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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Islands Unto Themselves : Some residents of unincorporated areas enjoy the independence, but others seek annexation over neglected stepchild status.


Some people call it El Camino Village, or western Gardena, or Alondra Park.

Some label it No Man's Land.

They are describing a neighborhood deep in the heart of the South Bay, an area of one-story tan stucco homes much like those lining the streets of any middle-class suburban city in Southern California.

But this is no city.

El Camino Village is an unincorporated area, lacking a city hall, a city council, a mayor or even a police department to call its own. In city-rich Los Angeles County, that makes it a rarity, an island of innocuous pale yellow in a Thomas Guide awash with cities highlighted in bright pinks, purples and oranges.

In all, a dozen such islands dot the South Bay map like scattered puzzle pieces, stretching from the gritty streets of Lennox near Los Angeles International Airport southward to the upper-crust homes of Academy Hill on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

These islands are sometimes rich, more often poor. Some are seen as the neglected stepchildren of mammoth Los Angeles County, which oversees unincorporated areas. In others, residents seem to enjoy life removed from bureaucracy.

In short, life on one of these unincorporated islands offers a litmus test of attitudes toward government--some people want more societal structure around them, and some want less.

And nowhere is this split more apparent than in the eastern flank of El Camino Village, where a civil war of sorts is brewing.

Some residents, weary of the anonymity of non-city living, have risen up and lobbied to latch onto neighboring Gardena. After years of struggling to procure services from Los Angeles County--whether more sheriff's patrols or better tree trimming--they long for a smaller-scale city such as Gardena to call their own.

"It is so difficult to try to get through the maze of (county) offices," says annexation supporter Paul Stone, "while with a smaller place that is so much closer--you can go there in person."

Others, however, are fighting to retain their unincorporated status, fearful that their freedom could be encroached upon.

"We don't feel comfortable with having a whole other layer of bureaucracy," explains Ursula White, an annexation opponent and a leader of Neighbors Concerned About Annexation. Now, with an annexation election tentatively set for April in the 861-home neighborhood, residents are being showered with sometimes vitriolic flyers extolling the dangers--or glories--of joining Gardena.

But others say it hardly matters whether they live inside or outside a city--just as long as the garbage gets picked up on schedule and police arrive promptly when summoned.

Most South Bay residents are oblivious to these islands wedged among cities, and are unaware that some well-known facilities lie within them--San Pedro Peninsula Hospital perched amid a tiny unincorporated area called La Rambla; El Camino College sitting not in Torrance but on unincorporated turf; bucolic South Coast Botanic Garden topping a former county landfill.

But many who live on such islands are all too conscious that they are not part of any city.

And for some, that has become a source of deep distress.


Pat O'Hara remembers as clearly as if it were yesterday that evening three years ago that she took her teen-age daughter and a friend to a dance concert at El Camino College.

When they returned afterward to O'Hara's home in El Camino Village, the two girls began practicing jazz steps in the family room, where a large sliding-glass door leads to the back yard.

Suddenly, the girls burst into the kitchen, exclaiming they felt they were being watched. Discovering that her back gate was open, an alarmed O'Hara called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which patrols her unincorporated neighborhood. She was on the line when she saw a stranger stride up to the glass and peer inside. Startled, the girls hid under the kitchen table.

Despite her report of an intruder, O'Hara says, a squad car never arrived at her door--at least, not until the next week, after she complained to the watch commander at the Sheriff's Department's Lennox station. Luckily, the man had left, but her peace of mind was shattered.

"There were no police, and that's a very scary thing if you're a woman with a young daughter, living alone," O'Hara says. That experience spurred O'Hara to join the annexation drive in her neighborhood, lodged between Crenshaw Boulevard, Marine Avenue, Van Ness Avenue and Manhattan Beach Boulevard.

Concern about law enforcement is a key issue in the annexation debate. Some residents claim that the Lennox sheriff's station can take one to three hours to respond to a call in little El Camino Village.

"They're a good bunch of guys and they try very hard. They're just spread too thin," said Peggy Halberg, recording secretary for the El Camino Village Assn., which is remaining neutral on the annexation question.

But others defend the sheriff's deputies.

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