One day before the Hollywood Sentinels' first anniversary, members of the neighborhood patrol group let out a collective groan as they gathered before a back-alley wall freshly painted with looping, red gang graffiti.
Within seconds, several younger members of the Sentinels sprinted up the alley, unlocked a garage door and began dealing out paint rollers and buckets like supply sergeants at a military canteen.
Minutes later, a broad white wall, a dumpster and a back door that had been the canvas for an outside gang bore the Sentinels' own signature: uneven smears of mismatched beige paint.
"It's too bad the city only gives us one color," joked one member as the others backed off to watch the finishing touches.
Satisfied with their work, the Sentinels dispersed up the alley, where they continued their joking, jostling and casual conversations on Hollywood Boulevard and back into the heart of the neighborhood around DeLongpre Park.
Although the Sentinels are just one of many watch groups championed by police and the media in recent years, their year-old commitment to eradicating drug traffic in their neighborhood is notable for its tenacity. The occasional sighting of graffiti and the presence of a few abandoned houses used as "shooting galleries" and flophouses by addicts keeps the group patrolling four nights a week, down from nightly patrols a year ago.
But the ease with which the Sentinels string out through the neighborhood indicates just how much difference the group has made in its first year. And, contradicting early critics who suggested that the group might fade back into its living rooms after a few months and that such work should be left to police, the Sentinels are expanding, finding new ways to improve the area.
"Of course the initial goal was to get the drug dealers off the street. But we made a commitment to unifying the neighborhood," said Debbie Wiehbe, one of 20 members of a spread out along DeLongpre Avenue last week. Wiehbe, principal of a local private elementary school, stopped briefly and pointed to a clean, brightly lit house.
"This house was really scary. Really filthy. It was empty and used as a shooting gallery for drug users. We learned how to work with the Building and Safety Department to get these kinds of places either brought up to code or torn down," Wiehbe said.
With much of the drug traffic gone--group members acknowledge that their efforts have probably just pushed it into other areas--the Hollywood Sentinels are branching out.
Some critics of Neighborhood Watch and citizen enforcement programs say they rely too heavily on a "just say no" attitude toward drugs and crime without presenting alternatives. With the gradual improvement of the area around DeLongpre Park, the Sentinels say they are investing more time in creating alternatives for neighborhood youths.
"We started a Boy Scout (and Girl Scout) troop when we realized that you can only spend so much time patrolling the streets," said Wiehbe's husband, Ferris, who is scoutmaster for Troop 200. "It gives (kids) leadership ability, and they learn to take charge. Now we have given them an Eagle Scout to look up to instead of a gang leader."
Ferris Wiehbe has also involved local youths in self-defense classes and football teams. The Sentinels are negotiating with the Community Redevelopment Agency to plant trees, and neighbors have agreed to water them.
"We realized that just getting the drugs out was not going to beautify the neighborhood," said Debbie Wiehbe.
The new programs are a far cry from the first months of patrolling, when children were left at home.
The group was created last year after 70-year-old Virginia Charon heard complaints from neighborhood children who had been threatened by drug dealers. Charon distributed handbills and asked neighbors to bring candles and children to a street-corner meeting. About 60 people marched through the streets Nov. 18, demanding that drug dealers leave.
"In the beginning, my heart would pound in my chest every night," Debbie Wiehbe said. "I looked up at every building, wondering if somebody might shoot at us or drop something on our heads. It was not fun. It was a kind of warfare."
After the first meeting, the group gradually gathered steam, and by New Year's Day, with support from police, businesses and even the Guardian Angels, it began nightly patrols.
A year later, the group still draws about 15-20 people a night to casually walk the streets. One recent patrol included six children, a couple of senior citizens and several Spanish-speaking members of the neighborhood's substantial population of Latin American immigrants.
"This corner," Charon pointed out at the intersection of Las Palmas and Fountain avenues, "was the primary drug-selling area. It was frequently roped off by police. People were shot right here."