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New Life for a Barrio : Redevelopment Improves Buena Clinton's 'Hard Times'

February 02, 1990|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ice cream trucks actually sell ice cream these days and the prostitutes no longer solicit door-to-door. Such small victories are the measurements of progress for Buena Clinton.

Once it was hell in a very small place--just 38 acres on the Garden Grove border with Santa Ana, labeled the worst slum in Orange County. It's still a small place, but police and social workers, residents and bureaucrats say Buena Clinton isn't quite the hell it used to be.

"This isn't a slum. This is just a low-income neighborhood now," says Sgt. Bruce Prince, commander of a three-officer squad that patrols the neighborhood from a substation on its northern border, Westminster Avenue.

Granted, automobiles still get stolen from the carports. Some apartments still lack windows. There's still a gang based in Buena Clinton. And drugs are still available.

Many of the residents don't speak English--perhaps 70% are Hispanic, 30% or so Asian. Most get only minimum-wage jobs when there's any work at all, standing on Westminster Avenue in the morning and waiting for someone to pick them up for construction work or gardening.

But as bad as things are, the consensus is that it was worse as recently as two years ago.

For years, Buena Clinton had the highest crime rate in Garden Grove. Residents called it "Barrio Hard Times" and told of ice cream trucks lining up on the streets, one behind the other, and selling drugs along with the Popsicles.

Just up the street was a liquor store that was off limits after dark to anyone except the junkies and the senseless, according to one tenant. A bar, since torn down, was a central market for drug sales. The city devoted 10 times the resources to Buena Clinton that it did to other neighborhoods its size, and spent much of it on police. Yet the crime rate was three or four times as great as in other areas.

"It was tough" in the neighborhood, said Joe Singh, assistant director of the Orange County Community Housing Corp., who lived there one summer more than a decade ago. "I remember seeing vans come in, packed with prostitutes, and they would honestly knock door-to-door and look for clients."

Even two years ago, not long after Anne Rivera signed on as a social worker for La Amistad de Jose on Clinton Street, she would drive around the neighborhood, from Westminster Avenue on the north, south past Keel, Sunswept and Morningside Avenues, from Buena Street on the east to Clinton on the west.

"People who knew me as the social worker at the clinic would come out and walk right up to my car," she remembered. "(They would) say, 'What do you want, lady?' " offering to sell her any drug she chose. But recently "that hasn't happened."

"I think it's a lot cleaner, nicer place to live than it used to be in respect to crime on the streets. I do feel the crime is still here, but it's not out in the open."

Why the change?

Everyone credits the on-site police presence, plus a crackdown by the city on building violations. But what many feel was the most important step in the improvement was a reduction in the overcrowding. Buildings were torn down; others were improved. And tens of millions of dollars are being spent on a small place.

Once there were 5,000 to 6,000 people in 101 buildings, all of them two-story structures seemingly produced by the same cookie-cutter. Most apartments had two bedrooms. The average apartment occupancy was seven residents; sometimes the number hit 15. And in some cases landlords charged each resident a monthly rent, rather than levying a flat rate for the apartment.

Rats scurried through buildings. Stairways crumbled. Roofs leaked and electrical wiring was hazardous. Landlords collected rents and profits, blaming tenants for many of the problems. Tenants, many of them illegal immigrants who were afraid that if they complained about conditions the landlords would turn them in to immigration officials, paid up or got out.

Although overcrowding wasn't always a problem, housing experts say that from the time the first units started going up in 1961, as the county's orange groves were bulldozed in favor of houses, Buena Clinton looked like a disaster in the making, a neighborhood born to lose.

A city report issued four years ago said the buildings were poorly designed and badly built. Allen P. Baldwin, executive director of the private, nonprofit Orange County Community Housing Corp., said the problems of Buena Clinton, in varying degrees, have occurred in other places where so many housing units have been built one atop another.

"If (the landlord next door) doesn't keep up his building, my building goes down," Baldwin said. And potential occupants "won't rent my building because of the way his building looks." As a sweetener, the landlord with the vacancy cuts the rent. But to get enough money out of the building to pay the mortgage and make a profit, he makes up for the cheaper rent by taking in more tenants, letting two or three families rent an apartment built for one family.

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