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Singing Pacoima's Praises

Community: Despite its highly publicized crime and gang problems, the city is not a bad place to live, residents say.

April 01, 2001|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the first day of spring on Filmore Street, and the flowers--roses, bird of paradise, snapdragons--are in full bloom. On this cloudless afternoon, with the green foothills in the background, palm trees sway as mothers push baby strollers past single-family homes. A teenage girl shoots hoops in a driveway, the ball bouncing against the family sport utility vehicle whenever she misses, which is often.

Just another day in suburbia. It's not exactly a portrait of a rough neighborhood--except that Filmore is in Pacoima, which has a reputation as one of the toughest places in the San Fernando Valley.

To some degree, the reputation is understandable: Crime rates here are generally higher than in most parts of the Valley. But police and residents say the notoriety is overblown. Longtime residents proudly describe how much they enjoy Pacoima and its strong sense of community.

"I think people are so misinformed about Pacoima," says Raymond Jackson, president of the Northeast Community Improvement Assn. "Tell them to come spend a day here with me. It has an undeserved reputation."

A store owner agrees.

"You know, it bugs me they're always painting Pacoima as rough, but it's not very bad," said Joe Lopez, 59, owner of Roman's Market, which opened on Filmore Street in 1925. "We haven't had any trouble in a long, long time."

Even Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann, commander of the Valley Bureau, disputes the tough image.

"I don't think it is a well-deserved reputation and it is not as bad as what people say," Bergmann said. "In fact we have more supportive people in Pacoima, as far as helping law enforcement, than in most other communities."

Last year, out of 2,409 major crimes in Pacoima, there were 10 homicides, 24 rapes and 226 robberies, according to LAPD reports.

In a comparable area of North Hollywood, 3,448 major crimes included seven homicides, 20 rapes and 251 robberies.

Out of 2,848 major crimes in a similar-sized area of Devonshire Division that includes Panorama City, there were 13 homicides, 20 rapes and 242 robberies.

In the Canoga Park-Winnetka area of the West Valley Division, the 2,226 major crimes included two homicides, 15 rapes and 165 robberies.

People Know Their Neighbors

Far from fearing Pacoima, many familiar with the area extol its virtues.

"Pacoima is one of the few areas that actually has the attributes of what suburban life was supposed to be like in the first place," said Tamika Bridgewater, president of the San Fernando Valley Black Chamber of Commerce. "People actually know their neighbors. If you see someone doing something wrong, you can tell their mother or father or grandparents. It is one of the only areas I know in Los Angeles that has a small-town feel."

The community's history includes a hometown idol, the teenage '50s rock 'n' roll star Ritchie Valens of "La Bamba" fame. Last week, at a recreation center named for Valens, hundreds of Pacoima residents--more than a few of whom knew the singer and his family--celebrated his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A member of the museum's board said she had never seen such hometown enthusiasm for an inductee.

Still, for some, it's an article of faith that Pacoima is a bad place to be--even if they have never seen the place.

"It's a dive," said Lori Safian, sipping a glass of red wine at the Pinot Bistro in Sherman Oaks. "I just know it's really bad, but I've never been there."

That image makes others bristle.

"Pacoima is soft. Compared to Watts, compared to Compton," said Gregory Faucett, whose family has owned the Styles Ville Barber Shop on Van Nuys Boulevard since 1956. "Whoever gave you that impression that Pacoima is tough, you can go back to that fool and tell them to shut up."

Outside Roman's Market, a woman on her lunch break tears open a bag of chips. She has lived in Pacoima most of her 34 years, and though she lost her husband to drug violence, she chooses to stay.

"It's a nice li'l town," said Dadra Clark as she slides into her white Nissan 240 Z. "Sometimes it gets a little rough, but not really rough like Chicago or something."

Pacoima is the home of the Valley's only public housing project, San Fernando Gardens, where the paint is peeling but home pride abounds. Project resident Rosa Barajas, 18, hands off her infant son to her mother, then shows off the backyard of her family's two-story, three-bedroom unit. Several other families share the common yard where more than a dozen rosebushes provide brilliant pink, red and yellow counterpoints to the lush, neatly trimmed green lawns.

"I live here with my two kids, my brother and my mom and I'm happy," said Barajas, who aspires to be a juvenile probation officer. "I don't even want to live anywhere else."

Crime Reputation Called Overrated

Charles Gray, a worker for the city's Housing Authority responsible for getting units ready for new tenants, said the living is easy compared with his old neighborhood in Watts.

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