Gangster's Paradise Lost
LA CityBeatLosing the mural, it seems, was a sign of the times. In 2002, when the city renovated the recreation center at Stoner Park in West L.A., the last remnants of the Westside's Latino gang culture were told that the building's big Chicano-era mural would be temporarily removed to accommodate construction, but then returned. The big tableaux from the side of the building was an homage to the Mexican flavor of the neighborhood, and a point of homeboy pride.
Nov. 6, 2003
By Dennis Romero
Cover photo by Steve Appleford
Nov. 6, 2003
By Dennis Romero
Cover photo by Steve Appleford
But when Mayor James K. Hahn presided over ribbon-cutting ceremonies celebrating the completed makeover last summer, the mural was absent, and the homies still haven't seen it. (A council district field deputy who keeps his eye on parks in the area said he has no idea what happened to the artwork.) Today, a few survivors of the Sotel 13 gang, which has claimed the park since the early 1950s, still congregate at the rec center each weekday at 3 p.m. – like clockwork. (“You can set your watch by it,” says one cop.) But they're joined by yuppies walking little designer dogs and soccer moms tossing balls at their daughters' feet. Their barrio is clearly no more.
The story is the same across the Westside: The vida loca in neighborhoods such as West L.A.'s Sawtelle district, Venice's Oakwood area, and the Culver City-adjacent Del Rey barrio has turned into la dolce vita for high-income residents who are pushing westward. Thouhg LAPD still reports more than 50,000 gang members in the city, they have been shoved east by gentrification. For the Latino and black locals who called the Westside home for decades, dwindling gang membership is the inevitable result. Many neighbors and cops, of course, say good riddance (especially with gang crimes in West L.A. down 45 percent so far compared to last year). But some veteranos lament the end of an era, a time when taco-slangin' lunch trucks were always around the corner and eses cast authoritative shadows on the street.
“It's kind of sad in a way,” says Luis J. Rodriguez, author of the autobiographical Always Running: LA Vida Loca – Gang Days in L.A. “Chicanos have contributed a lot to these neighborhoods. For the most part, white people with money, they love their history, and they make sure everyone knows about it. But Chicanos don't have the same resources to put that history down.”
Diligent policing and injunctions against gangs in Venice and Del Rey have had an impact, sending many older, hardcore members to prison for decades at a time. But the most often cited reason for the demise of gangs west of the 405 is gentrification. Housing prices in the Sawtelle neighborhood and in Venice start in the low $500,000 range and inch up from there. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in those neighborhoods and in Del Rey starts at about $1,000 per month. While public housing remains an option (Venice and Del Rey are both home to federally funded apartment buildings), a 1997 U.S. Housing and Urban Development regulation pushed out many gang members living in such units. The “one-strike” rule stated that if any guest under a public housing beneficiary's control were to “engage in or facilitate criminal activity … within a three-block radius of the property” the resident would be evicted immediately. That put out many gang families, despite a successful ACLU challenge that softened the rule the next year.
“The enemy of any gang on the Westside is the loss of affordable housing, greedy landlords, abusive police practices, and lack of city support for people of color,” says Oscar De La Torre, founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center, an activities and counseling center for at-risk youth in Santa Monica. “The gang members are fighting the wrong fight, killing each other and pushing themselves out of the Westside.”
Flight to Inglewood
In Del Rey, a Los Angeles city barrio east of Marina del Rey and surrounded on its other sides by Culver City, the local Culver City Boyz are rarely seen at the Mar Vista Gardens public housing project they used to call home. “Cops kicked everybody out,” says Pedro Valenciana, a 27-year-old former Culver City member who now counsels dropouts at the Mar Vista Family Center. “They were kicking out whole families.”
