The neighborhood looks inauspicious enough, what with its meat market and storefront churches and tidy stucco homes. But many residents living near the South Los Angeles intersection of Belle Porte Avenue and 253rd Street go through their days with a fear brought about by bullying gangs.
It's a fear that keeps little girls from jumping rope on the sidewalk, mothers from walking to the grocery for milk at night and boys from wearing the wrong color on the wrong block.
Because of this, the police arrived Saturday morning, dead set on changing things in Harbor City, a working-class community not far from the Port of Los Angeles.
They didn't come to make arrests or corral the drug dealers that sometimes hang near the El Michoacano grocery. They came to throw a party, a fact that delighted a former gang member named Leroy Martinez.
"I never thought I'd see something like this here," said Martinez, 47, a man who admitted he has used and sold drugs and been shot at on every corner of the intersection.
"Today, the police and the people are coming together. There's actually reason to be happy," he said.
Martinez then strolled down the street into a throng of about 100 others. He passed booths run by police and nonprofit groups, then moved toward a stage where a group of dressed-up youngsters danced to the strains of Mexican folk music. A tattooed, gruff-looking man, he smiled the entire time.
The police-sponsored event, called the Stop the Violence block party, is an example of community-based policing taking root in the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division.
Community policing, a sometimes controversial approach touted by reformists in the early 1990s as one of the keys to improving the LAPD, calls for closer, more constant relationships between citizens and officers.
Soon after taking over command of the division about a year ago, Capt. Paul Kim said he tried to shift the culture there. Too many of his officers were tense and uneasy when they went on patrol, and too many citizens felt the same way about his officers.
Kim said he was moved to change things after a series of gang-related murders and hate crimes took place in his division last year. The area's residents, many of them recent immigrants, were not only afraid of the police, they also feared gang retaliation if they told detectives what happened.
So Kim decided to go into his division's roughest neighborhoods, sending officers door to door to introduce themselves, parking a van on tense corners so neighbors could walk up and give tips.
"I figured if the community isn't going to come to us, then we, the police, are going to come to them," said Kim.
The Stop the Violence event--Saturday's was the fourth since December--is the most tangible example of Kim's efforts. The events are organized by police and staffed mainly by local businesses and service organizations.
Police-led cleanup crews fan through the neighborhoods; other officers work to gain friends, handing out fliers for crime-tip hotlines. Saturday, a few of them suddenly jumped into their cars and arrested two men who had robbed a Del Taco just blocks away.
Block parties and festivals run by police are not new in Los Angeles. But these events, Chief Bernard C. Parks said Saturday as he walked in street clothes through the festival, are special because of where they are taking place.
"They go right in the heart of where something bad has happened, into an area that is depressed and where the people feel they have no hope," said Parks, who added that he has been so impressed with the Harbor Division's block parties that he has ordered them to take place on a monthly basis citywide.
Parks and Kim credited the events with producing dramatic results. Communication, measured anecdotally by officers and by the number of calls made to report crime, is better than it has been in years.
The number of homicides, which spiked dramatically in the Harbor Division and throughout the city last year, has sharply declined. In
2000, the division, which stretches from San Pedro to Artesia Boulevard, had 45 homicides. So far this year, there have been six.
Kim believes his division's outreach efforts are largely responsible for the change, and said he is confident the yearly total will be just a fraction of last year's numbers.
What's more, said Kim, homicide detectives have solved each of the six killings, partly from tips given during the Stop the Violence parties. Usually, fewer than half of all homicide cases in the area are solved.
On the streets surrounding Belle Porte and 253rd, the optimism of police must compete with cold, hard reality. Residents are shaken after last year, when there were 10 shootings near the intersection, when prostitutes and crack pipes were common, and two rival gangs bumped against each other daily.
"This is a hard place to grow up," said Ismael Ambrize, 13, as he walked through the festival with friends. The teenagers said they are frequently kept up at night by the sound of gunshots, and admitted that they have always been afraid of police.
But then Ismael smiled and said something that would make Kim beam: "Today, I saw [the police] are not so bad. I even saw they can be fun to hang around with. I even feel they can help me."