Hope lives sparingly in wounded community
A sidewalk flea market operates near the Vernon-Central intersection. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Don't be fooled, said 50-year-old Darrell Pruitt, waving a crooked cautionary finger. He walked down Central Avenue, carrying a dripping cup of coffee back to his one-room apartment, as he does each morning before work.
"All the stuff that's hiding," he called over his shoulder, "it'll all come out."
He was right. Before long, a pile of thin blankets atop an abandoned couch began to stir. A homeless man, 83 years old, wiped the sleep from his filthy face, stretched his good arm and rubbed his shrunken, arthritic one. He hauled himself over a rusty fence to start his day, his sandals crunching on a bed of cheap discarded lighters, their silver tops popped off so they could be used for smoking crack.
The hair stylist arrived at work, pleasantly surprised that gangs had not, as they do two or three times a week, tagged the white walls of her salon with black paint. The pastor sprinkled a rack of ribs with paprika; he'd sell them at cost a few hours later, hoping to help a few hungry people get at least one solid meal that day. Two men with mean eyes stepped behind a dumpster, shot up, urinated and emerged again, one of them cursing madly.
It has been a month and a day since a gunman opened fire on two men stepping off a bus at the corner of Central and Vernon avenues. He missed his targets, as far as investigators can determine, but hit eight other people, all innocents. They included five kids, students walking home from George Washington Carver Middle School. Police have charged Billy Ray Hines, 24, with the crime.
Mario Martinez, 46, was in his girlfriend's Vernon Avenue bakery, the Panaderia Zeragoza, where he sweeps the stoop every morning, when he heard the shots.
"I ran down there. We all did," he said. "I saw a boy still sitting on the bus stop bench. He was not hit but he could not move. He was too scared. There was a lady at his feet, lying on the floor. Lots of blood."
Somehow, no one was killed.
Hines has pleaded not guilty to a series of felonies that could bring him a life prison term. Police are still searching for the intended victims, who have not come forward.
Hines is a Four Trey Crip, said Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Stalker, commanding officer of detectives in the department's Newton Division, which covers 10 square miles of South Los Angeles, a shifting mosaic of gang territories.
The gunman's intended victims, investigators believe, were probably Bloods, perhaps members of a branch called AFC, or "All for Crime." Generally, Bloods control the east side of Central and Crips the west. Latino gangs -- 38th Street, Playboys, Barrio Mojados -- are sprinkled on both sides. The avenue is a spine of tension and, routinely, staggering violence.
"You've just got to keep moving," Pruitt said. "The strong survive."
The shooting shocked the city, but around here, most here say it was an aberration only in the sense that the outside world noticed.
Many residents say they can predict everything that will happen now. There will be community meetings, calls for reform -- for jobs programs, mentoring programs, after-school programs. Solemn promises will be made. Police will put more cars on the streets. Violence will ebb. And then, before real change can take root, the city's attention will begin to drift, and a new cycle will begin.
"Danger. Every day, danger," said Diva LaVerde, 59, proprietor of Diva's Beauty Salon, on Vernon just east of Central.
LaVerde, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia 40 years ago, pays $750 a month in rent for her tiny salon, which she has operated for 19 years. She is enormously proud of it. Dozens of glittery angels hang from the ivy-covered ceiling. She has a special barber's chair she uses for kids; it's outfitted like a tractor, with a red steering wheel.
But more than once, she has herded customers into the back corner when gunshots have rung out on the street. Last year, two men were shot at the barber shop across the street. The owner of the liquor store a few doors down was killed during a robbery. In between is a drug house that is often bustling by 9 a.m.
"I don't ask questions," she said. "I don't call the police." No one does, she explained, not so much because the police are feared but because you will become a target yourself if you are known to have ratted out a criminal.