt it was already facing a shortage of police protection.