Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in an ongoing Long Beach Post series called Safe Streets, looking at the challenges of getting around by foot in the city’s neighborhoods.
Walking home from Washington Middle School on a recent afternoon, 13-year-old Tariana passes a group of men hanging out near a liquor store on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Anaheim Street.
“Hi there,” one man calls out to her. “You’re awesome.”
Tariana, a seventh-grader, rolls her eyes and keeps walking.
“It happens all the time,” she said. “I just ignore them.”
In a dense area with one of the highest crime rates in the city, the walk to school in the Washington neighborhood looks vastly different compared to most parts of Long Beach.
Students can sometimes walk past transients smoking pot and sleeping in the park. They avoid the streets in gang territory.
Bordered by Pacific Coast Highway, Anaheim Street, Long Beach Boulevard and the Los Angeles River, Washington spans just a half a square mile, but last year it logged 206 violent crimes, accounting for 10 percent of all violent crime in the city, according to police statistics.
The neighborhood so far has seen three homicides this year, up from one last year.
But as the community continues to face challenges, something positive is stirring, residents say.
First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez said the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance of new projects and involved community members.
“In the last few years we’ve seen this emergence of new residents and leaders being part of the community,” she said. “They’re really encouraged and excited to go to the meetings and organize more neighborhood cleanups.”
Catalina Munoz, 63, who’s lived in Washington since the 1980s and organizes neighborhood cleanups, said she’s seen a wave of eager new neighborhoods.
Munoz said 14th Street Park, stretching 60 feet over the old Pacific Electric Railway along the neighborhood’s main artery, is seeing less crime and graffiti.
On Wednesday, an empty fast-food building at 14th Street and Long Beach Boulevard was bulldozed to make way for an eastern gateway to 14th Street Park, complete with landscaping and a welcome sign. It was the final step in a longtime effort to improve the park piece by piece.
Mayor Robert Garcia, at an event to celebrate the groundbreaking, said the eastern gateway project is one of many that will improve Washington.
Other projects include an apartment building with affordable housing for seniors and veterans, 10 new townhouses from Habitat for Humanity, and what will be the city’s largest brewery.
“If you look at where the Washington neighborhood was 20 years ago, the change is unbelievable,” Garcia said, noting that the area is “dramatically safer.”
Mike Donelon, a former city councilman who helped open the Michael K. Green Skate Park on 14th Street in 2010, said the neighborhood is safer these days, but gangs are still present.
“The kids here are very street smart,” said Donelon, who’s in the park frequently for his nonprofit, Action Sports Kids Foundation. “They know what streets not to go down. They don’t carry too much stuff because they don’t want to be a target. Lots of kids walking home for school have been robbed of their iPhones, skateboards and jewelry.”
The heart of the neighborhood is Washington Middle School, where 95 percent of kids qualify for the free lunch program.
Washington Principal Megan Traver said the neighborhood last year saw an increased gang presence that was so bad that some students had to leave school early each day for their safety and could only enter and exit from certain sides of the school.
In some cases, gangs would hang out near the school and hassle the younger siblings of rival gang members, she said.
Long Beach police beefed up its presence and this year the neighborhood is much safer, she said.
Parents and community members also rallied, and in April the school added several new volunteers with a program called Safe Passages. Wearing bright yellow vests, the Safe Passages volunteers act as watchdog crossing guards, guiding students to and from school.
“Just having that adult presence has had a huge impact on the feeling of safety in the neighborhood,” Traver said.
In another push for safety, the school last month installed two outside security cameras after residents overwhelmingly voted for the cameras as part of a community budget.
Traver said it gives parents, teachers and students a sense of security knowing the cameras are watching.
“Our kids are already feeling safer,” she said.