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CITYSCAPES / JOSH MEYER

It Hurts When Your Street Is Cast as 'The Ghetto'

July 17, 1999|JOSH MEYER

The movie set is abuzz with activity. And as the looky-loos gawk from the far sidewalk, the cameras roll.

Fade in on: "The Ghetto" scene.

For the umpteenth time on this sunny morning, the main character of the upcoming movie "Deuce"--Rob Schneider of "Saturday Night Live" fame--dodges a charging pit bull and some menacing-looking "gang members." They are sitting on a couch surrounded by car parts, strewn garbage and truly disgusting graffiti desecrating the walls and barred windows of their ramshackle pea-green apartment complex.

Let's go to the script to finish the description: "We pass a series of houses. . . . In descending economic order, [the graffiti is] first in English, then Spanish, Korean, then some strange language with symbols around an eye, a dagger and a skull. Finally we come to a street, Ranchito Boulevard. Refrigerators and couches on unkempt yards.

"This is not Tijuana," the script adds, helpfully. "This is Van Nuys."

Actually, it's not either.

It's Santa Monica. It is, in fact, my neighborhood.

And I couldn't have described it better myself. At least, pockets of it.

*

I was ecstatic after buying a townhouse in Santa Monica's Pico Neighborhood seven years ago. It was my first home purchase, and I would joke about how I was an "urban pioneer."

Why? Because I was willing to admit that the neighborhood on the south side of town had some blight, a hard-to-miss gang presence, shady-looking people on street corners who appeared to be selling drugs (and certainly ingesting them) and the occasional crackle of gunfire in the night.

But I'd rented in worse places, and the price was right for a place of my own in my favorite city, along an excellent bike route and close to everything. You've heard of fixer-upper houses? Well, I'd bought into what I hoped was a fixer-upper neighborhood.

True, there were long-festering problems. But 99% of the residents of this polyglot locale alongside the Santa Monica Freeway were wonderful. Many were civic activists, who had extracted promises from the notoriously laissez-faire City Council to begin restoring Pico Neighborhood to what it once was--a beautiful, affordable and safe part of one of Southern California's most vibrant cities.

And on their own, the local residents would turn out en masse on sunlit weekend mornings to sweep walks and alleys, paint out last night's graffiti and tend their tidy frontyards.

So I threw myself into the task as well.

I went to meetings. I kept a vigilant eye on the neighborhood, particularly the alley behind my townhouse complex where the gang members and drug dealers congregated. I developed contacts in the Police Department and city government, and acted as their eyes and ears, as they requested.

But neighborhoods, I've learned, are harder to fix up than houses.

Over the years, the drug dealers remained brazen. The gang problems, if anything, appeared to get worse. The gunfire erupted more often, and there have been several gangland slayings.

And it seems that whenever I, or my neighbors, called the police, they'd turn a deaf ear, or send out officers who often didn't even get out of their squad car. In response to complaints, the city did put in a police substation in nearby Virginia Park, and set up bike patrols so the officers could get to know who belonged, and who didn't. Great ideas, both. We never see officers on bikes anymore, though, and the city has thus far rejected local activists' efforts to put a few more patrol officers at the substation.

But the problems go deeper than that.

The many apartment complexes in Pico Neighborhood--including virtually the entire low-income housing stock for the city--have gotten more and more run-down. My back alley often looks like "Deuce's" Ranchito Boulevard, with car parts, garbage, graffiti and piles of junk that stay for days or even weeks. And my neighbors live in a junkyard with howling pit bulls, so angering my townhouse mates that we all signed petitions, which were promptly ignored by the city.

On at least three occasions, I complained to the police about the neighborhood's problems and they said, "So why do you live there? I wouldn't live there. Why don't you leave?"

*

I was thinking of all this when I walked up to the set of "Deuce" earlier this month. My heart sank a little further when my worst fears were confirmed. Rob Frank, the film's assistant location manager, said Delaware Avenue was "exactly what we were looking for" in resembling a blighted Van Nuys--or Tijuana--neighborhood.

I wasn't alone.

As he watched the film shoot, "Lupe M."--who wouldn't give his name for fear of gang retaliation--said he'd spent years complaining to the police and City Council about the neighborhood's decline, and the city's refusal to do much about it. So he approved the filming next to his house hoping the city would be embarrassed by Pico Neighborhood's fill-in role as a run-down urban area.

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