Back-to-back crimes threaten Hollywood's destination appeal

Adam Nagourney / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 25, 2013 at 05:00AM

LOS ANGELES - Hollywood Boulevard is the West Coast equivalent of Times Square, an urban reclamation project that transformed a strip once notorious for crime, drug-dealing and prostitution into a tourist destination, a thriving night life district and the home of movie premieres and the Academy Awards.

But over the past month, two high-profile crimes - a fatal stabbing of a tourist by a homeless person and a robbery spree by a gang that bounded past people gawking at the Walk of Fame - have threatened this carefully cultivated and civically critical reinvention, worrying community leaders and presenting an early challenge to this city's new mayor, Eric Garcetti.

On paper, at least, Hollywood Boulevard - with the TCL Chinese Theatre, famous star-studded sidewalks, and open-top tour vans filled with out-of-towners on what is, frankly, a mostly futile hunt for celebrity sightings - is as safe as ever. Reports of major crimes are down 17 percent over the past year.

But in this case, perceptions matter. And Hollywood visitors who already might have been disconcerted by the sidewalk hustlers dressed up as Spiderman and Captain Jack Sparrow, the wandering homeless people and the occasional boulevard fistfight have certainly taken notice of back-to-back crimes involving tourists.

“I called the Chamber of Commerce and said, 'Is it safe?'” said Greg Pack, who was visiting from Florida, as he stood in front of Madame Tussauds Hollywood. “He said, 'Yeah, it's safe. This is an isolated incident. It happens in every big town.'”

“We were a little concerned when we saw on the local news last night that there was rioting here,” Pack continued.

Pack was not alone. Los Angeles, aware of how critical this strip of the city is to its international image and flow of tourism dollars, has moved to try to deal with the problem, real or imagined.

The size of the police force assigned to the Hollywood Entertainment District has increased to 60 from 40. In contrast with a few months ago - when it was possible to walk from one edge of Hollywood to the other without seeing a uniformed police officer - there were officers on foot, in patrol cars and on horseback the other day.

City officials are talking about imposing new measures on Hollywood Boulevard, including state legislation to bar street performers from wearing masks on heavily trafficked blocks in Hollywood. The police are also talking about seeking more stay-away orders directed at people involved in crimes or episodes of harassment.

“When something like this happens, it's a matter of concern - especially having two events so close together,” said Leron Gubler, the president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “It sends out a message that alarms some people.”

Garcetti, who used to represent this neighborhood when he was a member of the City Council, went to the Loteria Grill on Hollywood Boulevard for a show-of-support dinner the night after the robbery spree, joined by the police chief, Charlie Beck, and two members of the City Council. Garcetti posted a photo of the dinner, showing him, Beck and the new Hollywood councilman, Mitch O'Farrell, on his Twitter account, @LAMayorsOffice.

The mayor, in an interview, described the two episodes as “tragic events,” but said they did not signal any change in fortunes for the area.

“Crime is down in Hollywood - it is extremely safe statistically,” he said. “Isolated events can blow up in the media, because it's Hollywood.”

“For every one bad story about Hollywood there are probably 10,000 stories about celebrities being out, music being made, movies being made,” he said. “That's the steady drumbeat that attracts people to Hollywood. That's always going to be 100 times louder than any one episode, especially after the improvements that we've made.”

The robbery spree appeared to be spontaneous, fanned by social media and involving a gang of up to 30 youngsters, ages 14 to 18, who thought the police would be distracted by a demonstration in the Crenshaw neighborhood in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin shooting. Twelve people were arrested after they roared down the streets, stealing jewelry and cellphones, and knocking people down. There were no serious injuries.

The attacks had added resonance because they came after the stabbing of a 23-year-old tourist last month by a homeless man who demanded that she pay him $1 after taking his photograph, according to the police.

“Anytime something happens in Hollywood - since it's such an iconic place - it becomes magnified,” said Cmdr. Andrew J. Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department. “My parents heard about this incident back in Michigan. It goes everywhere.”

Smith pointed to statistics showing how dramatically crime had fallen across the city, particularly in Hollywood. “If this incident happened three miles away no one would pay attention to it,” he said. “The fact that it happened in Hollywood brings a spotlight to it.”

O'Farrell said he did not think the two episodes hinted at any backsliding in the campaign to turn Hollywood around.

“People are pretty sophisticated and they realize we are a big city and things happen in big cities,” he said. “Our crime rate has been reduced by half in the last 10 years. These are isolated incidents - mind you they are 30 days apart - but they are isolated incidents.”

“I want to say to LA and the world that the police presence is very strong and it's a very safe place to visit,” he said.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

By any measure, Hollywood is a far cry from what it was even 10 years ago. The prostitutes and street drug vending are mostly gone, the boulevard is well lighted at night and established businesses have replaced some of the head shops and pornography stores that once dominated the area.

That said, Hollywood Boulevard still can be unsettling, and fights and shootings have broken out after clubs in the area began closing after midnight. Tourists have to compete for sidewalk space with hustlers and hawkers who see the tourists as something of a business opportunity.

“We've walked about a mile and everyone is trying to sell you bus tours and CDs and everything else,” said Chris Jones, 42, here from Wyoming with his wife and three children. “I kind of feel unsafe for the kids. There's a lot of people. A lot of bumping into you walking, trying to sell you stuff.”

Kerry Morrison, the head of the Hollywood business improvement district, acknowledged that the street characters “have been an issue for years.”

“It kind of creates a feeling like walking a gantlet,” she said. “I know you've had similar things in New York.”

Still, she said, she was pleased by how aggressively the city had responded to the problem, and said she viewed it as a good sign for the new administration.

“I'd be more worried if there wasn't such a tremendous response from our city leaders,” she said. “I think it is actually safer out there now than a year ago. You can see the police presence, you can feel it. People are extremely encouraged by that.”

Ian Lovett contributed reporting.

comments powered by Disqus