Transforming Dangerous Neighborhoods into Livable Communities

How can we save thousands of lives from violent gang crime?

Livable or not? A four-unit apartment building over retail in the Jefferson Park area of South Los Angeles. Windows are covered with bars, the roof is protected by barbed wires and fences. How can this urban blight be transformed for the better?
© Wikimedia/OmarOmar CC-BY-SA

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

As a means to get Southern California moving, The Transit Coalition has been active in exploring ways to better balance the job-to-housing ratio which in turn would reduce demands for long distance commuting. Such super-commutes contribute heavily to Southern California's bad traffic congestion on the highways.

On top of improving multi-modal transportation options to get from here to there which includes our Metrolink MAX project, expanding quality housing options and supplies closer to work would greatly reduce a family's breadwinner of needing to commute 50+ miles each way to-and-from work. Plus, increased housing supplies and robust competition will keep purchase prices and rentals affordable without subsidies. The Transit Coalition is at the forefront of promoting responsible growth that is in tune with demographic changes and the desires of citizens. There is no question that better residential infrastructure growth and supplies are needed at Southern California's major employment hubs and densely populated regions.

Enter in Southern California's impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods:

Many people call these places the ghetto. Just about all of us well know that there are specific areas all over Southern California that have constant illegal street gang problems which are evidenced by violent crime, criminal acts with firearms, illegal drug sales, human trafficking, vandalism, dilapidated infrastructure and buildings, closed businesses, run-down housing and abandoned cars. Such urban blight has long obstructed quality of life for the good people living in these areas. Innocent people continue to be victims or even killed. San Bernardino is no exception.

Such residents are basically forced to fortify their homes with security bars and barricaded front yards as means to counter violent intrusions from criminal gangs. Plus such riff-raff has impeded private investments from improving housing quality and creating jobs.

That's simply because the doctor working in the Loma Linda University Medical Center, the IRS auditor working in the Vanir Building, or the staff at the San Bernardino Courthouse likely won't choose to live in San Bernardino. Raising a family in such chaotic environments is simply not an option for many.

The economic and social conditions have been depressing and has been going on far too long. Where is the urgency to repair this problem from the government?

Maybe this recent Los Angeles Times article will draw some long overdue action from the power structure.

The LA Times ran a story on July 22 of San Bernardino’s Country Inn motel. The report shows that this run-down lodging facility is near a sidewalk where merchants illegally sell meth. Top that with men scanning the motel property for prostitutes. Add to that a report where an emaciated woman was furiously pacing the upper deck unclothed. The worst part of all of this is homeless innocent children live there, exposed to all of this disgrace. How can kids who grow up in such chaos attain their best states at adulthood? They likely won't unless unified action takes place.

As many other Inland Empire children enjoy the summer fun as they grow up in stable homes, that's where several of San Bernardino's children reside, in a filthy, despaired, drug-infested motel. The paper did report that the motel manager, Sam Maharaj, is a decent, caring man looking out after the children.

In fact, the good people living in San Bernardino and beyond are working very hard and trying extensively to fight back against the violent crime and murders. These caring people have had enough of having their hometown labeled the ghetto and are doing something about it. That is clearly evident with all of the activity from the non-profit sector, grassroots and religious groups. There are many good citizens of this great city taking the time to spread awareness and working to revitalize it. The Route 66 Rendezvous car show for example made a comeback to the city. The Young Visionaries Youth Leadership Academy continues to do fine work for the youth by networking them with jobs in the growing logistics sector. Bank of America donated $4,000 to San Bernardino Symphony that will benefit youth programs.

In addition, transportation and mass transit infrastructure continues to grow with the soon-to-be grand San Bernardino Transit Center and Metrolink First Mile extension. Major transit-oriented development is envisioned along the sbX Green Line route and near the transit center now under construction.

But the governing body overseeing San Bernardino as well as other troubled parts of Southern California must join in the fight against the crime with one unified voice.

In order to save San Bernardino and every other neighborhood plagued by street crime and gang homicides, two government solutions must be put front and center. They are maximizing law enforcement and expanding restorative social justice programs through the non-profit sector which includes strengthening and rebuilding the family unit.

