Since county officials closed an equestrian bridge linking Downey and Bell Gardens three years ago, Downey residents who live near the bridge say they have never felt safer.
Residents and city officials claim that burglars and vandals, who once used the bridge as a quick-escape route from the upper-middle-class Downey neighborhood into a vacant Bell Gardens lot that was once a trucking company, have virtually disappeared.
But the controversy that prompted the closing of the bridge resurfaced three weeks ago when Downey officials received a letter from the county announcing that the bridge would be reopened. That produced a quick and unhappy response in Downey, and the county has now backed down--but perhaps only temporarily.
Tom Hageman, a field representative for Supervisor Pete Schabarum, said the county had decided to delay the reopening of the span indefinitely because of complaints from a few Downey residents. He said, though, that it has always been the county's intention to eventually reopen it.
Residents of Guatemala Avenue say that if the county insists on reopening the span--known as the Bangle Road bridge--they are ready to fight.
"For two years now we've had peace of mind and felt safe here, and now they want to go back on their agreement to keep that bridge closed," said resident Lois Buchanan, who led the original move to close the bridge.
"The residents in this neighborhood do not want that bridge opened under any circumstances and we will fight to keep it closed."
Buchanan said she contacted city officials and received a pledge that they would once again pick up the fight to keep the bridge closed.
"I have sent a letter to Schabarum's office stating the council and the community would strongly oppose the opening of that bridge," City Manager Don Davis said. "Let's just hope they listen to us and it stays closed."
County officials blocked the entrances to the metal bridge in November, 1983, after touring the area with residents, police and city officials who complained that burglaries and vandalism had increased since the bridge opened in 1981.
Access to Bridle Trail
The bridge, which crosses the Rio Hondo Channel, was built to provide equestrians with access to the 22-mile Lario Trail, which begins at the Queen Mary in Long Beach and runs along the channel and the Los Angeles River, up to the Whittier Dam, Hageman said.
There is also a second bridge at John Anson Ford Park in Bell Gardens, two miles south of Bangle Road, that links the park with the Rio Hondo Country Club in Downey.
At one time residents asked the county to close that bridge also, but county officials refused, saying that it was used extensively by bicyclists, joggers and equestrians.
Hageman said that the county had planned to reopen the Bangle Road bridge in late September, but after receiving phone calls from residents, county officials decided to delay the opening indefinitely.
"At the time we decided to close the bridge, the trail had not been completed so we agreed to keep it closed until two (pedestrian) underpasses at Suva Street and Florence Avenue were completed," Hageman said. "Now that those paths have been completed we were ready to open the bridge. I guess the only way to resolve this is through a lot of discussions with the city and the residents."
Crime Fears Questioned
Hageman said he questions the residents' claim that crime will increase if the bridge is reopened. But Downey Police Capt. Pete Stone said that burglaries and vandalism in that area have decreased since 1983.
"In the past, that bridge has been very attractive for burglars because they could just hop across that bridge into Bell Gardens and we'd lose them," Stone said. "But things have been pretty quiet around there since the bridge has been blocked off. I don't think we have the manpower to patrol that area if things flared up again."
Stone said that he did not know if the perpetrators coming into Downey were Bell Gardens residents, but he recalled an incident in which a tractor was stolen from Bell Gardens and driven across the bridge into the Rio Hondo Golf Course in Downey.
"We don't know who they were, but they ran that thing over the greens and tore the place up," Stone said.
Questions over which city the burglars come from sparked a longtime feud between Bell Gardens and Downey officials. Bell Gardens officials in the past have claimed that the burglars could come from any of the five cities that converge near the bridge.
Near Other Cities
The bridge, in the northern tip of Downey, is just a few miles from Commerce, Montebello and Pico Rivera.
"Downey residents think Bell Gardens (residents) go over there to steal from them and our residents think they (Downey residents) come over here to steal from us," said Bell Gardens police Lt. Richard Webb. "But really we don't know who commits most of these crimes."