Shootings show troubled side of Calif. beach city

Recent outbreak of deadly shootings reveals troubled side of Calif. beach town of Santa Monica

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) -- For decades there have been two Santa Monicas.

There's the hip beachfront town that's packed year-round with tourists who cram its trendy bars and restaurants, stay at its pricey beachfront hotels and frequent the T-shirt shops and carnival rides along its funky, old wooden pier.

And then there's the Santa Monica the tourists never see, although it's just as real to those who live along its hard-scrabble streets, in a neighborhood hemmed in by a freeway and sometimes riddled with gang violence.

In the past week those two cities collided, first when a troubled young man armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and stormed through the neighborhood, killing five people. Four days later, someone fatally shot another person in the same dicey area where John Zawahri had launched his deadly rampage on June 7.

"When you think of Santa Monica, you think of the Santa Monica Pier, the fancy homes. But that's not all of Santa Monica," sociologist Alex Aldana said with a rueful smile as he sat near a pool table in the Pico Youth & Family Center, where he is the outreach director.

The Pico Neighborhood, where Aldana grew up and still lives, may begin just a couple blocks down the street from Santa Monica High School, where actor Charlie Sheen was once a student, but as it extends eastward nearly three miles it makes up another world entirely.

Named for the main street that cuts through it, Pico is so isolated from the city's tourist area that some visitors who packed the place on a recent day said they hadn't even connected the killings to the city.

"No, I didn't know. That's terrible," said George Contreras of Phoenix, who was visiting Santa Monica Pier with its old-fashioned merry-go-round and its shiny, solar-powered Ferris Wheel that offers some of the best views of the Pacific Ocean to be found.

It had been 15 years since his last visit, Contreras said, and he had found the place to be much more appealing than before.

"There's a lot more development, of course, and it seems a lot cleaner, too," he said. "It feels safe here. It seems like a very safe place."

Of course he was speaking of the pier, the adjacent wide, sandy beach and the nearby Third Street Promenade with its upscale shops and exotic eateries. Although those attractions are less than a mile from Aldana's office, there's no direct way to get from one to the other.

When the Santa Monica Freeway was built in the 1960s, Aldana said, it divided the city into a place of haves and have-nots. The haves side is filled with multimillion-dollar homes and counts as residents such people as musician Ry Cooder and the political activist and former state senator Tom Hayden.

The have-not side contains an assortment of often shabby single-family homes, aging, two-story stucco apartments, run-down warehouses and such non-tourist attractions as pay-day loan outlets and discount furniture stores.

The neighborhood is beginning to show signs of gentrification, however, as people priced out of the more expensive side of town arrive. At least one real estate website lists Pico as the most affordable section of Santa Monica, with homes to be found for $1 million or less and condos for half that.

"When I came here eight years ago everybody was saying, 'Are you crazy? Why are you opening here? This whole area isn't good,'" said Reena Gauchan, who runs Kathmandu Boutique, which carries an extensive collection of colorful clothing and other items.

These days, she said, she feels safe, business is picking up and she hopes the violence, as tragic as it was, was the result of a couple of isolated incidents.

There was, after all, only one murder in Santa Monica last year, two the year before and one the year before that. Overall, police say, crime is down 10 percent.

To those who have been in Pico a long time, however, the sudden rash of violence reminds them of 1998, when Santa Monica witnessed nearly a dozen killings, an outbreak that rattled the entire city.

Most of those were in Pico and involved turf battles between rival gangs. Two did spill over into the fashionable part of town, however, one involving a homeless man beaten to death on the beach. The other was the slaying of a German tourist, killed in front of a hotel for refusing to hand over his valuables.

Although the murder of Horst Fietze of Germany made international news at the time, it is usually the more offbeat stories that keep Santa Monica in the spotlight.

A battle last year uniting dog walkers and runners against personal fitness trainers who the former group complained were blocking all the pathways in picturesque Palisades Park helped the city maintain its quirkiness quotient.

The year before that Santa Monica made news when it was discovered that notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, like so many other retirees, had settled into a small apartment near the beach in the 1980s. When authorities finally found him there, they shipped Bulger, now 83, back to Boston, where he's on trial for allegedly participating in 19 murders.

In 2010, scores of paparazzi had raced to Bulger's neighborhood, after they heard Michael Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, was holed up at a friend's apartment, trying to avoid the media. Presumably he would have had better luck if he'd gone to the Pico Neighborhood instead.

"People outside the community don't even know we're here," Aldana said.