I. Gang Intervention & Suppression from Law Enforcement - Short-Range Solution

The truth may hurt. However, the governing body directly responsible of protecting citizens from violent criminal activity is the men and women in law enforcement. Expanding the forces for maximum gang intervention and suppression is the short-range solution to better control the violence and the killing of lives. The Justice Department published a bulletin on this topic in 2010. Some will argue that the solution lies with restorative justice programs, not more incarceration. I'll touch base on the restorative programs in a moment.

I also well understand that there are a few questionable members within the law enforcement ranks. That is clearly demonstrated with the recent news stories with shootings and race; they each individually must be held to account impartially. But we need to all acknowledge that law enforcement as a whole which includes the vast majority of its members is not the problem. The police is not the enemy. It is their job to protect us from violent street crime and homicides by taking all violent offenders who are committing these felonies and murders off of the streets, regardless of their skin color. The actual crime must be confronted no matter who is committing it.

To be clear, local police resources can be very limited, especially for San Bernardino as it deals with its bankruptcy. California's jails and prisons are already crowded. The extra cops are not going to magically appear. But here are some means that can help fiscally broke cities strengthen their resources with minimal additional funding: Expanding the unpaid volunteer, explorer, community action patrol and reserve ranks.

That will not only make the police ranks stronger, but provide a means for youth and young adults thinking about careers in law enforcement to give it a hands-on try. The governments would pay for their training and equipment. Every volunteer applicant passing the minimum requirements and background checks would be given something to do. The unpaid support arms of the department can be assigned to handle the smaller issues like patrols, traffic and parking enforcement or provide support help for investigations while the paid officers can deal with the complicated and serious cases like criminal gangs. Plus, they would be offered internal career opportunities based on performance.

Law enforcement agencies would identify street gang areas or any other dangerous zone and designate such blocks as safety zones. That would include the block of the Country Inn motel evidenced by the drug sales,  prostitution and potential human trafficking. Gang migration would also be closely watched. Those areas would have consistent patrolling until the gang and drug dealers go out of business. Strong enforcement would deter illegal drug sales and violent crime which are primary funding sources for criminal groups. If, after all of this, for whatever reason, the local law enforcement agency is still overcome by violent criminal activity, both the state's law enforcement personnel and the National Guard would be called in to assist. The kids and other innocents must be protected as these disgraceful acts must be stopped.

Regarding incarceration itself, it's a fact that California's jails and prisons are crowded and are outlets for gang and criminal activity too. That has to be dealt with too. I do agree that alternatives for one-stop mass incarceration need to be debated. This is a topic that requires honest and fact-based debate that promises to rehabilitate prisoners instead of simply warehousing them while ensuring law abiding citizens are protected. Being a transit advocate, I'll leave it up to the experts to solve this problem. But I do think mandatory sentencing for serious violent crimes is justifiable as a crime deterrent.

To protect society, convicted criminals should serve out their mandatory sentences but they could also be locked up into facilities that would also help rehabilitate them depending on their case. Reports also show that a number of convicts serving in the penal system are in for petty drug crimes. To be fair, I don't think it's justified to criminalize simple drug possession. However, I do believe it should remain a criminal act to illegally sell or transfer hard drugs, especially to minors.

In addition, Congress is now debating a potential federal bill that would make it harder for criminal felons who are not USA citizens to even be in the county. The proposed law would make it a federal crime for any foreign criminal felon who is deported and returns illegally. Reports show that a number of criminal street gang leaders with prior felony convictions who are committing terrible crimes in Southern California are not even USA citizens. If that's the case, that's foreign invasion and the U.S. Constitution mandates that this be dealt with. The new law should allow and mandate local law enforcement to pick them up and turn foreign criminals over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing. To be clear, this law would only apply to criminal foreign felons, not the good people who are trying to seek refuge in the United States from the corrupt governments and criminal cartels south of the border. But I predict that if such a well-written bill becomes federal law, this will greatly help slow down criminal gang activity and make these neighborhoods safer.

