LANCASTER, Calif. — Perpetual sun, affordable houses and streets lined with palm trees make Lancaster a suburban refuge, a city that touts itself as among the safest and fastest growing in America.
But the proverbial American dream in this California city has begun to confront the emerging American reality: A suburb that drew white flight from Los Angeles now attracts large numbers of blacks and Latinos.
The mix has proved combustible. Lancaster has counted seven hate incidents so far this year. In March, two men accused of belonging to a neo-Nazi group attacked a black man with a hammer at night in the parking lot of the neighborhood Wal-Mart.
"They don't like the fact the community is changing," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mike Gennaco, who has prosecuted members of the Nazi Lowriders group, which has been blamed for most of the incidents. "Whenever you have transitional neighborhoods, there are tensions."
Residents of Lancaster, a town of 127,000 northwest of Los Angeles, play down the violence as the work of a disenchanted few. Local police estimate the statewide white-supremacist gang has grown to between 200 and 300 members in the Lancaster area in recent years.
In last month's attack, Nathaniel Harris, 20, was assaulted after he spoke to a white woman. Harris, who suffered only light injuries, mistook the woman for someone he knew from high school.
The incident follows several high-profile attacks against Lancaster blacks in recent years. In February 1995, three young whites fired a gun into a car carrying three black men and an 11-month-old baby. One man was grazed, and the baby was injured by broken glass. In two incidents a year later, blacks were attacked with a baseball bat and a machete.
"They're a small group, but they are making a big impact," said Gerry Green, a 38-year-old black nurse. "I'm afraid things will get worse."
In 1997, the FBI reported 17 race-bias incidents in Lancaster, the last year figures were available. Only six cities in California had more, but their populations were at least three times as large. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recorded 20 such incidents in 1998.
The statistics include nonviolent offenses, such as graffiti and the posting of a Ku Klux Klan poster at a local college campus.
Police caution that growing awareness could have contributed to more reporting, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Capt. Tom Pigott said. The rise of the Nazi Lowriders in the Lancaster area was a direct response to the region's new diversity--a trend seen elsewhere, he said.
"This is not a California story. This is a story that plays out all over the world," said Martin Krieger, a professor of urban planning at USC.
The area's population grew by 26.6% from 1990 to 1997, fueled by housing that is cheaper than in other parts of Los Angeles County. During that time, the proportion of blacks almost quadrupled to 11%, according to the Community Development Commission. Overall, minorities accounted for nearly a fourth of the population in 1997, up from just 14% in 1990, it said.
The city is the heart of Antelope Valley, a region as large as Rhode Island and home to Edwards Air Force Base. About 30 miles of sandy, barren mountains separate it from downtown Los Angeles.
The community seems pained by its growing reputation.
Earlier this year, a 25-member task force put up billboards saying, "Not In Our Valley," sponsored school essay-writing contests on diversity, set up a hate-crime hotline and organized an informal network to exchange information on Nazi Lowriders activities.
The task force brings together federal investigators, police, school supervisors and community leaders from various neighborhoods.
"There are blacks that feel uncomfortable. But they know there is no question that the city is doing all we can," said the Rev. Henry Hearns, vice mayor and a black community leader.
"There is no one who wants to see [the white supremacists] here," John Kolesar, 48, a schoolteacher who, like others, is puzzled by the attacks in a city the FBI ranks in the top fifth of big cities for safety.
"They see our change in diversity as a threat," he said. "We see them as people blaming someone else for their own problems."