HARBOR GATEWAY — The Normandale Advisory Council, a residents' group that has met at the Normandale Recreation Center for the past decade, has disassociated itself from its namesake because residents are afraid to attend meetings there.
The group, the only residents' organization serving the southern half of the Harbor Gateway community has changed its name to the Harbor Gateway/Torrance Community Council and has moved its meetings away from the park.
Leaders of the group say the changes are intended to attract new members by giving the organization an identity independent of the recreation center, which is blanketed in graffiti and is a popular hangout for a local gang. They said, however, the group has not given up on "winning back" the park, pledging to tackle problems there once the council has regained its base in the community.
The council's membership has dwindled over the years from several dozen active people to six or eight die-hards, leaders said. Attendance has dropped in large part because residents consider the park too dangerous for night meetings, they said.
"People just don't feel safe meeting there or having their cars parked there," said Dale Friedly, the council's president. "It got kind of scary with the gangs there. We are hoping the move will stimulate attendance."
Lorraine Ornelas, director of the park, said in an interview last week that she is sorry to see the group leave. But Ornelas, who has worked at the park for a year and a half, acknowledged that the park has problems at night.
"It is like anything else," she said. "You cannot undo years of problems in a year and a half. . . . I don't know if (the council) gave us a fair chance. When something gets run down in an area, it takes a while for it be built up."
The group this summer temporarily moved its meetings to a nearby field office of Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the area, and this month moved its meeting site permanently to the Halldale Elementary School auditorium, several blocks north of the recreational center.
Although attendance did not increase over the summer, a heavily promoted meeting two weeks ago--which featured officers from the Los Angeles Police Department as speakers--drew nearly 100 residents, members said.
"That is one of the largest turnouts we have ever had," said Lois Lewis, secretary of the group. "I felt much safer. We could stand around outside, chew the fat and discuss things. At Normandale, we had to just jump in our cars and get out of there."
Residents said youths from a local gang hang out at the park, sometimes having violent run-ins with a rival gang from Harbor City to the south. Although leaders of the community council said their members have not been attacked, members have found their tires slashed, their cars broken into, and personal items stolen, they said.
"The park has a stigma," said Doris Tolone, the group's treasurer. "Three-quarters of the time the outside lights were broken. Every time they would fix them, the kids would break them again. . . . I don't like to walk there at 7 or 8 at night with eight or 10 kids hanging around."
Added Lewis: "It is terrible. I am scared to death there. I am a smoker, so I have to step outside to smoke, but there are always those unsavory looking characters there. It is frightening to me."
Police said they make regular arrests at the park for drug- and alcohol-related crimes, and occasionally pick up a gang member for possession of a deadly weapon. Most of the problems, police said, occur late at night after the recreation center closes. Two weekends ago, for example, three young men were injured during an early-morning shoot-out at the park, police said.
"It (crime) comes and goes, and it seems to be going back into the upswing," said Officer Ray Terrones, who patrols the area for the South Bureau CRASH Unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). "The fear factor is definitely there."
Michael Davidson, who is on the staff at Normandale, said various community groups use the recreation center during the day, and several youth sports teams use the gymnasium at night. He said employees of the center are on duty until closing time at 9:30 p.m.
"I have never seen them attack or (threaten) any patron who comes to the park," Davidson said of the gang members. "The problem is drugs and alcohol. When they start drinking, or start smoking PCP, marijuana or cocaine, that is when the problems arise. That is when I can understand why people would say it is unsafe here. But that is not just the gang guys, it is other people who come here, too."
Ornelas, the park director, said she has been trying to cut down on problems at the park by getting the cooperation of the local gang. One of the key issues, she said, has been outside lights.