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PROMISE AND PERIL IN SOUTH L.A.

At an impoverished housing complex, a reflection of South L.A.

Violence has long been familiar at the Pueblo del Rio public housing development. Crime is down and authorities hope new police tactics will help, but gunshots can still erupt without warning.

July 14, 2009|Scott Gold

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Alex Vargas sprinted across the grass to the front of an apartment. He leaned ever so gently against the door. "It's open," he said, and his breath quickened. He locked eyes with another officer who was standing across the stoop, gun held tight against his thigh. "I'm going in," Vargas said.

The gunshots had erupted in a courtyard at Pueblo del Rio, one of the oldest and largest public housing developments in Los Angeles, a place beset with crippling poverty and gang violence for much of its 67 years. It was late on a Friday, and it had been a quiet night. Now it looked as though someone had kicked over an anthill.

Looky-loos streamed in. So did police. There were obstacles everywhere: shell casings you weren't supposed to step on; old-timey wire clotheslines, neck-high, that you didn't want to run into. A police helicopter banked overhead; everyone winced at its burst of white light, then pushed on through the dark.

Witnesses shouted out stories that could not all be true. The shooter had fled east, toward the old flour mill. No, west, toward the tracks. It was a handgun. No, a rifle. They agreed on one thing: The victim had been shot in the back and stumbled into one of these apartments. Vargas, a 16-year LAPD veteran, had found the right place. He had no idea what he'd find on the other side of the door.

Gang violence has fallen in this corner of South L.A., and civic leaders are laboring to secure some semblance of lasting peace and community -- through new police tactics and city-funded gang-prevention, job-training and other programs.

Defusing Pueblo del Rio is a less daunting proposition than it would have been in years past. But it still comes with complexities: the three gangs that call "the Pueblos" home, the insular families who've been here from the start. The community reflects what lies ahead for South L.A.: an unlikely sense of quiet and optimism most days, tempered by startling episodes that threaten to plunge the neighborhood back into the more familiar narrative of violence.

A 'garden city'

Vargas pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The bullets had crashed through the windows, past lace curtains above the washing machine and a fly swatter hanging over the stove. One had ripped through the side of the fridge, landing in a colander full of russet potatoes. Another had found the pantry and become lodged inside a canister of pink sprinkles, the kind you put on cupcakes.

A third slammed into Nicole Horne's shoulder.

Horne, 25, was born and raised here -- the third generation of her family to live in this apartment. She'd been in the courtyard when a fight erupted; the bullets were not meant for her. She'd stumbled inside, then collapsed onto the bare tile floor of the living room.

"It burns!" she screamed. "Where is the ambulance?"

Horne's wounds were not fatal. Vargas helped soothe her until paramedics arrived. He needed to get back to the streets, and there was nothing more he could do here anyway. But as he steered his cruiser away, he suspected this wasn't the last he'd hear of this. The area where Horne had been shot was controlled by the Pueblo Bishops, the community's dominant gang.

"They'll kill each other for this," Vargas said.

To understand Pueblo del Rio today, it helps to understand what it once was: a monument, when it opened in 1942, to the West's World War II-era can-do ingenuity.

The concept was lofty: housing for the masses, not fancy but functional, occupied largely by workers drawn by the nearby defense yards; a "garden city" on 17.5 acres at Alameda and East 55th streets, where 390 apartments would open front and back onto green space. The architects were recognized visionaries, men such as Paul Revere Williams and Richard Neutra, the Vienna-born designer who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

From the start, Pueblo del Rio's fate mirrored that of South L.A.

Demand meant expansion; in 1954, 270 more apartments were built on an additional 16.6 acres. Jobs and opportunity meant diversity; Pueblo del Rio was almost entirely African American at a time when white families in L.A. were beginning to look elsewhere to make their homes.

The downward spiral began soon enough. The factories shut down and jobs became scarce. Communal housing for the poor no longer looked ingenious; it looked naive. Some politicians began calling such housing "socialist."

Money ran short. Rats moved in. In the 1970s, even the playground got paved over. At the height of the crack epidemic, dealers and junkies roamed the grounds.

Violent outbursts became routine -- in 1988, when gangsters got into a full-fledged shootout with rifles and Molotov cocktails; in 1991, when two teenagers, one just 14, were arrested after a firebomb killed a woman and her 11-month-old daughter inside one apartment.

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