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New Lease on Life : Rehabilitation Rekindles Hope at Housing Project, but Critics Say It Isn't Enough

January 03, 1988|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

"If you give us slums to live in, we don't have the pride to keep it nice. If you give us a nice, new community, we have that pride."

--Spokeswoman Dorothy McAleavey in 1984.

She has spent her life in dusty West Texas towns and in tough Los Angeles housing projects. But now, on a bright day after a chill autumn rain, 23-year-old Debra Allen says the clouds have parted.

"To my idea, this is the nicest place I ever lived," says Allen, pushing her infant son's stroller as a second child, 2-year-old Damon, tugs at her pants leg.

All around her, along the curved streets of the Carmelitos Housing Project in Long Beach, things are peaceful.

"I was in Nickerson Gardens . . . and I was in Jordan Downs. Always in the projects," says Allen, a Carmelitos resident since May. "But this project seems more like condominiums to me. My friends from L. A., they ask me: 'What do I do to get in over here?' "

For Carmelitos, the largest of 32 Los Angeles County housing projects and for years Long Beach's most notorious slum, it is an improbable endorsement.

Crime and Decay

Built during World War II, a center of gang violence in the early 1970s, partially closed by 1980, Carmelitos has long meant crime and decay to the larger Long Beach community.

A councilman once quipped that Carmelitos, separated from fashionable Bixby Knolls by the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, would make a nice golf course when cleared. The city favored replacing the sprawling family project with new housing exclusively for the elderly.

Instead, at least partly because of a tenant lawsuit that blocked demolition, Carmelitos has been rehabilitated with $24 million in federal money since 1982, and most of its tenants are still families whose incomes average $8,150 a year.

Today the 1,850-resident community has the look of a moderately priced condo complex. Its 713 dwellings are color-coordinated, its 64 acres rolling, shady and mostly clean.

At its Orange Avenue entrance, just north of Del Amo Boulevard, a large masonry sign bears the project's name. Inside, children play at a new park and attend a preschool and nursery, which are part of a community center completed last summer.

A fashionably decorated senior center, with skylights, library and billiard parlor, is the focus of a newly opened 155-apartment complex for the elderly, who live around a courtyard behind security gates.

Carmelitos residents, many of whom have lived there for generations, say the new construction brought with it a surge of pride.

"I think people's pride has gotten up a lot," longtime resident Dorothy McAleavey says. "In general, I'd say we think we've got it pretty good."

Children say they are no longer ashamed to bring their friends home; many tenants say they are determined to keep the project clean, and Carmelitos' neighbors say they are surprised and impressed by what they see as efforts to break a cycle of poverty.

Now a Showplace

Indeed, the project is now touted by the county Housing Authority as a showplace.

"Carmelitos is one of the most beautiful housing projects in the country . . . a model for other public housing authorities," says Executive Director David Lund. The authority, in fact, has just won a top award from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the renovation.

But not all is new and clean and safe at Carmelitos, residents and county officials acknowledge. They say that the gains of reconstruction may be temporary if they don't work harder to keep things up and to improve the quality of tenants' lives in other ways.

"This is wonderful, but it's not enough," says Vincent Neal, 29, a 16-year resident. "This place is a storage house for poor people, and I don't think new buildings change that. People are still trapped in the welfare system without education or jobs."

'Need Training'

Carmelitos manager Mary Douglas agrees. "Initially, all of them were impressed. But they need training and they need community involvement to continue the pride they first had."

Deterioration can already be seen in a handful of the 19 apartment clusters that serve--along with the senior-citizen compound--as mini-neighborhoods within the project.

In at least three of the parking lots around which the clusters are formed, drug pushers and their customers often keep frightened neighbors awake with their deals and disputes.

One resident tells of a recent gun battle that spread from his parking lot into the street nearby. Another says she recently picked up six spent shotgun shells outside her door after a sleepless night of sudden explosions. And, last May, an errant bullet from the project seriously wounded a student at an adjacent junior high school.

Drug Area

Narcotics officers say the worst parking lots at Carmelitos make up one of the five most serious drug areas in the city. A police strike force made 18 arrests for cocaine sales during a one-week crackdown in August--despite gang lookouts who shouted warnings into cellular phones from Carmelitos' two entrances.

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