The small hillside neighborhood of Mount Angelus is--literally and figuratively--a few steps above much of the rest of Highland Park.
Its well-maintained homes and lush gardens present a sunny, suburban flavor that contrasts with the problems of gangs, unemployment and crowded housing along some streets below. What's more, the hill is traversed by nine city-owned staircases, pedestrian-only thoroughfares that are shortcut alternatives to the winding roads.
But some residents say the combination of the literal and figurative creates trouble. They say the concrete staircases serve little purpose other than as hangouts for truants and hiding spots for burglars from the flatlands.
As a result, some homeowners are seeking permission to install locked gates at the entrances of the stairway walks and to remove the steps from public use.
That proposal has sparked debate on Mount Angelus, but not enough to stop its progress. The Los Angeles City Council Public Works Committee passed a motion last week allowing locked gates, and the matter is expected to go to the full council within two weeks, officials said.
Marijuana Use Alleged
"We are definitely in favor of the gates. All we get here are kids who are skipping school and sitting down and smoking pot," said Walter Sinclair. He has lived the last nine years in a house flanking a steep staircase called Mount Angelus Walk, which he and his neighbors keep clean and bordered with stretches of ivy and jade plants.
"Years ago, these steps used to serve a purpose, but now, with drugs and everything, they don't," said a man who lives near the top of the Monte Vista Walk. He does not want his named used, he said, in fear of retribution from vandals. His house was burglarized several times in the last few years, he said, by thieves who climbed through windows overlooking the staircases. Those windows are now covered by bars.
However, others among the estimated 170 households on the hill have mixed feelings about the prospects of closing off the stairways to the public. They say the stairs are a pedestrian convenience and help create the feel of a charming hillside village just within the elbow of where busy York Boulevard and Figueroa Street meet. Some also say they don't want to think they live in a sealed-off compound.
"It is a real dichotomy," said Jennifer Hall, captain of the local Neighborhood Watch. "The stairs are picturesque and are real neat . . . I like to jog on them myself and would feel kind of left out if I couldn't. But I sympathize with the people who live next to them and are having problems."
Herbert Vervalin has lived near the foot of the Monte Vista Walk 23 years. He said he opposes the proposed gates. "Sure, there have been times that teen-agers sit here and throw cans into the yards. But a lot of elderly people use it to walk down to church."
Two families alongside Andes Walk, between Garrison Drive and Lamont Drive, recently spent a about $700, they said, to install gates at its top and bottom because burglars hit both houses more than once. The gates, however, cannot be locked without council approval. And, even with expected approval, the homeowners say they may not actually lock off the stairs.
"We would hate to have to do it," said Leo Goodhouse, who has lived 22 years in a house with a main entrance on Andes Walk. Just having the gates up cuts down on the number of teen-agers loitering outside his door, Goodhouse said. If crime ever worsens and padlocks became necessary, he promised to give a key to any neighbor who requested one.
Problems With Locks
Caroline Burnside and her husband bought the house on the other side of the stairs eight years ago and helped pay for the gates. She, too, said she hopes that locking can be avoided. It would be a bother, she said, to fumble for keys while carrying her baby up the steps and would cut back on one of the main pleasures of Mount Angelus: meandering on the hill. "This is a very nice neighborhood," she said.
Several supervisors at the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division said they sometimes receive complaints about drinking and graffiti on the Mount Angelus stairways. But they could not recall any reports of the steps being used in a serious crime.
"Although that's not to say it is not happening," said Detective Luis Gallegos, who is the Northeast juvenile coordinator.
Detective Sgt. David Frazier described Mount Angelus as a fairly quiet area. "It does have a certain amount of residential burglaries, but that is happening all over the city. It is no worse than most other neighborhoods and probably better than some." Nevertheless, he said he would support the closings because it would cut escape routes by which burglars can avoid police patrol cars. "They now can hit one side of the hill and go up and over," he explained.
Upkeep of Walks
Under the proposed motion, owners of properties adjoining the walks will be responsible for upkeep of the steps--something they say they have been doing for years anyway because of the city's neglect. They will also be required to provide keys to the Police, Fire and Public Works departments, as well as to utility companies.
The motion was presented by Joel Wachs, whose 2nd District included Highland Park before last summer's redistricting. The area is now part of the 1st District and is awaiting councilwoman-elect Gloria Molina to take her seat Feb. 25. Meanwhile, a caretaker staff is pushing the proposal with the approval of city street engineers.
"We see no problem with it at all," said 1st District deputy Paula MacArthur.