For years, the Los Angeles apartment community called "the Jungle" has been a place where a gram of cocaine could be bought as easily as a loaf of bread, where drug dealers provide curb-side service to motorists, where purse snatches, robberies and car thefts are commonplace.
Some community leaders think that part of the problem is the name, the Jungle. They want to change it to "Lower Baldwin Hills Apartment Community," linking it to nearby Baldwin Hills, one of the wealthiest black communities in the city.
While the proposal may not be the answer, it indicates an emerging desire to revitalize the Crenshaw-area community.
More concrete, however, is the $100-million expansion of a shopping mall and the election of City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. Her victory over Pat Russell last month raised hopes for a fresh start in the community and prompted leaders to ask for a task force to study problems in the district.
The area needs a new image and many feel a name change may be the place to start.
"It's a positive description, it's an accurate description of the community, and it does not carry the negative baggage that the Jungle does," said Anita Greene, a resident.
And it is a name that might catch on. Capt. Robert Gil, who heads the Southwest area police station, said he does not like the name the Jungle.
"It has a negative connotation," he said. "None of my reports will refer to it as such."
Ironically, the use of the nickname the Jungle was never meant to be derogatory but only a description of the palm trees and other lush tropical foliage planted about 30 to 40 years ago. The buildings, many with swimming pools, were given names such as Villa Portofino, August Tropics and Camellia House.
Since then, however, the community has experienced a number of changes, including white flight after the Watts riots in 1965. Low-income families replaced the middle-class tenants and many merchants moved out.
"I remember coming back to the area after a number of years and getting an eerie feeling," said Greene, who is manager of an apartment building in the community. "Most of the beauty was gone. The buildings were not maintained and swimming pools had been filled with concrete. It was no longer a lush tropical paradise but a concrete jungle."
About five years ago, landlords, tenants and police joined in a highly publicized campaign to clean up a haven for narcotics trafficking known as Sherm Alley. Scores of arrests were made and many drug dealers were evicted from their apartments.
Afraid to Go Out
As a result of the campaign and other police operations in the area, open drug sales have fallen somewhat, but there remain cases like that of William Long, a 76-year-old retiree, who said he is afraid to go out on the streets after dark and can hear constant bantering about narcotics sales in an alley outside his bedroom window.
"I don't travel much, I take care all my business during the day, and then I stay inside at night," he said.
Gil said he does what he can to eradicate the problem with the limited manpower at his disposal.
"We drive down there in our black-and-white vehicles and they stop, but when we leave, the activity picks back up again," he said. "The real solution is to educate the next generation to have an anti-drug attitude."
At a recent community gathering, landlords and tenants said they believe that Galanter will be more responsive than Russell had been to their concerns for increased police protection. Others said that the regional shopping center will give the community a needed economic boost.
"Galanter's election has helped to stimulate a reawakening in the community," said Eric Crumpton, a landlord and president of the Crenshaw Apartment Improvement Program Inc., an organization of landlords and tenants.
"We know that she will work closely with the Police Department to reduce crime, and, with her background in urban planning, she will be sensitive to the economic needs in our community," Crumpton said.
Richard E. Rice, a landlord, said that Galanter understood the Crenshaw community's concerns.
"When we first met her, her main thrust had to do with issues in Venice and other parts of West Los Angeles where people are upset about rampant development," he said. "She soon understood that in our area we need additional commercial growth and more jobs especially for residents in the Jungle."
Representatives for Galanter, who is still recuperating from a near-fatal knife attack in her Venice home two months ago, have met with leaders from the Crenshaw community. Galanter's campaign headquarters on Crenshaw Boulevard have been converted into a temporary council district office until a permanent location can be found.
"People have been working very hard to give the Jungle a positive image, but they feel that they have not received the right kind of support to bring that about," said Marcela Howell, Galanter's chief deputy.