For more than a decade, the cluster of battered apartments in a depression next to the 110 Freeway in Highland Park was known as "The Hole."
The hard-to-reach complex, home to many immigrants and illegal aliens, has been the center of drug dealing, gang activities, prostitution and violent crime, Los Angeles police say.
These days, residents who live on cliffs that ring the 144-unit Highland Village Apartments are more likely to refer to the complex by its proper name. The area where police arrested more than 100 people in the first four months of 1988 recently has seen a sharp drop in crime, police say.
The transformation came about after police employed a seldom-used state narcotics abatement law to pressure the owner of the property. In April, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division sent a letter to the owner, Angel Lopez, warning him that if he did not do something to improve conditions there, the city attorney's office would file suit against him under the 1971 state Controlled Substances Abatement Act.
Within a month, Lopez installed high-intensity lights throughout the complex, hired security guards to patrol at night, pressured four tenants suspected of drug dealing to leave, cut down shrubbery where dealers were known to hide bags of marijuana and removed the shells of abandoned cars and piles of rotting trash from the dusty courtyards between the complex's buildings.
"It's pretty quiet down there now," Officer Efrain Baeza said. "Every once in a while someone tries to set up shop, but the security guards catch them or we tell them, 'Hey, this is not the place.' "
Police and area residents say they are satisfied with Lopez's prompt response to the problems at his property, which he has owned since 1985.
"I feel better," said Jane Chavez, 31, who lives in the complex with her five children. "I can leave the windows open and go to sleep during the summer. I never could sleep before. I didn't feel safe."
The turnaround followed the concerns of a vocal group of residents who live in nearby apartments. Those residents had been plagued by break-ins, vandalism, car thefts and trespassing that police said were linked to narcotics activity at the Highland Village Apartments.
The problems reached a crescendo from Jan. 5 to April 14, 1988, when police arrested more than 100 people on charges ranging from grand theft to assault with a deadly weapon. Fifty of those were jailed.
Diane Alexander complained to her Los Angeles City Council representative, the police and the city attorney's office after her home on Longfellow Street was burglarized for the third time earlier this year. In April, she held a community meeting attended by more than 50 neighbors and city officials. Out of that meeting came a decision by Northeast Division Police Capt. Noel Cunningham to try the abatement procedure.
"It's so important that people can do things; we all feel so powerless against crime," Alexander said. "I feel like I own my own property again. My back hillside just didn't belong to me. It was constantly being destroyed. I'd get sick going out there looking at the vandalism, the drug addicts shooting up. Now I feel like a completely different person."
Even before the police asked him to improve the property, Lopez said he had made plans to erect the 10-foot-tall, chain-link fence that now rings the perimeter of the apartments.
"I have to do it because I want to improve this place," Lopez said. "I want to change the type of people who live here."
'Did Everything I Could'
Lopez said in an interview that he had been trying to evict some tenants from the complex since he bought the property in 1985.
"I did everything I could," he said. "I tried to grab them by the neck and drag them out, but it's just impossible to prove anything. They threatened me. They told me, 'Guy, you kick me out, I'm gonna kill you.' "
But Baeza said Lopez told police earlier this year that he had been unaware of problems at the complex and acknowledged that the property had deteriorated.
The operation at the complex was the first time Northeast Division police had used the state's abatement laws to address a problem at a residence, Cunningham said. This spring, Cunningham sent three police officers to the department's central bureau to learn how to gather evidence to be used if the suit went to trial.
But Lopez complied with police recommendations as soon as he received a letter from the department.
"I wish they were all that easy," Deputy City Atty. Pamela A. Albers said.
In the last two years, the city attorney's office has been working with area police departments to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which has been little used, Albers said.
The law, which mirrors the much older Red Light Abatement Act designed to control prostitution, allows the city attorney, district attorney or a private citizen to file civil action against anyone with a legal interest in a property that is being used consistently for selling, storing, giving away or manufacturing controlled substances.
At the Highland Village Apartments now, the new fence is plastered with brightly colored signs warning non-residents to stay away. The lights that Lopez installed--bright enough "to read a newspaper by anywhere in the place," Baeza said--shine at all hours, and the families crowded into dark apartments say they are not terrorized by drug dealers any more.