By the 1980s, the social environment of Highland Park had drastically transformed from the preceding decades. An influx of new residents displaced from other neighborhoods and migrants from Central America created a predominantly Latino hub in what was once a middle class white area. The growth of lower income families in high density housing created a strain on a neighborhood already suffering from the loss of financial resources that former, well-to-do homeowners once invested in the community. Disenfranchised youth of Highland Park, bereft of community resources and victims of education inequality, became increasingly susceptible to gang activity.
The origins of the Avenues gang, or Avenidas, can be traced as far back as the 1950s, when at the time it was, as described by the Los Angeles Times, the fastest growing gang in the city. The tearing down of neighborhoods such as Rose Hill and Chavez Ravine created an influx of displaced youth joining the gang.
The 1960s and 70s saw an increase in gang activity in Highland Park and surrounding areas, from senseless beatings born out of robbery to the killing of bystanders by stray bullets. Many admit to causing such acts of violence "just for kicks." In 1972, the LAPD Northeast Divison, then located on York Boulevard, formed the J-Car unit in an attempt to curb violence between rival youth gangs. For a brief time they succeeded in arranging a truce, however short lived, between the Avenues and rival 18th Streeters. By 1980 there were over 300 gangs in Los Angeles County, with members totaling over 30,000.
Plans were put in place in the 1980s to rid the city of gang activity. The CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) anti-gang unit focused on Northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods, beginning in 1986 with a sweep that resulted in the arrest of 33 suspected gang members in Highland Park and neighboring Cypress Park.
Outbursts of racially-motivated violence towards African Americans committed by the Avenues in the 1990s resulted in the conviction of four members of the gang. In 2002, the city attorney placed an injunction against the gang, barring them from congregating in much of Highland Park and surrounding neighborhoods. This legal victory, coupled with a series of critical prosecutions by the U.S. Federal Government, further dismantled the gang's influence. Most recently, a joint effort between the LAPD and Federal Law Enforcement Agents launched a major raid in 2009 targeting the Avenues for a range of federal charges.
A Social Outlet
Richard Ledesma discusses how public space and housing policy in Highland Park led some youths, with few social and educational outlets, to find their community within gangs.
Media Branding of Highland Park
Ruben Martinez discusses the mass media's branding of Highland Park and other Latino neighborhoods as an area of violence, negating and erasing the communities rich cultural history and diversity.
In the Classroom
As a teacher at Franklin High, Yim Tam has gang members in her classroom but notes an increased feeling of safety at the school and in the neighborhood.