L.A. long ignored Harbor Gateway. Now a Latino gang calls the shots.
Times Staff Writer
March 4, 2007
CHERYL Green was hardly the first.
Since the 14-year-old was shot to death in December in the forgotten strip of Los Angeles known as Harbor Gateway, she has become a symbol of the region's gang and racial strife.
Yet long before the mayor, police chief and FBI director showed up to decry the violence, the tiny neighborhood lived with it.
For more than a decade, many say, the neighborhood Latino gang — called 204th Street — had been attacking blacks. African Americans had taken to warily surveying their streets for Latinos, and few dared go north of 206th Street, which the gang had set as a boundary for blacks.
In 1997, 11-year-old Marquis Wilbert, an African American youth with no gang affiliation, was shot and killed by a 204th Street gang member on a bicycle.
In September 2001, Robert Hightower, a 19-year-old Pasadena high school senior, was shot to death after hugging his sister, whom he had been visiting. A 204th Street gang member shot him, according to court testimony, because he was upset that a black boxer had beaten a Latino in a prizefight.
In 2003, Eric Butler, 39, was shot to death as he drove from the neighborhood's lone business, the Del Amo Market, which the gang considered to be in its territory. He'd gone there to intervene after gang members began harassing his 14-year-old stepdaughter. She was shot in the back and lives today with a bullet lodged near her spine.
Butler's wife, Madeline Enriquez, organized marches to bring attention to the problem, without success.
Instead, the violence spread.
From 1994 to 2005 in Harbor Gateway, there were nearly five times as many homicides, assaults and other violent crimes by Latinos against blacks as by blacks against Latinos, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics.
Cheryl's shooting — allegedly by two 204th Street gang members as she and friends talked on a street in broad daylight — underscored a new reality: that since the mid-1990s, according to the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, Latino gangs have become the region's leading perpetrators of violent hate crimes.
"It took this girl's death to show what's going on," said Khalid Shah, director of Stop the Violence, an anti-gang nonprofit group that has worked in Harbor Gateway.
Two weeks after Cheryl's death, the gang allegedly struck again, stabbing 80 times a white man they believed to be a witness to her shooting death. Five gang members were charged last month in his slaying.
None of this makes sense to Cheryl's mother, Charlene Lovett.
"My daughter's dead and I don't know why," Lovett said at her kitchen table after Cheryl's killing. "That's the question I would like answered: Why?"
The answer goes well beyond a single slaying or a single neighborhood. Packed into the 13-block area where Cheryl Green lived and died is a story of many of the forces fueling gang and racial violence in Los Angeles and the region today.
It is a story of civic neglect and the rise of the low-wage economy, of immigration, changes in federal housing policy and the street influence of a prison gang.
But the story begins, as does so much in this city, with real estate development.
From fields to families
Before World War II, the neighborhood was mostly vacant fields.
Then came factories, attracting workers who needed housing. So builders filled those fields with small houses and duplexes.
"This is where the workers lived," said Sharon Wyatt, who moved into the neighborhood with her husband, Jack, a shipyard worker, in 1971. "The contractors didn't even live here. It was the people that built the houses."
Cubans settled nearby in the 1960s, and a wave of Mexican immigrants arrived in the 1970s. Few blacks lived in the area, but on the Wyatts' block of 207th Street were white families like themselves, Latino families, a Middle Eastern man.
Harbor Gateway was like other parts of Los Angeles in many ways. But tucked as it was into a strip that connects the city to the port, it was an afterthought to local politicians consumed with the port, San Pedro and Wilmington. Residents themselves didn't always know to which city they belonged: The neighborhood was in Los Angeles but had a Torrance mailing address.
In the competition for city services, Harbor Gateway usually lost. Wyatt remembers that street sweepers came by maybe once a month. Street lamps didn't arrive until the late 1980s. The area had no park, no school nearby. Los Angeles police, always strapped for officers, patrolled intermittently.
Homeownership anchored the community, Wyatt and others said. Families cleaned in front of their places. People knew each other.
All that changed in the late 1980s. Southern California was absorbing immigrants and refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Mexico and Central America. Demand for housing rose — especially for apartments.