II. Gang Prevention, Restorative Justice, Strengthening the Family - Long-Range Solution

As I mentioned, criminal gang suppression through law enforcement is only a short-range solution to a more complicated problem.

Longer range solutions to prevent the kids from joining the gangs call for moral transformation of neighborhoods affected by crime. This includes victims and the incarcerated of whom seek to truly turn away from the criminal culture. Children and teenagers from chaotic family environments including those residing at the Country Inn motel need positive role models and mentors.

Positive and safe places where youth can hang out, more jobs, and more educational and recreational opportunities provide the seeds for long-range safe and healthy communities. Prison ministries and outreach programs from the non-profit sector can provide restorative help, skills and positive self-building to recovering inmates as they serve their time. Local governments must allow the non-profit and religious organizations to expand such outreach programs that prevents youth from joining the criminal gang culture.

Programs that promote pro-family values and honoring righteous authority must be offered and taught to children and youth. Healthy entertainment needs to be available for the youth provided by the private sector. The kids need healthy places to be socially accepted. Mentors need to be there for each child and teenager growing up in abusive family environments. I've already pitched an idea of a youth center hub for San Bernardino's Carousel Mall. President Obama's My Brother's Keeper program needs to be promoted better at the local level and wealthy businesses need to be better invited to participate in this initiative. I understand that family rebuilding cannot be legislated but the governments can promote it through public messages just like how our transit agencies are required to spread awareness and helplines on human trafficking.

One fact that absolutely cannot be overlooked is that a primary source of youth-related crimes is the lack of the stable family. The evidence is overwhelming. Professionals in this field have yielded alarming facts. There is positively no question that children who grow up in homes without caring parents, especially from the father, generally have a much greater risk of encountering serious problems as teenagers and adults since they grow up without discipline and motivation in their homes. I know I'm generalizing and there are notable exceptions. Also, the expansion of youth mentor options can offset the negative effects of bad parenting. But firm public messages of rebuilding the family unit must be a prime long-range solution to this grave problem.

Our communities, public transit fleets and the people who use them deserve to be in a robust state, not mired in crime or vandalism. What good are all the buses and the trains in the world when the communities they serve are blighted in a culture of preventable youth-related crimes, drug abuse, and gang violence?

South LA before transformation...
Taking a lead on transforming blighted areas

It is long past time for unified action on this grave situation that has not only plagued San Bernardino, but continues to mire Moreno Valley, parts of Riverside, neighborhoods in San Diego, South Los Angeles, several cities in the Bay Area and has badly damaged Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore. Why are the governments continuing to stand by and not taking unified action while the criminal violence and homicides continue? How many more people have to die before the governments step in too and do something?

When unified action finally does take place, thousands of lives can be saved, dangerous communities transformed, drug abuse gone, and families rebuilt. That will make living in the inner city neighborhoods desirable once again which will further improve quality of life. When this lead is finally taken and transformation takes place, blighted neighborhoods can one day look like this:

Concept--South LA After Transformation: The streets of South Central can be free from criminal gang violence once and for all, safe for families. Job hubs are a short 20 minute train or bus ride away via Metro Rail, Metro Rapid, or Metro Local.
Note: Concept only. Not officially proposed or endorsed by Los Angeles or LA Metro.

Concept--Revitalizing San Bernardino: Stopping gang crime and incentivizing the market to renovate blighted neighborhoods.
Note: Concepts only. Not official proposals.
Map OpenStreetMap contributors. Tiles courtesy of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team
Housing Photos (C) Wikimedia Commons/Dolovis, Alex Proimos, Remi Mathis, Axou, House10902 CC-BY-SA
Imagine adding South Los Angeles to the list of desirable places to call home. Imagine the retail and tourism sectors reinvesting and revitalizing downtown San Bernardnio into the next Gas Lamp Quarter. Imagine the next heroes originating from the inner cities.

Such positive transformation can also bring about investments in family-friendly and affordable urban transit village infrastructure with plenty to do with big living spaces and short bus or train rides to work or school.

But who will take the lead on this by uniting with the good people? Who will take the lead to get those innocent children out of that disgusting motel immediately?



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