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A Dangerous Slum Sprouts in the Desert

Feds try to close village, which sits on sovereign Indian land. Its founder gears up for expansion.

May 30, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

MECCA, Calif. — In a sprawling shantytown between the Salton Sea and a toxic dump site, children play barefoot on dirt roads, running beside leaking sewer lines and piles of rotting garbage thick with flies.

Beneath their feet is broken glass; nearby, rusting machinery and wire. When the wind kicks up, they breathe dust and ash from an adjacent dump that contains elevated levels of cancer-causing dioxins.

Their families are mostly farm workers who live in hundreds of hot and dilapidated trailers, many of them missing windows and siding. When the water pressure dropped a week ago, some residents collected the few drips they could from their faucets. A year ago, their big problem was electrical fires caused by faulty wiring.

They call it "Duroville," a haphazard village of roughly 4,000 people and dozens of unregulated businesses that has sprouted from the desert scrub in just two years. It was named for its founder, Harvey Duro, a husky member of the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians, who said he just may double the size of the place.

Whether anybody can stop him remains to be seen. Duroville sits on sovereign Indian land, beyond the reach of state and local laws. So, although one county official says it is the worst and largest substandard housing development of its kind in the region, there's nothing she can do about it.

Federal authorities are trying to close down the makeshift town on grounds that it is a dangerous slum.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in March ordered Duro to dismantle the entire operation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week banned the burning of trash at the adjacent dump after discovering high levels of dioxins in the soil. This week, they are investigating reports that a sewage lagoon on the property has sprung a leak near the path children take to their school bus.

Although federal officials are trying to crack down, the dispute certainly will be litigated in court. A resolution could take years.

"When I went out there to take samples, I was stunned," said EPA investigator James Sullivan. "I looked around and thought, 'Wow. Places like this actually exist in America?' "

Duro defends his enterprise as "an expression of my sovereign right, and I'm using it to make a better living." Leaning back in a white plastic chair in his office, Duro, 56, who favors Ram football jerseys, athletic shorts, running shoes and sunglasses, added, smiling: "Heck, I'm thinking about doubling in size and maybe adding an auto mall."

The community started to take shape in early 2001 shortly after Riverside County began enforcing health and safety codes at 500 trailer parks scattered across the Coachella Valley.

In a region where regulated low-income housing is hard to find, the crackdown forced some of the state's poorest residents to seek shelter anywhere they could: in shacks, backyards, even chicken coops, county officials said.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Duro and associates dreamed up the idea of allowing people to haul their substandard trailers onto 40 acres of allotted Indian land off California 195 near the community of Thermal.

Initially, Duro envisioned a few dozen farm workers living in fixer-uppers on rented spaces along tree-lined lanes. He told other tribal members he would be "mayor" of the community, which would be a shining success story on what has been one of the unluckiest of the state's 100 Indian nations. (Of the tribe's 22,000 acres of reservation land, half lies beneath the Salton Sea, which was created after a Colorado River flooding accident in 1905.)

Almost overnight, however, hundreds of displaced Latino migrant workers leaped at the chance to drag their condemned trailers onto the property, which grew with astonishing speed and creative abandon. Tenants built additional rooms out of plywood and fencing and then sublet them to untold numbers of fellow workers.

"Harvey was shrewd enough to build a park that attracts people who are desperate and think they have no other place to go," said John Mealey, executive director of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to building low-income housing. "He allows these people to live in substandard, unsafe trailers, which is disgraceful."

"I've never seen any trailer park so large, or so risky," said Leah Rodriguez of the county economic development agency. "But there's nothing I can do."

Since the landfill is located on Indian territory, it is beyond the jurisdiction of cities, the county, even the state.

Because it is virtually free of government regulation, costs are low, particularly helpful for business owners.

Duro conceded that the growth of his trailer park has raced ahead of his ability to provide its tenants with reliable basic services.

"I started something that has just exploded," he said. "We were so far behind, and now we're trying to catch up. We're doing the best we can to make sure everything is safe for the people who live here."

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