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With more shopping and less crime, Pico Rivera has reason to celebrate

As the city marks its 50th year, residents and leaders are pleased to see the community 'reinventing itself.'

September 14, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, Pico Rivera was harried by gangs, tagged with graffiti, aching from a loss of industry and, most painful to loyal residents, marked as somewhere you may not want to live -- or even drive through.

But this year, as Pico Rivera marks its 50th birthday, this city has some reasons to celebrate. Crime is low, homeownership high. An aggressive antigraffiti program is winning praise throughout the Los Angeles area, and the city boasts three new shopping centers with the city's first major bookstore, fitness center and movie theater.

"Pico Rivera has done a great job in reinventing itself," said Gloria Molina, who grew up there and represents the area on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. "It got troublesome. But now they've cleaned up the neighborhoods, brought in new businesses, and the parks are very busy."

Surrounded on three sides by waterways -- the Whittier Narrows Dam to the north, the Rio Hondo to the west and the San Gabriel River to the east, the inland pseudo-peninsula has about 66,000 residents, the majority of them Mexican American.

Although Molina jokes that Pico Rivera is morphing into the "Latino Mayberry," she and others agree that it's not there yet.

The city had to leave a few birthday candles unlighted -- canceling some anniversary events, such as a parade -- because of a $4.8-million deficit in its annual budget of $34.6 million. The City Council often splits into two disagreeing camps, and a years-long struggle for a new library drags on.

But a dramatic decrease in crime recently has kick-started the metamorphosis.

In 2005, there were 5.5 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Since then, the rate has steadily declined to 3.3 so far in 2008.

As of July, violent incidents involving guns had decreased 71% from the same period last year. Nine people have been shot in 2008, compared with 31 for all of 2007. Last year, there were eight homicides, four of them gang-related; so far this year, not one.

Capt. Michael J. Rothans, who oversees the sheriff's station in Pico Rivera, credits the progress to more money being devoted to more officers focused on gangs and graffiti -- around $3 million since 2006.

A major turning point that galvanized the city was the death of Maria Hicks.

Hicks, a 57-year-old grandmother and lifelong resident of her Pico Rivera neighborhood, was gunned down in August 2007 after she honked her car horn, flashed her headlights and followed a tagger who had defaced a wall.

The killing led Molina to push for an antigraffiti pilot program in Pico Rivera and unincorporated areas near Whittier. During the program's first eight months, there were 220 arrests for tagging, 140 of which led to convictions. The other cases are pending.

Under the program, photos of graffiti are logged into a database to determine where the most prolific taggers strike. Deputies then keep close watch on those areas, and a deputy district attorney is charged with prosecuting cases. Montebello is already copying the program.

"It all came about because of Maria Hicks' death," Molina said. "Now other cities across the county are fighting graffiti thanks to Pico Rivera's efforts."

The city's main arteries show less graffiti than in years past and something else -- new businesses.

This year three major shopping centers have opened. National chains previously exclusive to more upscale parts of L.A. are sprouting up.

"Pico Rivera has an image of being ghetto-ish, and people tell me that getting a Starbucks shows when a city is getting more trendy," said James Zamora, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks in Pico Rivera. "It's like a status symbol."

The city attracted some major chains to the Pico Rivera Towne Center by offering incentives, such as providing landscaping for a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and subsidizing the rent of a Borders Books and Music store.

Jan Wagner, Borders' event marketing manager for greater Los Angeles, said retailers at Towne Center were astounded by the untapped market in Pico Rivera.

"There was a huge realization, not just for the Borders chain but for other retailers we spoke with, that there's a market here that hasn't been served," Wagner said. "Although it's one of our smaller stores, it's exceeded expectations."

The industrial heart of Pico Rivera, in the city's southwestern corner, also beats with new life. The area, which hosted Ford Motor Co. and later Northrop Grumman, was hit hard when Northrop vacated its 157-acre facility in 2000. City leaders vowed to reopen the area with a variety of companies so that, as city spokesman Bob Spencer said, "we don't tank again if one leaves."

The site was split between the city's largest shopping complex -- the 60-acre Towne Center, opened in 2002 -- and an industrial warehouse complex.

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