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City Workers, Gang Discover Cooperation Can Pay Off : Neighborhoods: They cleaned up the area, ate together and spoke of cooperation. Youths are getting help finding jobs, and graffiti has decreased.

June 24, 1993|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORWALK — It was an unlikely scene: Norwalk Mayor Luigi A. Vernola in a dapper white shirt working next to bare-chested Giovanni Estrada, a member of the Orange Street Locos gang.

Shovels in hand, the two cleared trash from an alley near Cesar Chavez (formerly Walnut) Elementary School, then ate hot dogs at a barbecue, where they talked of cooperation and respect.

The cleanup and picnic last weekend, which brought together gang members, city workers and residents, was part of a new partnership between the city and the gang. Officials hope that by teaming up with the Orange Street Locos they can bring peace to a neighborhood that until recently was beset by graffiti, theft, nightly gunfire and other gang-related trouble.

City officials have arranged, at no cost to the city, for the school's basketball court to remain open at night and are placing the gang members in summer jobs: for example, working with city crews trimming trees, cleaning parks and doing clerical work in city offices.

City workers are helping the gang members fill out employment applications. In return, the gang members have pledged to keep the area free of graffiti and to refrain from illegal activity.

Officials said the absence of graffiti on neighborhood walls the past three weeks is proof that gang members are committed to the effort. And, they said, they hope the goodwill will last.

"If they help us out, we'll help them," said Estrada, 18. "If everybody gets a job, they're not going to waste time stealing. We've got to work together."

Officials chose the neighborhood--bounded by Rosecrans Avenue, Norwalk Boulevard, Foster Road and San Antonio Drive--because of frequent complaints from residents about gang members loitering, intimidating residents and painting graffiti on apartment buildings.

The Orange Street Locos, with about 30 members, is one of the smallest gangs in the city, said Kevin Gano, public safety director. Eight known gangs, with an estimated 2,500 members, operate in Norwalk, he said.

Earlier this month, the city launched a crackdown on the Locos when it stationed two mobile law enforcement units, resembling mobile homes, in the neighborhood. Because the city has no police department per se, the units are staffed by city public safety employees, sheriff's deputies and a probation officer.

More than 20 citations were issued in two weeks for a variety of offenses, including drinking in public, speeding and possession of graffiti tools. Not long after the crackdown began, Estrada requested a meeting with city officials, Gano said.

City officials said they were getting tough because gang members were violating the law and making the neighborhood unsafe. The gang members said they had no place to hang out at night. Gano said the exchange was friendly and helped establish an understanding.

"It's their neighborhood. They need to respect it and take care of it," Gano said. "I think that really struck a chord with them."

Mayor Vernola said gang members asked him about the possibility of having a handball court built in the neighborhood, and he plans to set up a meeting between city staff and gang members to discuss it.

Vernola said he hopes that similar approaches will lead to constructive discussions with other gangs. The mobile law enforcement units have moved to an area just west of City Hall--bounded by Imperial Highway, Norwalk Boulevard and Lakeland and Studebaker roads--that is known for gang activity. Later, they will be stationed in the southern part of the city, in the One Ways, an area long plagued by gang problems.

Although the increased police presence in the Orange Street area has ended, sheriff's deputies hope their effort will encourage residents to report problems. Indeed, several dozen residents showed up for the picnic last weekend--including some who had helped the gang members clean the alleys and some who were just curious.

Neighbors who once were reluctant to contact authorities for fear of retaliation by gang members said they are now more confident to do so. They said meeting the gang members has helped to dispel some of their fear.

"We all live here, so we have got to learn to respect other people," said Sally Moreno, an Orange Street resident for 10 years. "And that's what we have to teach these kids."

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