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Working to transform Washington corridor

Residents in the Mid-City area are seeing progress along the boulevard, but there's more to do.

November 21, 2008|Scott Gold | Gold is a Times staff writer.

Where to start?

With the transgender prostitutes who just moved into the cheap hotel down the street? With the taco vendors who are so indifferent to the law that they set up shop on the side of the road like a full-fledged restaurant, with tables and heat lamps? And what about the troubled old lady who stands at the gas station all day, slapping herself in the face, spitting on your shoes if you get too close?

On a recent Saturday morning, a dozen civic leaders from the Mid-City district of Los Angeles met over coffee and muffins to mull, and fret about, the Washington Boulevard corridor stretching roughly between Fairfax and La Brea avenues. Considering the corridor has degenerated at times into lawlessness, it was evident that progress has been made, that these leaders are no longer urban pioneers.

Crime has dropped. Volunteers have planted 77 shade trees along the boulevard. It was evident, too, in the venue they picked for their meeting -- the Atomic Cafe, a bright, hip, locally owned bistro that opened recently in the 5000 block of Washington, replacing a chicken joint where they used to lock the cashier inside a cage for safety.

There was no time, however, for resting on their laurels. It did not appear that there would be time for that sort of thing for quite a while.

Can anything be done, someone asked after a few minutes, about the sketchy characters outside the methadone clinic? When is the city going to remove more pay phones, because the only people who use them are drug dealers?

As the conversation ricocheted off the cafe's concrete floor, the leaders passed around summaries of old police reports: "Three susps, two brandishing guns, enter business. Victs in fear fled."

There were so many troublesome properties on the agenda that by the end, they were having a hard time discerning halfway houses from rehab clinics from run-of-the-mill flophouses. "Wait a second," someone said when one property came up. "Is that the drug recovery place or the mentally ill place?"

Most striking was their vision for the future, which sounded a lot like L.A. neighborhoods that have been thoroughly gentrified: Los Feliz, Koreatown, Venice.

There was a time when this stretch of Washington would've been grateful for any hint of economic activity. That time, said Allan DiCastro, Mid-City Neighborhood Council president, has passed.

"No more liquor. No more motels. No more mental housing," DiCastro said. Also out: bars, rehab clinics, check-cashing stores.

"We want a real bank and real restaurants," he said. "We want antique stores. Boutiques."

DiCastro passed around a letter he planned to send to a target of the group's cleanup effort -- a corner store called Liquorama, whose very name hearkened to the gleeful sort of Bacchanalia that once took place here. The letter asked the owner to add security cameras and better lighting, and concluded:

"Mid-City's Washington Corridor will evolve into a fashionable district of art galleries, shops and cafes."

Really? Can this forlorn stretch of Washington, for so long an open marketplace offering just about everything bad for you, be transformed so completely? Is this the moment when gentrification in Los Angeles goes one step too far?

Hookers and horses. Yvonne Erwing-Davis was born here in 1947, and that's what she remembers most about the old days -- when the cops would swing through to chase off the prostitutes.

"They used to come on horseback and run them right back into their hotel rooms," she said. "It was better than TV." She smiled, but only briefly. "The drugs and the prostitutes," she said, "wore this neighborhood down to the dirt."

By the 1990s, however, the corridor had something to offer again: it was centrally located, lined with quaint side streets of bungalows and Craftsman houses. And it was cheap. Newcomers arrived, with expectations. An era of activism got underway, slowly at first, then blossoming into the fever it is today.

Its face has become that of DiCastro, a financial analyst by trade, a Mid-City reformer by passion. DiCastro, 47, moved here in 1987 for the same reason many others did, because he could afford it. "I was kind of scared," he said.

He began filing regular -- incessant, some at the local police precinct might call it -- complaints about graffiti. He documented every tag -- 180 incidents a week, at first, then 130, then 50. He's still at it; it's down to 15 a week.

He now leads a remarkable makeover campaign. Activists report peeling paint on the sides of businesses, potholes, damaged street signs and trees that need trimming. "So they don't block the lights and so rats can't get to the roofs," DiCastro said.

They've raised money for banners identifying the neighborhood and repainted their own fire hydrants. They've harangued police into chasing off men selling bootlegged DVDs and gotten a crime-ridden store's liquor license revoked.

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