Access Hollywood

Maria Jackson and Helen Chervin happily give tours of their Hollywood neighborhood. It's not a tour you'll find in a promotional pamphlet. In fact, city officials admit that they "surrendered" this neighborhood a long time ago. But Jackson and Chervin haven't.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Jackson and Chervin, notebooks in hand, stroll down Adams Street, near Dixie Highway, about a half-mile south of Hollywood Boulevard.

"Look at that," Chervin says, pointing repeatedly with her right index finger.

At the other end of the street, two men are carrying a stained, queen-sized mattress. They drop it in front of someone's house, then scurry back to their beige Toyota Camry.

Chervin stuffs her notebook and papers under her left arm and walks quickly toward them.

"Helen will do anything," Jackson says. "Nothing scares her. Nothing."

"Hey!" Chervin yells as the men drive away, her hands waving indignantly. "You can't do that!"

For too long, this part of Hollywood's Little Ranches neighborhood has doubled as a dumping ground. Old tires, stripped computers, broken microwaves, and the occasional used condom line the curbs of Adams Street. Drugs have been a problem here for decades. About 15 years ago, the city erected barricades at the end of each street, including one at Adams Street and Dixie Highway. City officials believed that curbing traffic would curb drug sales as well. It didn't. City officials never anticipated that people wanting to drive through would simply cut off the barricade's lock, open the gates, and go about their business.

Today, the gate of the Adams Street barricade is flung open. Three rusty locks lie on the ground like fallen sentries. Someone — maybe yesterday, maybe five years ago — came through with bolt cutters. The city hasn't bothered to replace the locks, allowing cars to drive through just as they did before the barricades went up.

Myrnell Thompson knows that the barricades haven't stopped crime or kept unwanted people away. She lives on Adams Street with her 17-year-old son in a handsomely renovated Spanish-style home. Inside, she lives in peace. Outside, she lives in fear. "Any time I have to go outside, I tell my son," she says. "If I'm coming home from work at night, I call my son. He stands on the porch, waiting for me."

Thompson once witnessed several men hide behind the barricade. Curious, she watched them through the window. That's when she saw a young woman riding down the street on her bike. The men jumped out, pushed the woman down, and beat her, taking her money.

It was awful, Thompson says. Yet it wasn't particularly unusual for Adams Street.

"It's not safe here at night," she says.

But the City of Hollywood, intent on turning the Diamond of the Gold Coast into a manicured beachside community dotted with condominium towers, has plans for this street. Big, expensive plans. Since November 2004, Hollywood's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has been buying up property, including a large apartment building and several houses, in an effort to rehabilitate this neighborhood. The CRA has paid roughly $6 million for nearly an entire block.

Now, Hollywood wants a developer to step in and build more condominiums. City officials say that a new housing development is the key to turning a crime-ridden neighborhood into a model of urban renewal. And they're probably right. Many residents, tired of seeing the neighborhood get worse every year, welcome any new project.

"It looks like a real slum," resident Kim Schmitt told city commissioners, expressing her support for a new development. "Who would want to live there? Who would want to live in that neighborhood?"

But some of the Little Ranches residents who keep a close eye on City Hall allege that elected officials are exploiting their predicament to reward political insiders. "The City Commission has not been honest with us about their true intentions," Chervin says.

From the beginning, one person seemed to be a shoo-in for the redevelopment project: Cynthia Berman-Miller, who until July 2005 was director of Hollywood's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Despite not having any development experience, Berman-Miller, who received her real estate license less than a year ago, is positioned to win two development contracts with the city.

For one project, Berman-Miller has teamed with state Rep. Ken Gottlieb, who served on the Hollywood City Commission from 1992 to 1998. Berman-Miller and Gottlieb have asked the city for $8.2 million in development incentives, claiming that they can't make money on the project unless the city throws in cash and free land.

"This is an inside deal, and it's robbery for taxpayers," says community activist Howard Sher.

Political insiders doing business with the City of Hollywood is nothing new. In fact, Mayor Mara Giulianti is open about the fact that she likes to do business with familiar faces.