When Francine Vanous bought and refurbished a duplex in the Oakwood section of Venice, one of the first people to greet her was the neighborhood drug dealer.
The young crack peddler approached the demure-looking high school art teacher as she rode her bicycle down the street in broad daylight.
"He asked me what I needed," said Vanous, 38. "And I told him nothing. You see that a lot here, though I have learned which streets to avoid."
Criminals in residence aren't usually found in neighborhoods within walking distance of the beach. But in Oakwood, a cramped community of gang kingpins, artists, stockbrokers and petty thieves, such paradoxes abound.
High-cost housing units for upwardly mobile professionals are taking shape in the same area where a 9-year-old boy was gunned down in a gang-related shooting last week. People paying $1,400-a-month rent are living beside welfare families crammed into subsidized housing.
While Oakwood is arguably the most dangerous neighborhood on the Westside--some say the recent killing of little Jorge Gonzalez outside his home is a telling example of the precarious nature of life there--it is also becoming a popular site for adventurous renters and home buyers.
Larry E. Kincannon, a Jon Douglas Co. real estate broker who specializes in the area, said Oakwood usually appeals to the kind of people who are not sent running by the site of curb-side criminals, junked cars and graffiti. Such buyers, he added, are plentiful in today's high-priced housing market.
"Everything really started moving about two years ago," Kincannon said. "What happened was the surrounding areas were going up while Oakwood remained suppressed. And it reached a point where it became worthwhile for people to come in and fix it up, because there is only so much beach-area property."
Gail Wronsky and Chuck Rosenthal, married college professors who have a 1-year-old daughter, recently purchased a spacious house with a loft in Oakwood for about $200,000 after renting in the area for the last year.
Wronsky said Oakwood, for all its obvious downside, is still one of the best values along the coastline. As ex-Easterners, she said, she and her husband are accustomed to the rigors of an urban environment. On two occasions, she has marched into the street with her daughter on her hip and ordered a drug dealer away from her house.
"We have been surprised by the amount of public drug dealing going on," Wronsky said. "But (otherwise) we've liked it here from the start. We have a 1,400-square-foot house, and we're 5 blocks from the ocean."
Longtime residents, many of them poor blacks and Latinos, know all about Oakwood's growing cachet, and some fear that the poor will be washed away in a tide of big bucks and fast talk. They say it's not uncommon to receive an inquiry a day from real estate brokers offering to put their houses on the market for as much as $250,000, twice as much as they fetched two years ago.
"The yuppies are coming!," said Pearl White, sounding like a modern-day Paul Revere. "And many are already here. They are buying up everything."
Margarita Saenz and her family have lived in Oakwood for more than 25 years. Saenz said she has felt increasing pressures from real estate agents interested in moving the 13 members of her family out of their blue-gray Spanish-style house.
"I think what they ought to be doing is helping poor people to stay," Saenz said. "Because if all of us are forced out, where will we go?"
People living in federally subsidized apartments are also feeling the pressure. "Some . . . feel threatened," said Melvin Hayward, a neighborhood activist who manages a subsidized building. "They know that housing is critical and that this area is getting real popular."
In fact, Oakwood's 10,000 residents are already hemmed in by growth.
To the west, on West Washington Boulevard, is a thriving business community, the gateway to the beach. To the south lies the Marina Peninsula with its million-dollar homes and the bright lights of Marina del Rey. To the east is prime West Los Angeles residential property, and to the north is Santa Monica.
In the past, Oakwood stood apart from those places, as well as from the rest of Venice, because of its ghetto-like atmosphere. If Venice was a carnival, Oakwood was its scariest ride. But the gap is closing, says Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the coastal area.
"There has been much more activity in Oakwood in the last several years than there has been in a long time," Galanter said. "Oakwood was spared in the past because people viewed it as a tough area . . . (but) a lot of people who have been sitting on their property are now starting to build."
In an effort to control Oakwood's growth and calm community unrest, Galanter recently created the Oakwood Community Congress, a group that fights crime while encouraging cooperation between older and newer residents.