Even as gentrification swept Venice in the last decade and the district's once notorious gang activity dropped, the Venice Shoreline Crips kept a stubborn hold over the Oakwood Recreation Center, authorities say.
According to authorities, the gang exerted a brazen influence over the facility, turning outsiders away and using it as an outpost for drug sales -- particularly within the last several years. On some occasions, the basketball court saw more drug deals than free throws, they said.
On Tuesday, however, police and prosecutors said the gang's influence in the neighborhood was about to end.
Earlier in the morning, 300 LAPD officers, federal agents and state investigators descended on the neighborhood in force, serving dozens of warrants and jailing 19 alleged Shoreline Crips and their associates. The action, dubbed "Operation Oakwood," was the largest Westside gang sweep in years.
Tuesday's raids, according to LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner, were the culmination of a four-month investigation into the gang's activities. The arrests, he said, were the first part of a new campaign to hobble the Shoreline Crips, whose criminal activities have spilled into neighboring cities, including Santa Monica and Culver City.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Venice sweep: An article in the Feb. 20 California section on 19 arrests during a Venice gang sweep said Latinos moved to the area in the late 1940s, after construction of the Santa Monica Freeway displaced area neighborhoods. That displacement did not occur until construction of the freeway in the 1960s.
"They have been the government here," said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo at a recreation center news conference Tuesday. Police are still seeking 33 other suspects.
The crackdown comes as the influence of the Shoreline Crips and other local gangs is waning. Venice was once mired in gang violence, peaking in the early 1990s with a gang war that claimed dozens of lives. But since then, Venice has become a trendy address -- with many small bungalows being replaced by designer homes, and tired storefronts with upscale galleries and restaurants.
Also, while police and community leaders said they hoped that the sweeps might further marginalize the gang, other residents said authorities were exaggerating its influence.
"The only things that run that park is the . . . dogs," said Ernie Durston, a retiree who has lived in the area since 1952, referring to the grounds at the center.
Delgadillo said that in addition to the arrests, his office has forced landlords to evict 13 people connected with drugs and violence, including 11 Shoreline Crips. Authorities said the raids also netted an array of drugs and weapons, including an AR-15 rifle and a TEC-9 pistol.
Authorities contended that the arrestees had acted as "gatekeepers" for the recreation facility, which is just off trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Those not affiliated with the gang were told to "keep walking" when they tried to enter the area, one resident said.
As law enforcement officials spoke to reporters, the mother of one of those arrested yelled that people in the neighborhood's big new houses were the ones buying the drugs. "It is anybody who has these fences," said Rochelle Lodge, referring to the barriers that surround many of the community's large, modern homes.
Another longtime Venice resident said he was perplexed by some of the language used by authorities to describe the area. Melvin Hayward Jr., of the community group Venice 2000, said he was unaware of any intimidation by park-goers.
"There has never been, that I know of, any situation where individuals were denied access or deterred from the park," said Hayward, who once worked at the center.
The general Oakwood area -- a roughly one-square-mile neighborhood bounded by California Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard, Rose Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard -- was conceived as a neighborhood for working-class blacks by Venice developer Abbot Kinney.
Latinos moved to the area in the late 1940s after construction of the Santa Monica Freeway displaced area neighborhoods; they were followed by whites in the 1980s. Tensions between black and Latino gangs resulted in sporadic violence throughout the 1990s.
A gang truce, brokered by Venice 2000, helped drive down crime, as did better policing, gentrification and a rising housing market, said Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
"Fifteen to 20 years ago, gang activity was a real problem in Venice. Since the mid-1990s, lots of progress has been made," said Newhouse, who plays flag football at the Oakwood Recreation Center on weekends.
"The problems there are now more localized and at certain times in the Oakwood area," he said, "but that is not to say they don't spread out and impact other areas."