The Culver City Boyz are thought to be the largest and most active of the Westside gangs, often implicated in violent capers, including the 1998 murder of Los Angeles police officer Brian Brown, who, along with his partner, had confronted two suspects after a fatal drive-by in Culver City. “The officers were outmatched by the gunmen, who were firing a Ruger mini-14 assault rifle and a semiautomatic attack weapon,” Capt. Gary Williams said at the time. (One suspect was fatally wounded by officers at nearby Fox Hills Mall. Another man was shot by police near Los Angeles International Airport after a pursuit. He lived.) The mall, in fact, is a haven for the Culver City Boyz and other gangsters, and early last summer, drive-by suspects in a U-Haul led police on a pursuit from Venice to the shopping center, only to be caught.
Twenty-one-year-old Greg Martin Jr. has seen the changes on Slauson Avenue, Del Rey's main thoroughfare. As a teen-ager, he came close to joining the gang, but the Mar Vista Family Center and its high school diploma program for dropouts helped him focus on attending Santa Monica College. “The gang has shrunk dramatically,” he says. “My grandmother lived down here for 30 years. I've been on this street all my life. Twenty of them lived on the street when I was 12. Now, I might see one once in a blue moon.”
For those growing up in the neighborhood, says Valenciana, joining the gang was a rite of passage. “You look outside your door, you see what's going on, and you want to be part of that,” he says. “Before you were a gang member, you were friends.”
But six years ago, the West Los Angeles College student moved to Inglewood – which is now home to many displaced Westside gang members. “Housing around here is so expensive,” Valenciana says. “People are starting to overcrowd these apartments.
“Gangs isn't the problem around here no more,” he continues as he surveys the dense Slauson Avenue corridor. “It's all these outsiders trying to buy everything in sight. Look at Playa Vista. Everything is going up, but people don't have a say. You have people coming in from other areas, but what happens to all the neighborhood people? It's a nice neighborhood, but in another eight to ten years, you won't see it like this no more.”
Venice for Life
In Venice, the transformation is even more obvious. Homes are fetching sometimes more than $1 million, and homies are being displaced every day. The area is claimed by Venice 13 and the Shoreline Crips, which coexist peacefully under a truce. Another gang, the Venice White Boys, died off decades ago.
“I know that the gangs are shrinking,” says a longtime Venice real-estate agent. “The property values have gone up, and people from New York are moving into Venice because it's affordable for them. I've been listing properties for between $580,000 and $600,000 average, where they used be worth $250,000 ten years ago.”
Alejandro Alonso, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California's Geography Department, is working on a paper about what he believes is a correlation between the city's gang injunctions and areas where property values are increasing. In Del Rey, an injunction – which generally bars members from congregating, carrying spray paint, or hanging out after 10 p.m. – covers the Culver City Boyz. A favored crime-fighting tool of Hahn while he served as city attorney, injunctions cover the Mexican-American Venice 13 gang as well as the African-American Shoreline Crips in Venice.
“Venice is one of the most gentrified gang areas I've ever seen,” Alonso says. “The reason I believe injunctions are imposed is because of the property values. All the injunctions are either next to prime real estate or in prime industry areas.”
Eighteen-year-old Julio Ruiz sits on the steps outside an apartment building in Venice's Oakwood area on a recent Saturday afternoon, pecking his girlfriend on the cheek. He lives with his mom and three siblings in a one-bedroom, $710-per-month apartment. He says the landlord could fetch at least $1,000 for the place and would be glad to see his family leave. But it's a good price, based on their move-in rent of seven years ago. “They're trying to kick us out,” says the Venice 13 member. “All my homies be moving to Inglewood.”
Ruiz, who's known on the street as “Indio” because of his dark, Indian-esque skin, says he recently went to prison for “dope.” He says police have been storming his house at 5 a.m. to conduct probation checks. He thinks this is part of a larger attempt to get the gang to leave for good. He's not leaving anytime soon, and he has plenty of animosity for the mostly white, professional newcomers in his neighborhood. “They come out here like Venice gang is nothing,” he says, “like we ain't shit no more.”
He points at a large, gleaming property across the street: “That used to be a black church. Now they made it into a white house.”