From 1985 to 1989, 187,000 units were built in Los Angeles County — almost 30% more than all those built since, according to the Construction Industry Research Board.
Harbor Gateway was transformed. From 1985 to 1992, city records show, about 75 houses gave way to apartment buildings — adding close to 500 units. The neighborhood gained roughly 1,500 residents — a 65% increase — with no new amenities or open space.
Residents "didn't have the knowledge, or the resources, or the time" to fight it, Wyatt said.
While Torrance made developers add trees, landscaping, open space and enclosed garages, Los Angeles required only sewer and school taxes.
"It was the Wild West," said Ken Sideris, who built more apartments than anyone else in the neighborhood — about 20 buildings. "It was developed wrong. There was no plan, no thought."
By 1992, the real estate boom had ended; recession arrived. Building owners needed tenants. The union jobs that had sustained earlier residents were disappearing.
"For about five years there, everyone on this block was laid off at one time or another," said Sharon Wyatt, whose husband lost his shipyard job.
The people who moved in were cashiers, gardeners, mechanics and swap-meet vendors. Most were Latino immigrants.
Blacks also moved in. The neighborhood's African American population more than doubled, from 313 in 1990 to 835 in 2000.
Many were fleeing the gang war zones of South Los Angeles, Inglewood and Compton in search of affordable housing.
Others came from housing projects, as federal policy shifted and concentrated developments for the poor fell into disfavor. They came with Section 8 vouchers, tickets to subsidized housing, in hand. Many were former residents of Normont Terrace, a housing project two miles from Harbor Gateway that the city's housing authority razed in 1995.
With so many renters and a dearth of city services, conditions in the neighborhood deteriorated. Discarded sofas stayed where tossed for weeks. "The neighborhood got dirtier," Wyatt said.
Landlords reinvested less, and tenants, divided by race, culture and language, no longer knew one another.
Sideris sold his last building in 1993 and hasn't built since.
"I feel bad. I felt the neighborhood could have gone the other way very easily," he said. "Where they have too many apartment units like that, it's unfortunate."
Feeling 'penned in'
In 1994, Toni Bowden moved to 207th Street from Compton with a Section 8 voucher. At the housing office, the neighborhood was listed as Torrance, said Bowden, who is black. "I said, 'Oh, wow, a way out of Compton.' "
Over the next five years, however, Bowden saw numerous shootings. She and other blacks didn't dare walk to Del Amo Market, a mom-and-pop convenience store that had become the gang's chief outpost.
The 204th Street gang had started as a clique years before. However, it had recently split from Tortilla Flats, a larger gang farther east. Asserting their dominance, gang members began attacking blacks.
They shot at Bowden's daughter and her boyfriend as they went to the movies, she said.
"You feel penned in," Bowden said. "You don't have extra money to just jump and move someplace else."
For their part, Latino gang members feared for their turf.
"In jail, people would comment, 'The blacks took over your neighborhood,' " said one area gang member, who asked not to be identified, fearing retaliation from other gang members. "It's embarrassing, because it's true."
Before that, the neighborhood had been "kind of like a little TJ," he said, referring to Tijuana. "People would say, 'Hey, what's up?' or offer us a beer. You got tamales. Drugs. It was a great neighborhood for gang members."
Tensions worsened when a small black gang formed — the 208th Street Crips. The Crip gang's willingness to go to the police with complaints offended the Latino gang's sense of honor.
Blacks were "writing on our walls, throwing bottles at us and telling on us at the same time," said the gang member. The 204th Street gang figured "that's kind of disrespectful … so [we are] going to shoot every black guy up there."
By L.A. standards, the 204th Street gang was small-time, with no more than a few dozen youths. But it was large enough to terrorize a neighborhood.
"We'd call pizza and they didn't want to deliver," said Blanca Hernandez, a resident for more than 30 years. "The mailmen were afraid. Everyone was afraid."
Meanwhile, larger forces were transforming Southern California Latino street gangs, which for years had mostly gotten along with their counterparts in black gangs.
The change "happened almost overnight," remembers LAPD Officer Liavaa Moevao, who was a young Harbor Division gang officer in the area in the early 1990s.
