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Trouble at the Gate

Crime: Residents of a housing project find that no matter how secure the fences, death can still find a way in.

June 05, 1996|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be a time for celebration. Residents of Avalon Gardens, a South-Central Los Angeles public housing project, were finally getting their wish: to become a "gated community," much like a handful of pricey suburban enclaves.

The finishing touches were being added to a $1.7-million project in which a decorative wrought-iron fence and 11-foot-high wall were built around the complex. Residents were being issued computerized card-keys to operate electronic gates and doors to the property under the watchful eye of an armed security guard stationed in a bulletproof kiosk.

At last, thought residents like Margaret Smith, an Avalon Gardens activist who spearheaded the gate project, that middle-class feeling of ownership and community pride seemed within reach.

Even before the gate was fully operational, both residents and housing officials began to notice dramatic changes: fewer calls to police, fewer shots echoing in the night, fewer strangers cruising through the development looking to score drugs or wreak havoc. More children were on the playgrounds, more senior citizens were in the picnic area using the barbecue pits, more life was flourishing under the lavender blossoms of the jacaranda trees.

But as the work was being concluded, Avalon Gardens was visited by a cruel reminder that not all problems can be solved by metal and concrete.

Angry words in a crowded parking lot April 11 erupted in shooting and led to the death of Margaret Smith's son, Comidore, 35, who lived in his mother's unit.

Police are seeking Akim Evans, 25, also known as "Sinbad," in connection with the shooting. Evans, who does not live in Avalon Gardens but frequents the complex, is believed to have left the scene of the shooting in Smith's car, which was found abandoned. Police say they have been frustrated by a lack of cooperation from witnesses.

"They don't say nothing, they don't know nothing," Margaret Smith snaps. The outpouring of sympathy from her neighbors and friends has done little to ease her sense of betrayal.

Smith, a single mother whose other grown son still lives with her, has resided in Avalon Gardens for 24 years. Around the project she is called "Mom." Many of the 400 tenants turn to her for help when they are having problems with the city Housing Authority.

Over the years, she has been a driving force behind the project's tenants association, which has pushed for painting, plumbing and programs for residents. When tenants complained that heaters in the World War II-era units were unsafe, or when senior citizens argued that they needed showers to replace bathtubs, it was Smith who lobbied authorities to modernize the 164-unit complex.

From Avalon Gardens, she rose to become chairwoman of the Housing Authority's Residents Advisory Council, which represents the city's 35,000 public housing tenants. She traveled to Washington to lobby for more federal housing funds.

And now this.

"Is this the thanks I get?" Smith asks bitterly. Lurking in the background is the most troubling aspect of making housing projects safe from outsiders. Smith puts it this way: "Who is going to protect us from ourselves?"

"It's a double tragedy," said Ozie B. Gonzaque, chairwoman of the Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners. "She has worked, dedicated so much of her life to the improvement and betterment of the community. The good are always victimized."

The tragedy struck just as Avalon and several other Los Angeles housing projects were benefiting from a federal effort to preserve and improve smaller projects.

Whereas thousands of high-rise units in larger housing projects are being demolished nationwide, federal housing officials believe that less densely crowded projects can be made safer and more attractive to working-class families by adding security and other small amenities.

In addition to the fence, the 15-acre Avalon Gardens complex is scheduled to be repainted and have roads repaved soon, all with federal housing money. (The showers the residents requested in place of bathtubs are also going to be installed.) A limited amount of funds has been set aside for a resident patrol to report illegal activities and hazardous conditions.

The aim is to make housing projects less of a trap for welfare families by integrating them with low-income working tenants, federal officials say.

"Safety is a No. 1 issue," said Kevin Marchman, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department's acting assistant secretary. "People want to protect their homes. Gates, card-keys and other security measures are what people are going for."

At Avalon Gardens, life in a gated community has brought mixed reviews.

"I feel a whole lot safer now that the fence is up," said Jeanell Jackson, 32, who years ago was hit in the arm and leg by stray bullets while she was walking across the project grounds to get a fresh bottle for her daughter. "I don't worry as much about my children playing outside."

Others say the gates provide a false sense of security--particularly because some residents leave the gate walkway doors propped open to make it easier for their friends to visit.

"If anything," said another mother, Velinda Gates, "all it means is that they have a few seconds to get behind a tree or building and that's all."

Smith said she never felt easy whenever her son left their apartment.

"He liked to laugh and talk with the guys on the street," she said. "These were boys he had grown up with." Some were dangerous.

The night Comidore died, Smith was alerted to the danger by the sound of gunfire, and the eerie sight of her son running home as he had done countless times as a child.

Was there a message in her loss? Smith was asked.

"It's not the fence," she said. "It's people. Fences don't clean up crime, people do."

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