Burbank police were losing the turf war with gang members over West Elmwood Avenue. So the city rolled out a weapon against which gangs couldn't compete: Money. Lots of it.
Using the millions of dollars at its disposal, the city staged a wholesale takeover of one of its worst areas, the notorious 100 block of Elmwood, buying 11 buildings and performing drastic surgery on a cul-de-sac that was once a magnet for trouble.
It has been called "neighborhood intervention," an aggressive new crime-fighting strategy available to cities willing to spend big to take control of their meanest streets.
The result on Elmwood is an enclave of neat, brightly painted buildings instead of the borderline slums of old. The jewel of the neighborhood is a tutoring center for children and a new gated playground.
At night, the lights can be seen for blocks.
Only a few cities have tried pouring such an intense concentration of resources into a neighborhood. But those that have believe their efforts have succeeded where more limited programs have failed.
In Burbank, a first step was the city's purchase of the gang members' turf. "We took away their homeland," one police officer said. Then, with most of the block in hand, the city overhauled the neighborhood, effecting a transformation so complete that children there jokingly call the area "Disneyland."
"It's a notion that if you just do one building on a crummy block, you are just throwing money away," said UCLA urban planning professor Allan Heskin.
The block on Elmwood is an isolated strip that dead-ends at the Golden State Freeway and is cut off by a major street several hundred yards away. It was a bad pocket that stood out in a more stable neighborhood of modest apartments and homes.
It was once so well-known for crime that police made it a routine stop every shift. "At roll call, I used to always say, 'And keep an eye on Elmwood,' " said Sgt. Eric Rosoff.
Pizza delivery services were afraid to venture there. In one incident, a stray bullet partially paralyzed a woman sitting in a window at her home. By 1992, 60% of the reports of gang-related gunfire in the city came from the vicinity of the block, police say.
Today, the atmosphere resembles that found at a Sunday parade.
Dozens of children play in the area, zooming around the flower beds on skates and bikes. Grandparents push strollers. Stairways are thick with parents cradling babies and chatting. There are fresh paint, green lawns, rosebushes. There is no music. No drinking. No revving engines. No guns. No sense of menace.
In all, the city spent $6.5 million in local and federal funds to acquire and renovate buildings and to pay for social programs on this one block.
Longtime residents such as Maria Alvarez hardly recognize the place they call home.
"I was shocked. I couldn't believe what happened," said Alvarez, who lived in a motel for six months during the construction. "Everyone thinks of Elmwood as a bad place, but now I tell people, 'You don't have to be afraid.' "
Burbank's approach resembles other projects in California. The basic formula is single ownership and uniform management of most or all of the buildings in a neighborhood, and lots of money for rehabilitating buildings, landscaping, street improvements and education and jobs programs.
In Anaheim, the city is at work on its second major neighborhood overhaul since the late 1980s, the $23.5-million Paseo Village project, in which the city and a private developer have transformed a gang-plagued neighborhood into a groomed, affordable housing community that will eventually be gated. Paseo Village manager Fernando Yela says his strict policies include checking people's criminal records before they move in.
In Rialto, Calif., fountains, wading pools and topiary teddy bears were the city's answer to Glenwood Avenue, a block that had become so run-down, most of the buildings were boarded up. The Southern California Housing Development Corp. took over in 1994 at the city's request, and the rehabilitated neighborhood is now 88% occupied.
And in San Jose, the city has acquired or condemned all of the properties on Poco Way, once an open-air market for black tar heroin. The $21-million project includes renovation of one side of the street, new buildings on the other, and construction of a playground. Here again, the whole block is managed as one building.
"We couldn't do it piecemeal" because Poco Way's problems were so severe, said John Burns, executive director of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority. "We had to have control of the whole street."
Heskin, the UCLA professor, said such projects address a problem many Southern California cities are facing with increasing urgency--the deterioration of apartments into slums.
But few cities can afford neighborhood intervention. Los Angeles is so huge that an effort like Burbank's would be "just a drop in the bucket," Heskin said.