At the south end, potholes in the rutted streets go unfilled for years. In the center, there are long lines of homeless and hungry people at the area's only soup kitchen, while residents of one north-end neighborhood are so fed up they want to join nearby Gardena.
According to street signs put up by the city of Los Angeles, the area is officially Harbor Gateway. But residents call it "The Strip" and complain that this four-block-wide, eight-mile ribbon of Los Angeles is long on need and short on government services.
The city must have the strip of land to remain linked to the Port of Los Angeles and the wealth it brings. But residents and social service providers say little of that money has made its way to the Gateway, an area where police service is so spotty that residents say officers often take twice as long to respond as they do in neighboring cities.
"The need here is overwhelming," the Rev. Dick Haddon, a Methodist minister and United Way spokesman, said recently. "This is a politically neglected area, and nothing's going to change that until . . . the people in power take more ownership of the problems here."
This geographic oddity is home to 36,000, yet the area has no post office, no police station, no library, no welfare office and no community center to pull neighborhoods together. Ethnically it is a hodgepodge, with growing numbers of blacks, Latinos and Asians, census data shows.
The strip's Latino population, which increased 60% from 1980 to 1990, includes many recent immigrants struggling to stay afloat.
"We were paying $650 a month for a two-bedroom place," said Juan, a recent Mexican immigrant who didn't want his full named used. There were 16 in his family, and even with four workers scrabbling for jobs, they don't make enough to survive without help. But help is hard to come by in the Gateway.
The shortage of social services, health care, and police and fire protection are so acute that United Way designated the strip an "underserved geographic area" in 1987.
Since then, the charitable organization has funneled $100,000 to the few private charities serving the area, including a small free medical clinic, a job center and an ad hoc coalition helping the homeless.
Even with this help, little has changed. Unemployment is high, and signs of urban decay are everywhere.
Governmental budget cuts and the recession have hit the area hard, said Eleanor G. Aguilar, United Way's regional vice president. The most pressing needs are jobs, health care, affordable housing and shelter for the homeless.
In Harbor Gateway, extended families crowd into single apartments, and the homeless sleep under freeway overpasses. In the early mornings, unemployed workers stand on street corners hoping to get work.
In the absence of a government safety net, a church group founded the Harbor Gateway Center in the 100-year-old Methodist church on 165th Street. Haddon, church pastor and a leader in establishing the center, said the goal is to help the needy get by.
When Herbert de la Cruz, 52, lost his job as a security guard at an aerospace firm a year ago and his unemployment benefits ran out months later, he turned to the center because he didn't have enough money to feed his family and pay the rent. He received groceries and help with the rent.
"It's really hard with two little ones to care for," said Janet de la Cruz, who also lost her job in a fast-food restaurant in Gardena. Without the center, the family "just couldn't get by," she said.
In addition to giving out food and clothing, the center runs a job referral program and advises illegal immigrants on their rights. Each Saturday, the center opens its soup kitchen and feeds the homeless, as many as 1,000 a month. Every Thursday, as many as 25 families stand in line for boxes of free groceries, center Director Orlando Rivera said.
Health problems are referred to another United Way-supported service in the area, the South Bay Free Clinic, a private, nonprofit health-care provider on Gardena Boulevard.
The center serves only the poorest part of the Gateway, a two-mile area between Rosecrans Avenue and Artesia Boulevard. To the north are blue-collar neighborhoods squeezed tight between Gardena and Carson. South of Artesia, the strip is a mix of industry, apartments and neighborhoods that border Torrance.
Realizing that the strip lacked an identity, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores decided a name would help, and in 1982 the council christened the area Harbor Gateway. Flores opened a district office there and helped residents form neighborhood watch groups.
She also spearheaded a $1.2-million project to install street lights throughout the Gateway, and she helped secure $400,000 to resurface some streets and $120,000 for improvements to two local parks.
Although disgruntled homeowners welcome the improvements that Flores helped them get, these efforts are a case of too little, too late, they said.