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Cultivating Long Beach neighborhood harmony

On Henderson Avenue, a peaceful garden now thrives where crime-ridden apartment complexes once stood. The experiment has quickly brought the community together.

October 20, 2009|Robert Faturechi

Long Beach City Councilman Dee Andrews cast a loud, drawn-out groan before describing what the Henderson Avenue neighborhood used to look like.

"Henderson was just a bad, I mean, bad, bad street," he said. "That's where everybody came to pick up their drugs."

Just a few years ago, two adjacent apartment complexes on the 1900 block of Henderson were havens for drug dealers and prostitutes, according to city officials. Neighbors were leery of leaving their homes, and the complexes drew a high number of police calls.

But these days the scene is decidedly peaceful. The crime-plagued apartments have been replaced by healthy plots of squash, golden chard, watermelon and cucumbers thriving in Long Beach's salty breezes.

After years of battling with the apartment owners to clean up their properties, an arm of the city's redevelopment agency bought the buildings in 2007 for $1.6 million, said John Edmond, chief of staff for Councilman Andrews. The city paid $200,000 more to relocate several dozen tenants and clear the land.

"We come out and see a garden now instead of a bunch of people trying to do their last bit of no-good before the sun rises," said Rachael Chavez, 34, who helps manage the garden.

The garden -- a two-year experiment in community building intended to last until affordable housing is constructed on the site -- has helped to heal a neighborhood and draw out residents.

"There was a lot of fear. People running out of the apartment buildings, gun shots," said local resident Berenice Abila, 26, as she stood outside with her 1-year-old son. "And now it's a garden. Now it's peaceful."

The garden opened its gates in July, but the process that led to its creation started nearly 10 years ago when city officials and the police became frustrated with the increasing crime.

Andrews even considered changing the street's name to a more regal moniker, like Palos Verdes Drive, to help the neighborhood's image. Eventually, city officials opted for bold action and bought the site.

"When you've got tenants there selling drugs, you've got to do something about that," Andrews said. "Because you know what's going to happen. Someone's gonna get shot."

Neighbors said the garden has already improved relations between Henderson Avenue residents and nearby homeowners. On busy mornings gardeners tend their 4-by-12 plots side by side; cries from heladeros hawking frozen treats blend with chats about Whole Foods and trips to the Getty.

"These relationships never would have happened without the safe arena of gardening," said Stephen Duprey, 54, a resident who lives just blocks away but would rarely pass through Henderson before.

About 40 plots tended by some 70 volunteers speak to the diversity of the gardeners, including Filipinos, Mexicans and Indians. Zigzagging between gardening boxes, Duprey, his pants muddied, stopped at a plot tended by a Cambodian family and pointed to an overflow of ruffly greens.

"They've brought in plants I've never seen before, and I've been involved in horticulture for 50 years," Duprey said, pointing out a variety of spinach commonly used in stir fry dishes. "There's a cross-pollination of ethnic and economic diversity."

Homes will eventually be built on the site. Until then, residents hope the garden continues to rehabilitate the neighborhood.

"There used to be lots of drug-dealing, gang-type activity, lots of graffiti, just a deterioration of the neighborhood's appearance," said Long Beach Police Lt. Randy Allen. "If you drive down Henderson now, it doesn't look like it did in the past."

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robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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