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Life in City's Toughest Neighborhood : Extra Police, Housing Aid Are Pledged to Help Embattled Washington Middle School Area


LONG BEACH — The meeting of the new neighborhood association began much like any other, with nervous introductions and people helping themselves to soft drinks and cookies. Then the talk turned to how some of them had spent their weekend.

The president had fought off a knife-wielding man trying to break into his apartment through a window. The vice president said she had to take her husband to an emergency room after he was badly beaten by gang members. At least one member had spent his days off painting over graffiti.

They live in the Washington Middle School neighborhood, recently ranked by city officials as the worst in Long Beach.

It's an inner-city area where the sound of gunshots frequently mixes with the shouts of children, where graffiti dominates the landscape, where drug dealers hawk merchandise as conspicuously as ice cream vendors.

City officials agree that the predominantly Latino neighborhood around the school is in dire need of help. They have pledged an infusion of aid, including extra police protection, offers of low-cost loans to property owners and a crackdown on building code violations. It is one of two neighborhoods that city officials have selected for such aid.

The city's efforts are welcome news to area residents, such as Catalina Munoz and Flor Luna, who recently stood behind a chain-link fence listening to the latest horror story from Munoz's two children, Maribel, 9, and Rachel, 2.

"Three days ago," said Maribel, her eyes widened, "I was playing with my friends when I saw a boy with a gun. He fired, and we had to run to a friend's house."

"I was scared, mommy," added Rachel, clinging to her mother's leg.

"This is why I don't like them to play outside," Catalina Munoz said in Spanish. "This is why we're terrified."

When Munoz and Luna gather to chat about the latest news in their lives, the conversation invariably turns to gangs and murders and drugs. "It's like living in the middle of a war," Munoz said.

Although it has a high crime rate and is more deteriorated than most, the Washington Middle School neighborhood is in many ways similar to others in the low-income inner city in western Long Beach, south of Pacific Coast Highway.

For many of the families living in the area, home means overcrowded, run-down apartment buildings. In these neighborhoods, alleys make good hiding places for gun-toting youngsters, and the streets provide the main playground for children.

And tragedies abound. Last month, a pregnant woman was shot during a drive-by shooting in a crime-plagued neighborhood just east of the Washington neighborhood. Kentzie Pope died on the operating table Aug. 2, just 20 minutes after her daughter was born.

Sandra Jean Lacy was sitting in front of her mother's building on Chestnut Avenue last month when two warring gang members started shooting. Lacy was caught in the cross-fire and killed.

At the Long Beach Day Nursery down the street, staff members hear gunshots nearby every couple of weeks, said Mary Soth, executive director.

But the 80 children are sealed off from the outside by a gate and have never been in danger, she said.

After dark, gunshots are heard practically every night in the Washington neighborhood and other parts of the inner city, according to residents.

City officials said they have decided to concentrate on two neighborhoods because they don't have the resources to tackle every crime-riddled neighborhood.

"We needed a place to start, so we're going to work with the more troubled areas first," Councilman Clarence Smith said.

Officials analyzed the city's 84 census tracts, looking at such factors as crime rate, the number of welfare recipients, absentee property owners and complaints about building and

The tract that includes Washington school, for example, has the highest number of absentee landlords and the highest number of crimes against people, such as murders and rapes. In 1989, for example, there were 265 such crimes recorded for the tract.

City officials then toured the worst tracts in a van to pinpoint the two most deteriorated neighborhoods.

The Washington Middle School neighborhood--bounded by Pacific Coast Highway, Anaheim Street, Magnolia Avenue and Pacific Avenue--was rated as the worst.

"We saw drug deals being conducted right in front of our van, in broad daylight," said Glenn Walker, a city information specialist in the division of advanced planning. "There's no question this is an area in trouble."

"It's the worst of the worst," said Councilman Clarence Smith, who represents the neighborhood.

The Whittier Elementary School neighborhood--bounded by Anaheim Street, Pacific Coast Highway, Orange Avenue and Gaviota Avenue--was declared the second-worst area. The Latino and Cambodian neighborhood has many of the same problems as Washington, ranging from graffiti to a high crime rate.

City officials said they plan to work on the neighborhoods simultaneously.

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