The remnants of the Americana Motel sit stolidly in the 6700 block of DeLongpre Avenue in Hollywood, a sign on its stucco walls still advertising a vacancy, free color television and a "low weekly rate." But there are no guests anymore, only prisoners.
The motel--once the haven for prostitutes and others on the grimy side of Hollywood--now has barred windows and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. There is a locked gate and razored concertina wire loops along the rooftop. Behind the walls of the former motel are men, women and children who have been detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The tenants, suspected illegal aliens, are the inhabitants of the newest INS detention facility--in the middle of a neighborhood of single-family homes and apartment buildings. And while the neighbors are happy that the building is no longer used as a motel, some question its new use.
"We feel very uneasy. It's like looking over at prisoners in a prisoner-of-war camp," said Raquel Godoy, who lives across the street.
Another neighbor in the same block, who spoke in Spanish and declined to give her name, agreed.
"It's a mental stress. We see that many of them are Latino people like us, and you see the children playing behind the bars," the mother of five said. "No one ever told us that they would be here."
Residents said they knew nothing about INS plans to move into their neighborhood until a busload of detainees arrived on New Year's Eve. Today, there are about 70 people at the 20-room motel building and eventually there will be room for 125--usually staying anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before deportation proceedings begin.
Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the Hollywood area, said he shares the concern of his constituents and wants the city to look closely at the facility.
"I think clearly it's an affront to the neighbors in the area," Woo said Wednesday. Referring to past problems with prostitution, drug dealing and related crimes in the area, Woo added: "I don't think it's right to burden the (residents) with one additional facility that detracts from the community."
Woo said he plans to ask the city's Building and Safety Department to cite the INS and its private contractor for failing to comply with city zoning ordinances and for not obtaining the necessary permits to operate the detention facility.
Those problems with city regulations, Woo said, may extend to possible fire code violations. City officials who inspect buildings for code compliance could not be reached for comment. But Woo contended that local residents should have been warned about the plans to locate a detention facility in their midst.
"Either the contractor or the INS failed to recognize the need to notify the public or they did it intentionally," Woo said.
Executives with Behavioral Systems Southwest Inc., the private firm that has contracted with the INS to operate the Hollywood facility, denied that any city ordinances were broken, although they said they are seeking to change the classification of the building "from motel to a board-and-care facility."
"Our understanding is that we are violating no codes," said Lucille Wills, regional administrator for the Pomona-based company.
The firm, which has a one-year contract with the INS, had been operating a similar facility--at a daily cost to the government of about $30 per person--out of a Pasadena convalescent home until city officials there cited zoning restrictions and told the company to leave.
Faced with a Jan. 1 deadline to find a new temporary lockup for the suspected illegal aliens, the company seized on the Hollywood site. "The zoning was appropriate, and the building was available," Wills said.
George Rayner, INS assistant director for detention and deportation, said federal officials inspected the motel and concurred that it could be used to hold illegal alien suspects while they await deportation proceedings. But he added that compliance with local zoning ordinances or regulations was the responsibility of the private contractor.
Noting that the INS has a similar detention facility in Inglewood, Rayner said the Hollywood facility is not unusual and represents an improvement to the property. The motel there was nearly shut down in 1982 when a Superior Court judge warned owners to stop renting to prostitutes.
"Before we went there, the (motel) was used by hookers and drug users," Rayner said. "We cleaned up the neighborhood."
Virginia Charon, a resident who has lived in the area since 1942, agreed. "I'll have to say that Immigration has cleared the place up," she said. "It was an absolute mess."
But the change has not placated Charon's neighbors. "It was something totally unexpected," said Raquel Godoy. "We were very comfortable, and then the INS came.