LONG BEACH — A woman wrote her 5th District councilman that the "most critical need in our city is to have those terrible dim yellow lights on our streets replaced with new, bright lights."
A woman in the 6th District wrote her councilman that all the lights in a nearby block had been shot out, replaced by the utility company, and then shot out again.
Although only a few miles separate the 5th and 6th districts, there is a gulf of differences between them, reflected in the calls and letters that come into the council offices.
Predominantly white, middle class and suburban, the 5th District residents on the east side mostly fret about tree trimming, traffic and curbs. The predominantly poor, minority residents of the central 6th District mostly worry about the crime that daily circumscribes their lives in a tighter and tighter circle.
"My constituents--to them life and death is inconvenience," 5th District Councilman Les Robbins said. They have the luxury of worrying about parking and gutters and trees.
Robbins has an entire file folder of correspondence he has received about parking problems around Long Beach City College. He has another stack of mail about a now-defunct plan to rip out trees along Roxanne Avenue. He has people who are driving him "nuts" about stop signs.
When he does get a complaint about drug activity in a house, he can easily marshal 50 or 60 people at a neighborhood meeting. And the drug problem goes away. In Councilman Clarence Smith's 6th District, the problems can literally be matters of life and death, and the drug dealers don't go away.
"Our success stories last about two or three months," said Nancy Davis, one of Smith's assistants who handle the constituent calls. "Unfortunately, I can't think of an area where it's been cleaned up and that's it.'
Smith's constituents usually call his office rather than write, and when they do call, Davis said, they typically "are very upset and very scared."
Their calls are a grim chronicle of blocks terrorized by young, drug-dealing thugs, of random shots that chase people from their front porches, of prostitution and filth.
Smith's recent telephone logs include the following excerpts:
* A caller "stayed in her car until 5 a.m. because she was afraid of people gathered outside her home."
* A woman complained that youths, ages 7 to 15, have taken over the block, informing residents they will "kick your butt" if you "rat" on them for selling drugs. They throw rocks at the houses of people they think have reported them.
* The drug dealers in one woman's building hide drugs between wooden wedges in trash in the courtyard. She reported that if anybody tries to sweep up the trash, the dealers run to stop them. Young women peddling narcotics hide them with their babies. The loud music, constant drug traffic and fights make it "very hard to get rest and sleep."
* Another resident told of prostitutes working the corners of Pacific Coast Highway during the day and at night sleeping on a nearby grassy island that is used for Christmas displays.
* Suspicious of the TVs, stereos and electrical appliances regularly hawked at yard sales on the block, a caller suggested a burglary ring was holding the sales.
* A woman who hears gunshots in the night warned, "I never see any police around. Someone is going to get killed."
Calls about tree roots and parking problems also come into Smith's office, but in a trickle compared to the complaints about rampant drug dealing and its devastating effects on a neighborhood.
In the first three months of this year, there were nine murders, eight rapes, 186 robberies, 186 residential burglaries and 170 aggravated assaults reported in the 6th District. There were no rapes, one murder, 14 robberies, 13 aggravated assaults and 62 residential burglaries reported during the same period in the 5th District.
"My constituents are used to peace and quiet, and Clarence's people would love to have peace and quiet," Robbins observed. "If Clarence had my problems, he'd think he'd died and gone to heaven."
Among the letters to Robbins:
* A woman wondered if "perhaps the refuse department could tell us what can go in the regular trash pickup (By the way, I love the trash pickup people here in El Dorado--they're great.) and what we should do with what shouldn't go in the regular trash pickup."
* Someone sent Robbins a postcard of the sports stadium in Boise, Idaho, pointing out that it had bleachers on both sides and suggesting that Long Beach's stadium should also have a double set of bleachers.
* Residents sent a petition demanding the installation of stop signs at a couple of intersections.
Whether the complaint is about a pothole or a rock house, the calls and letters are not ignored. Whether the problem gets solved is another matter entirely. Getting a tree trimmed is an easy task for a councilman's staff. Eliminating the parking crunch around Long Beach City College is not.
Smith's office forwards the crime reports to the Police Department. Sometimes, Smith said, arrests are made. But more often, Smith gets a letter from the chief's office thanking him for informing police of the problem and saying the area will be monitored.