HUNTINGTON BEACH — The troubled area's front door is the busy commercial intersection of Beach Boulevard and Warner Avenue.
But the high-rise officer tower, swank movie house and glittering health club belie the problems that lurk just around the corner. Because behind this gleaming commercial strip is Oak View--a densely packed, graffiti-scarred residential area that has become Huntington Beach's biggest social problem.
Police statistics tell a grim story about Oak View. The area, bounded by Beach, Warner, Slater Avenue and Gothard Street, has a crime rate four times higher than elsewhere in Huntington Beach, and more drugs are sold there than anywhere else in the city. Gangs are also a problem, and the area has been the scene of two drive-by shootings, neither of which caused injury.
In addition, the area is a favorite gathering point for day laborers, adding yet another level of enforcement problems for the city.
Many Oak View residents, who are primarily new Asian and Latino immigrants, are among those urging the city to help make their neighborhood safe again.
And last week, the City Council promised action for Oak View.
"After driving through the area, I saw that it's obvious that the situation in Oak View is becoming a lot worse," said Mayor Thomas J. Mays. "Gang activity and crime are on the increase there.
"We on the council have said that maintaining a safe community is our first priority. Now, as a council, we need to support items in our budget to maintain a safe community in Oak View."
While no formal vote was taken, the council agreed with Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg's recommendation that the city spend about $500,000 in the next fiscal year to help stabilize the area.
Lowenberg said that more than just a police crackdown is needed.
"We're recommending some things to deal with problems in that area, including dealing with social problems," Lowenberg said.
The police chief's recommendations were for:
* Putting a police substation in Oak View.
* Increasing police foot-patrol presence in the area.
* Employing a professional counselor to work with young people and their parents.
* Hiring an additional city staffer to check for overcrowded and poorly maintained housing units.
* Increasing the staff at the Oak View Community Center, extending the center's operating hours and buying more recreation equipment for the center.
* Creating a day-laborer hiring hall, to be situated in Oak View.
None of Lowenberg's Oak View proposals are included in the tentative $176-million city budget presented to the City Council last week. Funding the extra $500,000 needed to implement the recommendations will will mean revising the budget. Nonetheless, council members said they were strongly in favor of the actions.
The council hopes to have the same success in cleaning up Oak View as the city had with a former problem neighborhood called Commodore Circle. Five years ago, Commodore Circle was the hub of the city's crime and drug-dealing problems--a run-down, crowded, decaying street.
The city declared an all-out effort to rehabilitate Commodore Circle, cracking down on slumlords, supervising massive repairs and increasing police patrols. The name of Commodore Circle was recently changed to Amberleaf Circle, at the request of residents, to show that a new street has emerged from the wreckage of the past.
"I think the city was very, very successful in what it did with Commodore Circle," said Arturo Vasquez, 20, a community activist. Vasquez, who once worked for the city in the Oak View area, said he now wants that kind of city attention focused on Oak View.
In a short address to the City Council recently, Vasquez argued for a new police substation to serve the neighborhood.
"I've walked the streets there, and the drug dealers openly tried to sell me drugs. The gang activity has increased," he said.
Others who live or work in the area similarly say that gang activity is a major worry. Many residents are afraid to go outside after dark for fear of gang violence, according to Colleen Gelfer, director of the Oak View Community Center. She said the center went to daylight-only operating hours last fall because staffers feared violence after dark.
"Some of the gang members come and stand around outside the building," Gelfer said. "That's one reason parents have said they don't want to send their kids to the community center: because they see the gang members hanging around in front."
Gelfer and her assistant, Kerry Steffenson, praised the young people of the area with whom they work.
"The elementary-age kids are great," said Steffenson. "They are very well behaved. Most of the teen-agers are nice, too. The only ones we have problems with are the gang members. They mostly hang out in front; they usually don't come inside."
Lowenberg said the gang problem in Oak View tends to spread to other parts of the city and into neighboring Westminster and Fountain Valley. The problem must be curtailed now, he said, before it spreads out of control.
In an interview, Lowenberg said he and the city staff committee that investigated Oak View "found a multiplicity of problems, not just a single root problem."
"Many social issues are involved," he said. "There's a diversity of cultures. There's housing problems. There are too many people packed into one area, and that always tends to cause problems. There are some landlords doing a great job there, but there are others who are typical absentee landlords.
"What we tried to do is present the problems to the City Council, and I'm pleased at the council's response. My feeling is that we need to start solving these problems now--before they get out of control."