Back home in a more suspicious Mar Vista

mar-vista-stanwood-jg.jpgStanwood Drive in the hilltop section of Mar Vista. Photo by Judy Graeme.

I haven't seen the owner of the large, faded beige Cruise Master parked down the street from us over the last month but I've heard plenty about him.

He is "not friendly," according to the post from one of my neighbors. The driver spends much of the day in his dinged-up RV, tows a PT Cruiser and has multiple dogs who guard the place from their dashboard observation post. He also knows the rules, promptly moving his convoy every 72 hours to avoid a parking ticket.

The Cruise Master's arrival down the block launched the sort of pained and contentious online colloquy that has taken place all over the city in recent years as the homeless population has swelled and crime has risen--with no resolution likely.

"I have multiple pictures of this motorhome on various streets in our neighborhood going back many months," replied another neighbor. "They have big noisy dogs."

"Be grateful that you have a home and don't have to live in a motor home," still another chimed in.

"I am grateful for a lot of things," retorted the original poster. "But having an ugly 25 foot motor home in front of my house has nothing to do with it."

And so it goes.

The Cruise Master's owner apparently discovered our neighborhood before we returned to Mar Vista in November from two years in Palo Alto.

Mostly it's great to be back. Neighbors and friends dropped by to greet us as the moving truck unloaded our stuff. The helpful guy at Anawalt Lumber on Pico surprised me by remembering my name asking why I hadn't been around lately. Even the UPS driver noticed that we'd moved back.

Yet in our time away, the frequent break-ins, taggers and package thieves have dug a deeper trench of fear in our tract. My neighbors are edgy, suspicious of anyone unfamiliar.

I share that anxiety. Last week, I opened the door to a 30-ish white man who said his Time Warner Cable crew needed to get into our yard to replace a faulty neighborhood cable. He had no ID badge and his truck was unmarked. I hesitated, unlocking the gate only after he showed me his work order.

Our suspicions are obvious to outsiders. In our first month back, two men rang our doorbell on separate occasions; one wanted us to buy new windows, the other offered remodeling services. Both were African Americans; as soon as I opened the door each man quickly backed so far away that they nervously looked behind them as they talked, concerned they would topple down the porch steps.

I returned to LA as an adult in 1980, and apart from two long stretches away, I've lived four blocks from my childhood home ever since. In those first years back, with young children, I ruefully joked that our stucco, cookie-cutter neighborhood was as dull as Mayfield, the suburban Valhalla that was home to Beaver and Wally Cleaver.

Now neighbors bicker with neighbors, post their Ring videos of package thieves, and trade their suspicions as well as accusations of racial profiling. Internet sites like, allowing anyone to post have certainly stoked fear, real and imagined. But they also provide information that has sometimes led to arrests so the LAPD liaison officer for Mar Vista advises, "if you see something say something."

Our neighbors are saying a lot.

"African American man just walked up Victoria dressed in all black and took a couple pictures of a house from across the street with what appeared to be a disposable camera." That was posted earlier this month. "He took picture [sic] while walking, did not stop."

"Casing the joints," replied another poster, a conclusion roundly echoed by many others in quick succession who advised calling the police.

Then a couple days later my down-the-street neighbor wrote this: "I hope my son didn't scare any of you. He has to take pictures for school projects sometimes. He's 6'5" and African American, big Afro, and wears black a lot. He's 15 years old but looks like an adult from far... He lives here. Of course we should all be aware, keep eyes open and help each other - I'm all about that... I realize that no one's intention is meant to be divisive, and that we are all just trying to keep the neighborhood safe. But let's all be mindful of both sides of the story. I'm white and as a mom who loves her teenager, it's hard to always tell him before he goes out - be careful out there, act friendly so no one will suspect you of anything... I don't know what answer is, I just want everyone to be aware of both sides. Thank you all and much love to the neighborhood!"

Los Angeles is a gritty, sometimes violent city. Burglary rings have cleaned out the homes of several neighbors with lightning speed in recent months.

But sometimes the cable guy is really the cable guy, sometimes the guy with dogs who lives in his RV is just homeless. And sometimes the kid with the big Afro is just a teen with a homework assignment.

The trick, of course, is figuring out who's who.

Molly Selvin was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for 18 years.

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