A few blocks south, Rick Mejia lives in the four-bedroom, two-bath Venice home his family purchased in 1963 for $17,500. These days, real-estate agents routinely knock on his door on weekend afternoons, saying, “You have a buyer waiting right now.” Their offer: $800,000. “They also send letters making offers,” says the 43-year-old. “We just don't want to leave.”
Mejia, who now has four children of his own, is a former Venice 13 member who started Venice Barrios Unidos in 1994 to help his homies leave the vida loca and find strength and respect in education, jobs and family. “It's by god's grace I'm not dead,” he says. “All I can do is show his spirit of kindness. We should be working together to make this world a better place.”
He remembers the old times when there were 100 core “V-13s” and at least half of those would congregate on weekends at nearby Penmar Park. (The “13” signifies a gang's “sureño,” or Southern California, roots.) All the neighbors, Mejia says, were friends. “There were more of us together, but it was mainly all the families that had all these kids, nephews, nieces, quincineras, weddings,” he says. “We fixed our cars up together. Everything we did was a community thing. Going to Penmar and having weekend rides. Always the black and brown together. That's what's missing now, the togetherness.”
Mejia, however, spent much of the '80s in prison, and after the birth of his son in 1980, he had plenty of time to sit and think about the future. “My children changed my life,” he says. “You can't do this no more. There was a lot of death, too, and it came from mainly Venice and Culver City.”
Santa Monica's Last GhettoThe Santa Monica 13 gang has its rivalries as well. In the late '90s, it was the target of the Culver City Boyz. On October 27, 1998, four people were shot, two of them fatally, at a street clothing store called Westside on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. The dead included two men from Northern California who had merely been visiting the store's owner, their cousin. Although the suspects are still at large, suspicion centered around the Culver City set.
“I seen my cousin murdered right in front of me,” the store's owner, who was also hit by the gunfire, said recently. He said the police have since pegged him as a Santa Monica gang member, although he says he's not. “They labeled my family a gang family,” he says. “The police took pictures of me that are in their gang files.”
However, the number of active gang members is way down in Santa Monica's last remaining ghetto, the strip of “Pico Neighborhood” that runs between Pico Boulevard and the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10), between Lincoln Boulevard and the West Los Angeles border. The Santa Monica Lil Locos and the African-American Graveyard Crips also claim the area, but experts say there are less than 25 active gang members in Santa Monica. Yet another Santa Monica set, the 11th Street Chavos, became extinct by the '80s. The city's active gang membership “is significantly less, if not half, of what it was 10 years ago,” says Santa Monica Police Lt. Pasqual J. Guido, who credits police and community intervention.
Although some of the Westside gangs have survived by recruiting new immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, newcomers who seem to favor settling on the Westside, it hasn't been enough to overcome gentrification.
“These are some of the last black and brown communities in Southern California so close to the ocean,” laments De La Torre of the Pico Youth and Family Center. “People are being gentrified out. They're moving to Inglewood.
“Venice and Culver City were the real rivals,” he continues. “Santa Monica and Sotel were real rivals. Those were some of the last gang wars you're going to see. It's dropped off tremendously.”
The Los Angeles Police Department's West L.A. Division, home to the lowest crime rate in the city, mainly keeps its eye on two gangs: the Playboy Gangsta Crips, claiming turf along La Cienega Boulevard less than one mile south of tony Beverly Hills, and the Sotel gang, which is named for Sawtelle Boulevard and the adjacent neighborhood.
The Playboys have been around for at least 30 years, but their numbers started dwindling after the city hit the gang with an injunction in 1987. At the time, the gang had 200 members. Today the set, which roams mainly between La Cienega and Robertson boulevards and Pico Boulevard and Cadillac Avenue, has about 20 active members, according to police.
“Originally, it was a break-dancing crew,” says LAPD gang officer E. Saidenberg. “As crack cocaine became more prominent in the area, they saw the money-making potential and evolved into a criminal gang lifestyle. It caused them to become more violent.”
