Rev. Leo David Nieto confronts the reality of street gangs almost every day.
Members of his congregation at the Atlantic Avenue Methodist Church often come to Nieto with tales of gang violence near their homes. Gang members have sprayed graffiti on Nieto's house in central Long Beach and scrawled their names in a bathroom in the church.
Those signs of gang activity trouble the minister. More disturbing to him is the city's failure to deal aggressively with the problem. "The city's priorities," Nieto said, "seem to be in the affluent areas of Long Beach."
Such grousing is not uncommon among residents of the city's poorer neighborhoods, the turf for street gangs. Many believe that school officials, police and other civic leaders have not done enough to tackle the problem.
The critics contend that city officials, in their decade-long push to revive the downtown commercial quarter with $1.3 billion in public and private money, have neglected some legitimate community concerns, among them the impact of gangs on Long Beach.
"I believe they're more concerned with downtown redevelopment than handling problems like gangs," said Jerome Torres, a board member for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "There's an agenda, and that is to bring in upper-income professionals."
City officials insist that is not the case.
"We're aware of the gang problem," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "I think many of us on the council have taken an active role. I think what many people are saying is we can do more, and I agree with them."
The council soon will have a chance to launch such an assault. On Tuesday, the city's Public Safety Advisory Commission will present a report on street gang activity in Long Beach that recommends several actions be taken by the council. (See Page 1 box).
Just how much money would have to be spent remains unclear. Russ Cross, police commander and liaison with the commission, said no price tag has been established for any of the group's recommendations. But several commission members say the council will have to look seriously at dipping into city coffers to battle the gang problem.
"By spending a little bit at this stage, we're going to save a lot of money down the road," Commissioner Jerry Wilbur said.
Currently, the city spends about $80,000 a year on its graffiti removal program. In addition, there is a $20,000 anti-gang program run by the Long Beach Community Services Development Corporation Inc., a private, nonprofit agency that draws some of its money from the city. The program has worked with 30 gang members since June.
Some critics remain skeptical that further steps will be taken.
"Long Beach is a great town for meetings, a great town for compiling nice, thick reports that draw dust on somebody's desk," said John Northmore, board chairman of Long Beach Community Services. "It's such a conservative town. They still don't want to admit there are gangs in Long Beach."
But Northmore does not simply blame City Hall. As he sees it, youth agencies in Long Beach have been reluctant because of potential legal liabilities and a lack of money to "get out in the streets" and work with teen-agers who join gangs.
Plea for Facilities
He argues that the city also needs improved parks and other recreational facilities offering weight lifting, martial arts, boxing and other sports that "will let the young male of the species prove his manhood in a socially acceptable fashion."
Mario Cordero, a Public Safety Advisory Commission member, counters that such tactics are merely a diversion and do not attack the root cause of gangs.
Cordero said the school district should be teaching children at an early age to steer clear of gang life. As an example, he points to an anti-gang class offered to fifth graders in Paramount. That 15-week course, called Alternatives to Gang Membership, has proven remarkably successful since it began in 1982. Formal studies show that 90% of the more than 700 students who each year complete the $68,000 program say they would never join a gang.
In 1983, several community leaders asked Long Beach school officials to adopt the course, but trustees balked. This year, however, the district has incorporated two one-hour sessions on gangs as part of a drug prevention course, Project DARE, being offered to sixth-grade students.
'Tackle It Head On'
Promoters of the Paramount program, however, say two hours is equivalent to putting a Band-Aid on cancer. "We're up against decades of gang membership. A few hours a semester is hardly enough," said Tony Ostos, director of the Paramount program. "They need to tackle it head on."
School officials say they are fully aware of the gang problem in Long Beach and feel that the district is making a serious effort with Project DARE. Richard Van Der Laan, a district spokesman, said school trustees believe Project DARE demonstrates to students throughout the district, not just those in gang-affected areas, that they can resist peer pressure, be it to join gangs or use drugs.