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Pay Phones Ring Up Trouble for Venice Residents

September 04, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

When General Telephone Co. workers showed up to dismantle pay telephones that were attracting troublesome gang members and drug dealers, Venice Beach residents thought they had finally won a hard-fought battle with the bureaucracy--until the company returned and installed 10 shiny new ones.

"We ended up with the same number of phones!" said Tom Marshall, a Neighborhood Watch leader. "Only these are newer and smaller."

People who live or work near the corner of Ocean Front Walk and Horizon Avenue claim that the phones have caused serious problems.

James Hoyt, owner of West Beach Galleries, said hordes of surly-looking gang members and drug dealers routinely use the telephones to "reach out and touch" their cohorts.

As a result, he said, the neighborhood has turned into a noisy, creepy, crime-ridden place that attracts troublemakers at all hours. One resident reportedly became so outraged after repeatedly getting a busy signal from GTE representatives that he took an ax to several of the old phones.

Continuing Complaints

"The telephones have turned this place into a drug supermarket," Hoyt said. "I have to clean blood off my building at least twice a week. We've complained for a year. But the phone company says they have to be there."

Daryl Gustafson, a GTE spokesman, said 23 phones are scattered along the one-mile stretch of Venice Beach under a contract with the county. Gustafson said pay phones are routinely put in areas with a lot of foot traffic.

Because of neighborhood concerns, Gustafson said GTE recently equipped the Ocean Front Walk and Horizon Avenue area with telephones that cannot receive incoming calls. He said that it would be unfair to remove them altogether.

"There might be legitimate users of those phones," Gustafson said. "And we feel that the origination-only phones will help" with the drug problem.

Hoyt, however, said origination-only phones make no difference, since most drug dealers carry beepers and don't depend on incoming calls.

Police Can't Keep Up

He and others along the popular tourist strip, which includes shops, restaurants and apartments, say life will remain intolerable as long as the phones are there. Bob Balhatchet, another Neighborhood Watch leader, said there's no way Los Angeles police can keep the area free of troublemakers.

"The beach patrol keeps the area fairly clean during the daytime," he said. "But nights are tough. These people come down and stand there pretending they're on the phone, when they're actually acting as lookouts for dealers."

Residents say that as many as 40 people per night, many of them gang members clad in their traditional garb, congregate around the phone bank that runs along the beach. They claim that they often see cash trading hands for crack cocaine and other substances. Fights are fairly common, they say.

Capt. John R. Wilbanks of the Pacific Division indicated that the phones are magnets for criminals, including some who use them to make long-distance calls with stolen credit cards. But he said there's little police can do.

"We've heard about the problems and we pay attention to that area and who's on the phones," Wilbanks said. "But you can't just stand around and guard them all day. And we can't order the phone company to remove them."

Request for More Phones

The county Department of Beaches and Harbors has sole discretion over the phones. But Richard Landon, property manager for the department, said officials are considering a request for more phones.

The county receives 15% of GTE's pay-phone revenues. Landon, who said he was unaware of the Ocean Front Walk and Horizon Avenue controversy, said pay telephones serve an important function in areas such as Venice Beach that attract large numbers of people.

Dell Chumley, president of the Venice Town Council, said the problem is frustrating. Chumley said that most residents and merchants know that the phones attract undesirables, but are powerless to do much about it.

"We don't want a situation where there are no phones for the public to use," she said. "But we also don't want to encourage lawlessness."

Hoyt said that something must be done. He said that crime will remain a problem as long as the pay telephones are in place.

"Violence has increased by about 100% in our area," Hoyt said. "I've seen people stabbed, beaten up and otherwise mauled because of those phones."

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