Ron Mogen, a 6-foot-10 former college football and basketball player, finally broke down in tears.
"What do I have to do to get someone to listen, get shot?" the Van Nuys apartment building owner sobbed last February, pounding on the desk of City Council aide Rosalind Wayman.
For two years Mogen had tried, with scant success, to get city officials to pay attention while cocaine sellers and gang members moved in and spread violence and financial ruin on Delano Street. Five of his building's nine apartments were vacant, their occupants driven away by fear. Repairs and loan payments were draining $3,000 each month from his son's college fund.
Finally, a few weeks after shedding those tears, Mogen got action from city officials.
"I said, 'We're doing something. . . . Life's a mess out there,' " recalled Wayman, a field deputy to Marvin Braude, who represents the area.
Wayman and another official in that meeting, John Mutz, commander of the Van Nuys police division, responded last March to Mogen's pleas by helping to create a fast-track emergency response team that leaps bureaucratic hurdles to bring lasting change to one of the oldest Latino barrios in the San Fernando Valley.
The Delano Street Community Impact Team comprises the police, the Los Angeles city attorney's office and 17 other agencies responsible for housing, health, education, recreation, streets and anti-gang efforts. The team has already achieved some early successes, pressuring the owners of four of the area's busiest crack houses and gang strongholds to board them up.
The team has removed abandoned cars, cleaned up graffiti and trash, set up centers at local schools where parents can learn English or receive other assistance and corrected problems with buildings that lacked hot water, windows, electricity and other basics.
Although in many ways the team's work is just beginning, it is already being touted as a model for how local government slimmed down by the recession can provide better service at less cost. At least eight other Los Angeles neighborhoods characterized by poverty, drugs, violence, substandard housing and ill health also are exploring the approach.
One such neighborhood is a gang-plagued stretch of Blythe Street in Panorama City, where a popular landlord, Donald Aragon, was killed Halloween night. Police said the teen-agers arrested in connection with the killing were gang members who wanted to steal his truck to go joy riding. In response to outrage over the killing, police and aides to City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, who represents the street, promised to form an "impact team" similar to the one already in place on Delano Street.
"The impact team is a way to get all the agencies to look at the whole picture and see how their efforts fit," said David Mays, Bernardi's chief deputy.
It's also a way to replace hopelessness with hope. If city agencies show they can make a difference by, for example, shutting down a crack house or getting the street cleaned regularly, then residents can begin to take pride in their surroundings. "It's a way to help residents out there understand that they can change their future," Mays said.
Hard by the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, the Delano neighborhood is a hodgepodge of small, cheaply built apartment buildings, shacks rotting on muddy lots and shady bungalows surrounded by orange trees, hibiscus and roses. The area has for decades been home to both the Barrio Van Nuys gang and hard-working, blue-collar families whose children grew up to be teachers, firefighters, probation officers and business owners.
In recent years, a growing traffic in cocaine and heroin has brought unpredictability to the neighborhood. But police and other agencies paid only sporadic attention while longtime residents and merchants such as Ron Franco, whose family has operated a neighborhood market there since 1949, became afraid to walk down the street at night.
"The greatest consistency with respect to the neighborhood has been its inconsistency," said Franco, referring to the way the Police Department dealt with the area's growing problems.
Now, he says, he believes the coalition of public and private agencies has a chance to do what has been only attempted before: restore stability to a once-peaceful neighborhood.
The Delano Street team members meet monthly to take on the problems of the six-square-block area situated five minutes from the Van Nuys civic center where most of the agencies have offices. To translate talk into action, tasks are assigned, deadlines are set and standards for measuring success are agreed upon. Realizing that eventually the community has to carry out its own salvation, residents and property owners are enlisted in the effort.