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Harbor City Seeks Help Curbing Gangs : Crime: The community endures some of the heaviest drug dealing in Los Angeles. Many residents want to seek a court injunction to allow police to arrest gang members for normally legal activities.

May 03, 1993|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing, it seems, can insulate Ann's paint store from the violence that drug dealers visit on Harbor City--not her 10-foot chain-link fence, not the barbed wire coiled on top, not even her big German shepherd.

When a drug deal on the street soured recently, one of the people involved scaled her fence and sprinted through her shop, gunshots ringing out behind him.

"I couldn't believe it, but I looked up and there's this guy just running by me," said Ann, who declined to give her last name.

Harbor City is one of those parts of town that, for most Angelenos, is little more than a name on a city signpost. About 20,000 people live in the three-square-mile, mostly middle-class strip just north of Wilmington. It has no entertainment landmarks, no theme or industrial parks, no universities. Rather, it is a place to live or simply pass through.

But one characteristic does set Harbor City apart: A small portion of the community is host to some of the heaviest drug dealing in Los Angeles. So serious is the problem that the Los Angeles City Council has asked the city attorney's office to redouble its efforts to seek a court injunction that would allow police to arrest known gang members for normally legal activities, such as gathering in groups.

The council made the request April 20, less than two weeks after a Van Nuys Superior Court judge, acting on a motion by the city attorney, ordered similar anti-gang restrictions in Panorama City. In an injunction April 7, Judge John J. Major prohibited Blythe Street gang members from possessing portable radios, large flashlights, radio scanners and cellular phones, which police and residents say gang members use to alert drug dealers to the presence of police.

It is unclear, however, whether the city attorney's office will seek such an injunction for Harbor City. Maureen Siegel, who heads the city attorney's criminal division, said the office has been trying to muster community support for such a move for two years. But unlike the situation in Panorama City, she said, the effort has fallen short, in part because not enough residents in the Normont Terrace public housing project, the area hit hardest by drug dealing, have been willing to come forward.

"A public nuisance abatement action requires a massive, massive level of community support," Siegel said. "To use Blythe Street as an example, we had tremendous community support. We had compelling affidavits from well over 100 people."

That explanation does not sit well with some Harbor City residents. Ann, who gave a deposition two years ago about her experiences with drug dealers, said the community was led to believe that the case was so strong, a court injunction would be forthcoming.

And besides, she said, the crime wreaked upon the community should be evidence enough.

"If this had been San Pedro or a bigger area, they would've taken care of it," she said. "But those people who live down there in the (Normont Terrace) projects are poor, that's why they've been overlooked."

Everyone agrees that Harbor City has been hit hard by drug dealing. For the most part, the problem is limited to Normont Terrace and the surrounding neighborhood. Indeed, a drive down 253rd Street will reveal beat-up, boat-sized '75 Chevys and glistening black BMWs occasionally pulling over, their drivers handing money to men on the sidewalk.

Gunplay is so common that children at Normont Elementary School are drilled in how to duck beneath their desks during gunfire.

It didn't used to be that way.

"I moved my business in here 15 years ago and it was a good place, a great place to do business," said Tony, seated in the foyer of his Lomita Boulevard business. Like Ann, he has had experience with fleeing drug dealers.

The other day he found a spice bottle full of a white substance on his property. Someone had tossed it there while being chased by police. He flushed the powder down the toilet, he said, but turned the bottle in to police.

"They said it was about $3,000 dollars worth of drugs in there," Tony said. Like other people interviewed for this story, he declined to give his full name. He added: "I didn't want no trouble."

For Tony and other Harbor City merchants, such incidents add up to thousands of dollars in lost business. The area's reputation is so bad, they say, many longtime customers stay away.

That was the case recently when two potential customers, a man and a woman, were standing in front of Tony's office door, talking business. Two teen-agers rode by, aiming shiny black machine guns at them. The couple shrieked and ran for cover. The teen-agers laughed and pretended to fire their fake weaponry.

The customers left and have yet to return.

Interestingly, gang-on-gang violence in Harbor City has been simmering down lately. A cease-fire among Harbor City, Wilmington and San Pedro gangs has brought a 40% drop in gang violence in the area, police said.

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