Older 204th Street members began attending meetings held by representatives of the Mexican Mafia prison gang (known as Eme, Spanish for "M"), he said. They reported back "that Eme wants us to get rid of all the black gang members," Moevao said.
Mafia representatives told Latino gangs to stop feuding among themselves and to collect taxes from neighborhood drug dealers on behalf of Eme, according to law enforcement officials and gang members.
Blacks were drug-dealing competition.
Mafia representatives said, " 'Don't let the [blacks] move in,' " recalled Leo Duarte, a recently retired prison-gang investigator and one of the state's leading Eme experts. Across Southern California, "even those gang members who didn't go to the meetings still abided by Eme edicts" because they had to answer to the Mexican Mafia when they went to jail.
In Harbor Gateway, graffiti and racist shootings climbed.
"There was no doubt that there were directives from the Mexican Mafia" coming from prison and at the meetings, said Robert Lara, a Torrance police sergeant who worked gang detail during the mid-1990s.
The 204th Street gang was too small to warrant a lot of Eme attention. But when the gang "lit off a grenade, or burned [a black person's] house down," Mafia representatives "would be like, 'That's what I'm talking about,' " said the gang member.
Residents fight back
In 1997, police, the county Human Relations Commission and neighbors organized to fight the gang and the blight.
The city added bulletproof streetlight covers. Residents repaired holes in fences — escape routes for gang members. Girl Scouts, accompanied by officers, picked up trash and painted over graffiti. More than 100 gang members — black and Latino — were sent to jail for parole or probation violations. Police patrols increased. Violence fell.
But the campaign dissipated, and gang members slowly returned. By 1999, the Latino-on-black violence resumed.
In April, Michael Richardson, a 22-year-old African American, was shot to death by a 204th Street gang member on a bike in front of Toni Bowden's apartment.
Bowden returned to Compton.
Charlene Lovett moved into her place, thinking she was leaving gang violence behind in her West L.A. neighborhood, just as 204th Street gang attacks increased.
By 2001, the 208th Street Crips, never rooted in the area, faded away.
With squad cars again scarce, neighbors stopped reporting shootings and chases. Instead, gang members now patrolled the streets, brazenly circling 207th Street and Harvard Boulevard on bicycles.
Marie Keith, who is black, moved from South Los Angeles with her three daughters in 2000, believing she'd come to Torrance. One day black children playing on the street began screaming that "the 204s were coming."
Keith watched as gang members drove through, shooting. Black youths dived behind walls.
Since then, Keith's children have not been allowed to play in front of their apartment. When she has to travel more than half a block, she drives.
In August 2006, Carl Wagoner, an African American auto-shop owner, was shot in the leg outside his 207th Street apartment. He lost his leg — and his shop — and is now bedridden, said his wife, Dunya.
As the years passed, older members of the 204th Street gang went into semi-retirement. Some moved as far away as San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga. They took jobs, bought homes, started families. Yet they returned on weekends to the Del Amo Market and drank beer with the younger members.
"They're keeping that 204th street notion and atmosphere alive," said Dan Vasquez, an LAPD detective who has worked on the gang detail recently.
Since Cheryl Green's slaying, street sweepers pass through Harbor Gateway regularly.
Police roll by often, the city attorney's office is preparing an injunction against the 204th Street gang and Councilwoman Janice Hahn wants the city to buy land for a community center.
For now, no one hangs out at Del Amo Market.
Liavaa Moevao is back, now the LAPD's senior lead officer for the area. His task is to restore the sense of community that sustained the neighborhood years ago — though he said Harbor Division has half the patrol officers it had in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, weakened by economics, the neighborhood remains divided by race, language and thug culture.
Or at least, that's how it seems until entering a certain darkened apartment on 207th Street.
One recent afternoon, a television screen lighted the faces of best friends Flavio and Gary, both 12. They were playing an online version of the card game Uno, chatting with opponents from Seattle, Kentucky and New York via video cameras.
Gary is black. Flavio's parents are Mexican. They understand little English and live in the building next door.
