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County Aims to Improve Its Ailing Urban 'Islands'

September 27, 1999|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From her front room window, Gloria Lopez has seen her Colonia Independencia neighborhood age through the past half century.

"I moved here in 1945, and I remember that some of the houses then were nothing but small, wood-framed homes built from the lumber off old railroad boxcars," said Lopez, former director of Colonia's community center.

Now, at age 71, Lopez is helping to gather the residents of her barrio--an unincorporated area surrounded mostly by Anaheim--to take advantage of a new Orange County program that offers a package of cleanup services to county islands like hers.

Throughout the county, dozens of tiny, often blighted islands, some a mere block or two, are surrounded by more prosperous cities and, for largely historical reasons, were not included when those cities were formed or expanded.

Since its 1994 municipal bankruptcy, the county learned that maintaining and serving those island communities is costly--an expense it can't afford. Plans to push their annexation into neighboring cities began.

"The entire county benefits through elimination of any blighted areas," said Michael M. Ruane, the county's deputy chief executive officer. "It's tremendously important to have a good image throughout the county because we have to remain attractive to businesses and tourism."

But a major roadblock has been the condition of the communities and whether residents want annexation.

Spurred by county Supervisor Cynthia Coad, the county has put together a coordinated effort among its agencies to revitalize the islands. The approach is believed to be among the first in recent county history. The task force consists of the sheriff's, probation, planning, housing and social services departments.

"Unless the community wants to dig in and help, you must realize that it's just a Band-Aid solution," Coad said. "The only way it will stay improved is to have the community remember that they came up with what needs improvement and the way to fix it."

So far, the cleanup program has focused on El Modena, an unincorporated neighborhood on the east side of Orange.

But with that project underway, residents in other unincorporated areas of the county want similar efforts, including greater police protection and housing help, made in their neighborhoods.

Over the years, Lopez and her Colonia Independencia neighbors think the county has taken the name--independent colony--too literally. They feel they have been ignored by the county and its wealth of resources--reason enough for some to hope Anaheim annexes the area.

But before any community can act on such hopes, much work must be done. Some homes and cars are dilapidated, and fences sag. Gang warfare has claimed victims and ruined lives.

The task force hopes to use $500,000 in recently appropriated county money to improve areas such as Lopez's neighborhood, provided that residents cooperate.

"We can't just come in there," Coad said. "They have to want this."

With more than 70 unincorporated islands in the county, Coad has her work cut out.

While some islands are tiny, low-income areas that have been ignored and underserved for years, others are upscale communities with their own identities, such as Orange Park Acres and Sunset Beach.

The goal, Coad said, is to bring the low- and moderate-income communities up to par with surrounding cities and, if residents desire, help them get their neighborhoods annexed.

In El Modena, Coad has sat in on meetings with county officials and residents and has helped collect trash as part of El Modena's recent Pride Day. Last Thursday, she wielded a sledgehammer and ax to help knock down a dilapidated, illegal house.

Last week, residents who had expressed concern about traffic safety welcomed a new pedestrian light at Hewes and Center streets.

In addition, sheriff's deputies have introduced a community policing approach that can be used in Colonia Independencia and elsewhere. Instead of rotating deputies every four months, they remain longer in the area.

"With community policing," Coad said, "officers stay a year or longer, and it lets them know the community and its residents."

Colonia Independencia is nearly a square mile of mostly older, wood-frame homes and looks nothing like surrounding Anaheim.

Over the years, police relations with the community have been strained, Lopez said. Deputies have entered homes without search warrants, residents say, and have taken photographs of many of Colonia's youths.

"We're concerned those pictures are going into [law enforcement's] gang books, and they're not gang kids," Lopez said.

Parents are working hard to prevent their children from going into gangs, she said.

"We want our kids to respect the police," she said. "And if we can get our kids together with sheriff's deputies for anything, even playing basketball and serving as role models," she said, then it could break down stereotypes on both sides.

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