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SOUTHBAY / COVER STORY : Worst of the Worst : Amid the debris of Far East Wilmington, the down-and-out deal drugs, sell their bodies and strip cars. This 'Third World' may be the most run-down section of Los Angeles.

November 10, 1994|SUSAN WOODWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The skinny woman looks like a zombie. She walks aimlessly along a dirt street where businesses vie for space with towering piles of debris. Her dirty blonde hair is coarse and unkempt. Black rings surround her sunken eye sockets.

At 21, her body is infested with hepatitis B and AIDS. The woman is a prostitute, active along with 20 to 30 others in this part of East Wilmington, a huge but hidden junkyard--literally and figuratively--that is part of Los Angeles. Residents in the wider port community call it the Third World.

The area attracts not only prostitution but a lively drug trade, illegal dumping and car stripping operations.

Amid all this, David Stoll, owner of Stoll Engine Co. on East Anaheim Street, is trying to keep his maritime business alive. The store has been in his family since the 1930s, but Stoll expects to relocate to Irvine next year.

"My customers have been propositioned by prostitutes. Then there's the drug dealers," he said. "I have fights outside my store. I have bullet holes in my windows on a continuing basis."

Hundreds of down-and-out people have flocked to Wilmington's Third World over the years as legitimate business owners such as Stoll have struggled to get the blight and illegal activities eliminated.

The area has had three Los Angeles City Council representatives in the past 40 years, but none has successfully motivated the myriad of government agencies and authorities who have responsibility in the area. Today the Third World--also known as Far East Wilmington--is arguably the most run-down section of Los Angeles.

From the Terminal Island Freeway, the 100-acre area is a sea of abandoned car bodies, tires, metal scraps, furniture and other dumped debris that the homeless survive on. Only one of the city streets is paved. Dozens of junk piles, which can grow several feet a day, make several streets impassable.

Up to 300 businesses, most of which are auto dismantlers, operate amid the decay. Many have no electricity or running water. The area has no sewage system, only a series of cesspools.

The Third World is bordered by the Dominguez Channel and Grant and Anaheim streets; on its fourth side, an unnamed exit off the Terminal Island Freeway spits those who want to go there, or those who don't know better, into a bustling center at Foote Avenue. Sometimes, crack-dealing at Foote Avenue and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks is so blatant that the area resembles a small marketplace.

Many of the addicts make money "skinning," slicing the plastic coating from stolen industrial cables with a technique not unlike a Japanese chef preparing live eel. The copper treasure inside fetches up to 95 cents a pound at the many recycling businesses in Wilmington.

*

Next door to the Third World, towering dunes of canary-yellow sulfur sit atop property owned by the Port of Los Angeles. Windblown particles from the California Sulphur Co. operation fill the air, assault the nostrils and quickly leave a visible residue on car windows.

At Downtown's Skid Row, a more-notorious district of drug activity, prostitution and homelessness, the conditions are better. At least there the city streets are paved, portable toilets have been installed and the city's Public Works Department has started daily trash pickup, said LAPD Sgt. Chuck Mealey, who has worked on Skid Row since 1981.

In Far East Wilmington, longtime business owners blame the city and the Harbor Department, which owns about 20% of the property, for the poor conditions. They argue that authorities simply ignore the area and its problems, as they say has been true of all of Wilmington since it joined Los Angeles in 1909. Although government bodies such as the Community Redevelopment Agency are set up to assist run-down areas, no long-term improvement program has been initiated in the Third World.

"This would be an ideal place for urban renewal," said Manuel Louis, who has operated the Louis Equipment marine supply company on Schley Street since 1947. He and Stoll established the Far East Wilmington Improvement Assn. six years ago.

"You have some of the most valuable ground in L.A., adjacent to the expansion of both the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, and we're existing in the backwash."

But CRA property manager Jeffrey Skorneck said: "We found that when we looked at that area, (a renewal plan) wasn't going to be financially feasible."

In 1990, port officials said they would like to own Far East Wilmington for future harbor business. In the meantime, they objected to the idea of spending millions of dollars to improve the streets, which are pocked with holes that become impassable ponds when it rains.

Stoll was so exasperated that he sued the city and the port in 1991, accusing them of deliberately neglecting the Third World to drive down property values so they could acquire the land cheaply for development.

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