Shooting a reminder of changing area’s dangers

The Westlake neighborhood was once a violence-filled area. Then gentrification pushed out some of the criminal element.
By Anna Gorman, Ari Bloomekatz and Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

September 19, 2007

The signs of progress are hard to miss in the streets around MacArthur Park.

A few aging buildings have been reborn as luxury lofts, new restaurants and an art gallery have opened, and a renovated band shell has brought concerts and family festivals to the park.

There’s less graffiti on the walls, more police on the streets and crime is down significantly compared with a decade ago. Gone are the chalk lines on the sidewalks where gang members once marked their turf.

But the teeming neighborhood of mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants remains mired in poverty and urban crowding. The streets are filled with people day and night — residents, shoppers, street vendors, drug dealers, transients and people selling fake IDs to illegal immigrants. And gang members, despite aggressive crackdowns, remain a powerful force in the district about two miles west of downtown L.A.

Los Angeles prosecutors on Tuesday charged a reputed gang member, Luis Silva, 19, for his alleged role in the shooting at an outdoor marketplace Saturday night on the corner of 6th Street and Burlington Avenue, injuring a vendor and killing a newborn. In the criminal complaint against Silva, he was charged with murder, attempted murder and extortion. An arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 2, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said members of the 18th Street gang tried to extort money from outdoor vendors Sept. 1. One vendor refused to pay. The gang members returned Saturday and opened fire, they said. A law enforcement source said the assailants were seeking $50 from the vendor they allegedly shot.

The shooting, residents and police say, is a reminder of the continuing pull of gangs, who prey on immigrants, many of whom are here illegally and therefore are reluctant to report crimes.

Though more than 100 people witnessed the shooting, few came forward. Police said they are hampered by the fact that many residents have emigrated from Central America, where many are afraid of law enforcement and government.

“What does 40,000 people per square mile mean?” Councilman Ed Reyes said. “It means that people of different universes are existing in the same space and it creates a sub-economy, a subculture in which those with little wallets, those who are existing or surviving on poverty, they get relegated to a level of insecurity, of terror, of influence of the local gangs.”

On Tuesday afternoon, dozens attended a candlelight vigil at the shooting site to pray for the victims and to ask for the public’s help to continue reforming the neighborhood.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged community members to work with police in apprehending any others involved, saying the murder was not only a priority for him but must be “for every family in Los Angeles.”

The Rev. Howard Dotson, who led the vigil, said that the neighborhood has been transformed, but that the murder showed that there is still much work to be done.

“Every weekend the sidewalks are full of people selling secondhand goods just to get by,” he said. “It’s disheartening to see people struggling for their daily bread and then to see this extortion on top of it. This is going to bring to light what’s been happening,” Dotson said.

Authorities last year thought they had put a major dent in gang activity with a sweeping indictment of 18th Street gang leaders, who allegedly “rented” corners across the district to drug dealers. The LAPD’s Rampart Division, which includes neighborhoods west of downtown, has seen the number of murders fall, from 21 through Sept. 15 last year to 14 during the same period this year. There were also 11 fewer shooting victims this year through Sept. 15 compared with 78 during the same period last year.

But the mostly Latino, multi-generational 18th Street gang — one of the largest and most notorious in Los Angeles — still maintains a forbidding presence in the neighborhood, authorities and residents said.

Deputy City Atty. Bruce Riordan, director of the office’s anti-gang operation, said the major gangs often extort “taxes” and “rent” payments in an organized way from criminals, drug dealers and businesses, among them street vendors. Individual gang members also often demand money from vendors randomly.

“While some rent and tax collections are as well-organized as a business, other extortions take place purely to finance particular gang members’ needs,” Riordan said. “One example might be a gang member or members who want to finance a night out on the town by sticking up a guy selling fruit on the street.”

Riordan said people who are poor and in the U.S. illegally may feel that they have little choice other than to pay off the gangs. “In many ways these victims are the perfect targets,” Riordan said. (The U.S. Census does not track illegal immigration, but the 2000 U.S. Census found that 68% of residents in the densest neighborhoods around MacArthur Park were born in foreign countries).

Guatemalan immigrant Rosa Vega, 77, who sells pupusas and drinks along Wilshire Boulevard near the park, said a gang member came by last year demanding that she pay him $20 a day.

She refused and threatened to call the police.

“I said, ‘It doesn’t embarrass you to ask for money from me? I’m an old woman.’ ”

Maria Rodriguez, 30, from Honduras, sells soft drinks on 6th Street near Burlington and lives nearby. She heard the shots Saturday and left the neighborhood as quickly as she could. On Tuesday, she sat on a plastic chair next to an oversized cooler, rocking her 11-month-old daughter in a stroller with one hand.

Rodriguez said nobody has asked her for money since she started vending on the street two months ago. But if they do, she said she would have to pay.

“Or what? They’re going to take a life for $20?”

The neighborhood has long been a first stop for immigrants from Mexico and Central America, including Silvia Juarez, 27, who said she would live elsewhere if she could. But the Guatemalan immigrant said the one-bedroom apartment she rents for $850 is the cheapest she could find in Los Angeles.

“It’s not safe here,” she said as she pushed her 2-year-old daughter in a stroller.

The MacArthur Park area became a mecca for immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico during the 1980s, making it one of the most densely packed and poorest areas in the U.S. The district has been the focus of significant attention by city leaders over the past few years. The LAPD targeted the park itself — long a hotbed of drug dealing and prostitution — by increasing patrols and installing video cameras around the area.

At the same time, the gentrification that began in downtown L.A. is stretching west along Wilshire Boulevard into the neighborhood. Several old apartments have been rehabbed. Some old office buildings have been redesigned as lofts.

Among the new businesses is rampART on Wilshire, an art gallery whose owner also has a building design firm. The company, which renovated the lounge and restaurant of the Royale apartment building, opened the gallery earlier this year, said office manager J.R. Ahrens. Many of the photographs on display are of the murals, street corners and residents in MacArthur Park.

“You’re always going to have some violence” because the area is part of the “big city,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s happening when things are revitalizing.”

Business owners and area activists say the police crackdown and urban revitalization have helped the neighborhood, but that the shooting incident is a major setback.

“We have cleaned this neighborhood up 80%,” said Dr. Walter Jayasinghe, who owns five medical clinics in the neighborhood. “The other 20% is gangs. . . . Gangs rule this place.”

At his office overlooking the park, with a bullet hole in the window, Victor Narro of the UCLA Labor Center said the area is much safer than in past years. But Narro said police can do only so much.

“It’s not just about LAPD increasing enforcement,” he said. “You address public safety by addressing the economic disparity, housing issues and the changing demographic.”

Another person heavily involved in the neighborhood’s changing fortunes is Sandra Romero, founder of Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe on 7th Street. Romero used to operate a street vending program in the park and still trains vendors.

“When things like this shooting happen . . . it really takes a step backward for us in the public’s eye,” said Romero, who lives around the corner from where the killing occurred. “But it doesn’t diminish my faith that we are going to be able to change this neighborhood. It just makes me want to work harder.”

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