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The Great Blight Way : Alleys Have Become a Magnet for Illegal Dumping and Crime. A City Pilot Project Hopes to Change That.

October 30, 1994|Lucille Renwick

THEY WERE ONCE THE KEY TO LOS ANGELES' PRISTINE front yards, allowing cars to quietly pull into back-yard garages, obscuring utility poles from view and hiding trash cans away for pickup.

But the city's labyrinthine alleys have grown into eyesores, longtime illegal dumping grounds for outside haulers and careless residents.

Some have become lairs where prostitutes turn tricks on discarded sofas, thieves escape from police, crack addicts score drugs and the homeless find shelter amid the debris.

Los Angeles spends about $6 million a year to clean them up, much of it in South Los Angeles.

Forty percent of all alley cleaning occurs in the 8th and 9th City Council districts, represented by Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rita Walters, respectively. Some alleys there are cleaned up to 15 times a year--five times the average, city officials say.

"The people come in trucks and they don't give a darn if you hear them or not, they just dump--rugs, mattresses, automobile tires. They got a whole fire hazard down there," said Alice Boutte, 79.

Boutte's house in the 9100 block of Wall Street is next to one of the city's worst alleys, where debris is piled so high some garages are hopelessly barricaded.

"For 30 years, (the city) has been saying they're going to block this (alley) off, but I don't ever see it," complained Boutte, who has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years.

That's about to change. Boutte's street is part of the city's pilot project to close off half a dozen problem alleys in South-Central and turn them over to property owners for community gardens and recreational use.

The goal is to cut down on the city's exorbitant cleaning costs and eliminate the nuisance the alleys have become to residents, said Bob Hayes, public information officer for the Board of Public Works.

To help with the project, students from Cal Poly Pomona surveyed 1,150 of the 3,600 alleys in the 8th and 9th districts last year,

identified a dozen "nuisance alleys" in need of immediate closure and designed alternative uses for residents to choose from. The designs include walkways, vegetable gardens, sitting areas, barbecues and recycling bins.

Alley conditions have never been as bad as they are now, residents and city officials agree.

On a recent morning, only two out of nine alleys in Melinda Stewart's neighborhood, near 92nd and Towne streets, could be driven through. The rest were clogged with waist-high weeds, carpets, tires, couches and trash. Rats and roaches crawled freely through some of the piles and sometimes made their way into homes.

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"Midnight dumpers" are the major cause of the problem, public works officials say. Small tire shops, contractors and waste haulers--business people who operate on thin profit margins--dump behind homes to avoid costly landfill fees. Residents add to the debris with sofas, TVs, cribs, car batteries and other bulky or hazardous objects that city garbage trucks won't pick up.

Stewart even recalled seeing a man dump urine and feces from the toilet of his mobile home in the alley behind her neighbor's home, just two blocks away.

"The stench from the urine would get so bad that I would just keep praying for it to rain and wash some of it away," said Stewart, 56.

Stewart's block club has already signed a petition calling for the city to close the alleys in the neighborhood. The 91st-93rd Street block club is shopping around for gates to make it permanent and has already selected designs that include a trellis, walkways made from old railroad ties, gardens and play areas for children.

"Right now, the children have no place to play except in the front of the house," she said.

Residents must pay for gates to block their alleys and assume responsibility for maintenance and liability of the city-owned property once landscaping is completed.

As Stewart's block club has done, a majority of homeowners have to agree to the project and raise the money for the gates, which could cost at least $2,500. Hayes said the city will draft landscaping plans and find donated materials--such as benches and railroad ties for walkways--from city surplus.

Four to six months after the alleys are cleaned, Hayes said, the transformation of them should be completed.

"This is something that I think everyone will benefit from all around," said Herbert Ferberow, a planning lecturer at Cal Poly and supervisor of the student group that studied the alleys. "The city is looking to save some money and the people are looking to regain a sense of community and get this land in shape."

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Two alleys--stretching from 90th to 92nd streets and from Towne and San Pedro streets--were the first to be cleaned for the program and poles were temporarily erected to prohibit dumping. Street maintenance workers cleaned a third alley--the one next to Boutte's property--on Wednesday.

"These are the demonstration alleys," Hayes says. "I want people to see that it can be done and to see what a difference it can make."

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