Saidenberg says the injunction and police vigilance – cops and community-service workers both claim some credit for the cleanup – have had a greater effect than rising rents. “Their income is not minimum wage,” he says. “They're making their income off robbing others, sales of narcotics and weapons, and things like that. Some of them make a lot more than you or I.
“Many have gone to prison,” he adds. “Others have been paroled or moved out of the area or wised up and moved on and started to raise family.”
There are a few other smaller gangs on the Westside's fringes, sets like Helms Street, Rancho Park, and Criminals for Life, that are but minor troublemakers. And in West L.A. proper, the Sotel 13 gang has a half-dozen core members these days, an expert says, although police contend there are about 25 active members and 225 registered members in the five-year-tracking “Cal Gang” state database.
“The Westside being a predominantly white area, they even told me through interviews that ‘this is not like South Central, where we blend in,'” says gang Officer Tony Umansky, whose job it is to keep a close eye on Sotel. “‘We stick out like a sore thumb,'” he quotes them as saying.
Police say that at least one Sotel O.G. (original gangster) in his 30s who has moved to the San Fernando Valley is recruiting at nearby University High School and even Webster Elementary School in an attempt to keep the gang alive. The result is a handful of pee-wees who stroll Stoner park in crisp, white T-shirts.
Their barrio – Sotel claims turf from the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Santa Monica border and from the Santa Monica (10) Freeway to Wilshire Boulevard – has changed into a yuppie mecca with plenty of high-end sushi bars and grocery stores. Neighbors and shoppers are often surprised to hear that the area even has a gang, but you can still see a little piece of the 'hood in Sotel's relentless tagging. The gangsters hit the Stoner Park bathrooms and walls with “Sotel X3.” Such graffiti is also found along Pico near the Santa Monica boundary, home to arch-rivals Santa Monica 13.
The shrinking Sotel set, some authorities believe, still has some criminal life left in it. In the summer of 2002, a triple homicide outside a Brentwood-adjacent Koo Koo Roo restaurant at Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy Drive shocked the neighborhood. According to police, four of the restaurant's employees were waiting for a bus shortly before 11 p.m. on August 27, when someone walked up and opened fire, killing three of the four: Mario Cruz, 24, Avelinao Cruz, 23, and Jorge Rodriguez, 22. The West L.A. residents “were well known in the Sawtelle area as ex-18th Streeters,” says Umansky, referring to perhaps the world's largest gang, 18th Street, which is spread throughout the region but calls the Pico-Union district near downtown ground zero.
He says one of the victims of the triple homicide had a brother who was fatally wounded following a dispute with a Soteler at Barry and Ohio avenues more than a year and a half ago. Since then, he said, the Koo Koo Roo trio stopped strolling while drunk and disrespectful through Sotel turf and started avoiding the area on their way home from work each night. But on that summer evening, even an attempt to catch a bus west to Santa Monica didn't save the three. The shooter came looking for them on the edge of Brentwood.
“These guys would actually go out of their way to go to Santa Monica to avoid the Sotel area to and from work,” Umansky says. “They would even try to hitch rides. They were obviously in fear and knew that Sotels didn't like them.”
The crime, however, remains unsolved, and there are three fewer boys in the 'hood. The area's geography makes some sense for gangland: The train tracks of the old Exposition right-of-way run along the south end. The homeless-magnet Veterans Administration Hospital anchors the north. Just south of Stoner Park, an industrial corridor, including a city trash-truck lot, runs along Olympic Boulevard all the way through to Santa Monica gang territory. But the area, which also includes Japanese-American residents with deep roots and Zen-inspired gardens, is irresistible to wealthier home-buyers.
“Back in the days, it was happening,” says a 19-year-old Sotel member Monster, kicking it at Stoner Park. “You used to see like 50 homies out here. There were all kinds of Mexicans around here. Now they're building condos that are all expensive 'n' shit.”
Monster looks back and points to where the Chicano mural once stood.
“I think it should be there – the community did that,” he says. “They said they were going to put it back. They should.”