Though the two boys can connect to the world, they cannot walk this neighborhood together.
Fear of the 204th Street gang has forced Gary to live most of his life inside this apartment. That's why he is overweight, said his mother and grandmother. The family has several computers, televisions and video-game consoles to keep him and his brothers occupied.
Gary's mother, Lisa, runs inside every time she sees a Latino youth.
Still, in this neighborhood where so much divides blacks and Latinos, this apartment holds a secret: The families rely on each other.
Flavio's mother, Rita, drives the boys to school each morning before heading to her job as a 99 Cents Store cashier. Gary's mother, Lisa, picks them up in the afternoon.
It is a small daily act, born of common necessity — yet one the mothers protect like an orchid.
They declined to be photographed or reveal their last names, preferring that their secret not leave this darkened apartment, where they live like members of an underground resistance.
Times staff writer Doug Smith and librarian John Tyrrell contributed to this report.
Unchecked apartment construction in the 1980s and 1990s transformed the racial dynamics of this isolated 13-block neighborhood, heightening gang tensions. Violent crime committed by Latinos against blacks has become a problem.
Reported violent crimes*
Suspect Victim Crimes
Black Black 71
Black Latino 23
Latino Latino 117
Latino Black 111
* Includes homicide, manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon and shooting at a residence or a vehicle.
1980 Total population: 2,139
1990 Total population: 2,945
2000 Total population: 3,548
Note: Census Bureau statistics are for the area bounded by 205th Street, Western Avenue, Denker Avenue and Torrance Boulevard Crime statistics are from LAPD reporting district 504. Percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding.
Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, Census Bureau, LAPD. Data analysis by Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter
Victims of the violence
Interracial homicides* in Harbor Gateway, 1997-2006
Victim: Marquis "Mark"
Wilbert, 11, African American
Date: March 27, 1997
Shot to death on Harvard Boulevard by a 204th Street gang member riding a bicycle, who was convicted of murder.
Victim: Michael Richardson, 22, African American
Date: April 19, 1999
Shot to death on 207th Street by a 204th Street gang member on a bicycle, who was convicted of murder and a hate crime.
Victim: Dino Downs, 41, African American
Date: May 21, 2000
Standing outside his house on 208th Street when he was shot to death by two Latino youths, possibly members of the 204th Street gang, who were driving by. Unsolved.
Victim: Manuel Flores, 32, Latino
Date: June 2, 1999
Shot to death by a black man on 208th Street. Unsolved.
Victim: Mario Cervantes, 18,
Date: July 22, 2000
A recent 204th Street gang member, he was shot on 206th street by a black member of the 208th Street Crips gang, who was convicted of murder.
Victim: Kent Lopez, 20, African American
Date: Aug. 25, 2000
Shot to death during a fight with several 204th Street gang members as he walked to a bus stop. Witnesses testified that the gang members yelled a racial epithet and death threats at Lopez. Two gang members were convicted of murder.
Victim: Robert Hightower, 19, African American
Date: Sept. 29, 2001
A Pasadena high school senior, he was visiting his sister when he was shot to death by a 204th Street gang member, who was convicted of murder.
Victim: Eric Butler, 39, African American
Date: Oct. 18, 2003
Believed to have been shot to death by 204th Street gang members as he drove from the Del Amo Market, where he'd gone to help his stepdaughter, whom the gang was harassing. Unsolved.
Victim: Arturo Ponce, 34, Latino
Date: Dec. 5, 2006
The Mexican immigrant and cook was shot to death in front of his 205th Street apartment as he talked with friends. Witnesses say the shooter, masked and hooded, yelled an anti-Mexican epithet. Unsolved.
Victim: Cheryl Green, 14,
Date: Dec. 15, 2006
Killed allegedly by a 204th Street gang member who fired into a group of black youths on Harvard Boulevard. Three others were wounded. Police say the gang member was angry after having a confrontation with another black man outside a nearby store earlier in the day. He and another 204th Street gang member face murder and hate crime charges.
* The list may not be complete. Some cases are unsolved but suspected to be interracial homicides.
Sources: LAPD Harbor Homicide Division; L.A. County coroner.