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How a community imploded

L.A. long ignored Harbor Gateway. Now a Latino gang calls the shots.

March 04, 2007|SAM QUINONES | Times Staff Writer

CHERYL Green was hardly the first.

Since the 14-year-old was shot to death in December in the forgotten strip of Los Angeles known as Harbor Gateway, she has become a symbol of the region's gang and racial strife.

Yet long before the mayor, police chief and FBI director showed up to decry the violence, the tiny neighborhood lived with it.

For more than a decade, many say, the neighborhood Latino gang -- called 204th Street -- had been attacking blacks. African Americans had taken to warily surveying their streets for Latinos, and few dared go north of 206th Street, which the gang had set as a boundary for blacks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Harbor Gateway: An article in Section A on March 4 indicated that Harbor Gateway is a 13-block neighborhood in Los Angeles plagued by racial strife. The neighborhood is a small part of Harbor Gateway, the long strip of land connecting the bulk of the city to the harbor area.

In 1997, 11-year-old Marquis Wilbert, an African American youth with no gang affiliation, was shot and killed by a 204th Street gang member on a bicycle.

In September 2001, Robert Hightower, a 19-year-old Pasadena high school senior, was shot to death after hugging his sister, whom he had been visiting. A 204th Street gang member shot him, according to court testimony, because he was upset that a black boxer had beaten a Latino in a prizefight.

In 2003, Eric Butler, 39, was shot to death as he drove from the neighborhood's lone business, the Del Amo Market, which the gang considered to be in its territory. He'd gone there to intervene after gang members began harassing his 14-year-old stepdaughter. She was shot in the back and lives today with a bullet lodged near her spine.

Butler's wife, Madeline Enriquez, organized marches to bring attention to the problem, without success.

Instead, the violence spread.

From 1994 to 2005 in Harbor Gateway, there were nearly five times as many homicides, assaults and other violent crimes by Latinos against blacks as by blacks against Latinos, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics.

Cheryl's shooting -- allegedly by two 204th Street gang members as she and friends talked on a street in broad daylight -- underscored a new reality: that since the mid-1990s, according to the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, Latino gangs have become the region's leading perpetrators of violent hate crimes.

"It took this girl's death to show what's going on," said Khalid Shah, director of Stop the Violence, an anti-gang nonprofit group that has worked in Harbor Gateway.

Two weeks after Cheryl's death, the gang allegedly struck again, stabbing 80 times a white man they believed to be a witness to her shooting death. Five gang members were charged last month in his slaying.

None of this makes sense to Cheryl's mother, Charlene Lovett.

"My daughter's dead and I don't know why," Lovett said at her kitchen table after Cheryl's killing. "That's the question I would like answered: Why?"

The answer goes well beyond a single slaying or a single neighborhood. Packed into the 13-block area where Cheryl Green lived and died is a story of many of the forces fueling gang and racial violence in Los Angeles and the region today.

It is a story of civic neglect and the rise of the low-wage economy, of immigration, changes in federal housing policy and the street influence of a prison gang.

But the story begins, as does so much in this city, with real estate development.

From fields to families

Before World War II, the neighborhood was mostly vacant fields.

Then came factories, attracting workers who needed housing. So builders filled those fields with small houses and duplexes.

"This is where the workers lived," said Sharon Wyatt, who moved into the neighborhood with her husband, Jack, a shipyard worker, in 1971. "The contractors didn't even live here. It was the people that built the houses."

Cubans settled nearby in the 1960s, and a wave of Mexican immigrants arrived in the 1970s. Few blacks lived in the area, but on the Wyatts' block of 207th Street were white families like themselves, Latino families, a Middle Eastern man.

Harbor Gateway was like other parts of Los Angeles in many ways. But tucked as it was into a strip that connects the city to the port, it was an afterthought to local politicians consumed with the port, San Pedro and Wilmington. Residents themselves didn't always know to which city they belonged: The neighborhood was in Los Angeles but had a Torrance mailing address.

In the competition for city services, Harbor Gateway usually lost. Wyatt remembers that street sweepers came by maybe once a month. Street lamps didn't arrive until the late 1980s. The area had no park, no school nearby. Los Angeles police, always strapped for officers, patrolled intermittently.

Homeownership anchored the community, Wyatt and others said. Families cleaned in front of their places. People knew each other.

All that changed in the late 1980s. Southern California was absorbing immigrants and refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Mexico and Central America. Demand for housing rose -- especially for apartments.

From 1985 to 1989, 187,000 units were built in Los Angeles County -- almost 30% more than all those built since, according to the Construction Industry Research Board.

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