SANTA MONICA — Santa Monica. For most people, the name of the city evokes pictures of beaches, of dining on outdoor patios at fine restaurants, of the good life.
What it does not usually bring to mind is the Pico neighborhood, an area in the heart of the city that is plagued with gang and crime problems. Here you won't find the pristine homes that show up in magazine photo spreads about Santa Monica. Instead you'll find some of the worst housing conditions in the city.
While residents in other neighborhoods debate whether the city is losing its soul or becoming too glitzy, Pico residents worry about their children being shot.
And while the city's liberal, progressive politicians argue about how best to deal with a growing homeless population, some people in the Pico neighborhood wonder why they, as taxpaying residents, can't get the attention of the same politicians.
"Some people in this town want to be hip by supporting social causes, but they don't want to acknowledge that there are social problems in this community that are being ignored," said Peter Tigler, chairman of the Pico Neighborhood Assn., a homeowners and residents group.
"I'm sure that at least 60% of the residents are not aware of the conditions that exist behind the cemetery," said first-term Councilman Tony Vazquez, referring to the Woodlawn Cemetery at Pico Boulevard and 14th Street. Some people see the 29-acre cemetery, which has been around since before the city was founded in 1875, as a buffer between one of the toughest areas in the Pico neighborhood and the more affluent Sunset Park area south of Pico Boulevard.
"I think people would be shocked if they knew what it was really like in the neighborhood," Vazquez said.
The city defines the Pico neighborhood as a cluster of neighborhoods bordered by Pico Boulevard on the south, Lincoln Boulevard on the west, Centinela Avenue on the east, and on the north, Santa Monica Boulevard to 20th Street and then along Colorado Avenue. The Santa Monica Freeway divides the neighborhood into northern and southern halves.
But the area that most people know about--because of the gang activity and poor housing conditions--is the one bordered by the Santa Monica Freeway, Cloverfield Boulevard, Pico Boulevard and 14th Street. It includes Virginia Park on the east end and Woodlawn Cemetery on the west.
Here, graffiti covers buildings and streets; apartment buildings are run-down; debris fills the alleys. There are so many cars that finding a space is nearly impossible. Children play in concrete courtyards--but only until dusk, because of the danger of drive-by shootings. In the first five months of this year, there have been a dozen such shootings in the area, according to Police Sgt. Bill Brucker. Last year, there were 10 murders citywide; half of them occurred in the Pico neighborhood.
Arturo Olivas, executive director of the Latino Resources Organization, a Santa Monica-based social service group serving Latinos, said he was surprised at the state of neglect he found in the neighborhood. Olivas joined LRO last September after many years of working with Latino groups in central Los Angeles. "Since Santa Monica does have a reputation of being leaders in liberal causes, I did not expect the situation to be so bad," he said. "I don't think anybody has bothered to look at the needs of this community."
Although residents acknowledge that there are problems in the area, many say it is a good place to live, pointing to longtime residents with close-knit families.
"I could have lived anywhere in the United States, but I choose to live here," said Alfred T. Quinn, a member of the Santa Monica Community College board of trustees. Quinn, 68, moved to the Pico neighborhood as a 13-year-old in 1936, and has been in his home on 19th Street since 1977.
"These are our homes," said Frank Juarez, 42, who was reared in the Pico neighborhood and now lives in a triplex he owns on Grant Avenue near 6th Street. "It may be dangerous at night in some areas, but it's nice during the day. These are working-class people."
"It is a nice neighborhood," said Olivas. "It's just a neglected neighborhood.
Mayor Judy Abdo said she believes that the city had neglected the area in the past. "That is the reason the PNA was formed," she said. "The PNA has been extremely skilled in bringing forth the issues they identified and have been successful in getting the council to respond to their requests."
One thing that sets the Pico neighborhood apart from the rest of the city is the high concentration of minority residents. It is the only neighborhood in Santa Monica that has more ethnic minorities than Anglos, 63.5% to 36.5%, and most of the city's Latino and black residents live there.