Dennis Woods (left) and Mayor Richard Bloom cut the ribbon Friday along with residents from the Borderline Neighborhood who worked for eight years to get City Hall to spend over $2 million on improvements to Longfellow Street, which previously attracted prostitutes and drunkards. (photo by Brandon Wise)

OCEAN PARK — For many years, Dennis Woods looked down Longfellow Street, a two-block connector that runs behind rows of homes, and thought, “We deserve better.”

Woods recalls the days that trucks from the adjacent auto repair shop staged on the small alley, rumbling, rattling and disturbing the neighbors. He also remembers the drive-by shootings — spillover from local gang violence — and what he delicately refers to as “ladies of the night” that used to frequent Longfellow, lightening wallets as they went.

Ask almost any resident that has lived on or near Longfellow for any period of time and they can share their own horror stories.

Annette Nickerson said she had to learn how to dodge drunk people who’d fallen asleep near the gate of her home. Nicole Picard said her entire house shook when large trucks used the portion of the road behind her home as a staging area.

Those days have been put quite firmly in the past, largely resulting from the efforts of Woods and the other neighbors who stood up in 2004 and told the City Council that they deserved better.

Eight years and over $2 million later, Longfellow Street has become a “living street,” redesigned to subtract elements of the road that made it convenient for cars and uninviting to pedestrians, and incorporate things like landscaping, lighting and attractive pavement to encourage people to gather in the space.

Less than one year ago, Longfellow was a 40-foot-wide street marred by crude curbs, cracked pavement and parallel parking that blocked views and made it difficult to traverse comfortably.

Residents felt unsafe walking through what should have been their own back yard.

Now, the curbs have been replaced by trees and paving that pleases the eye and benefits the planet by cleaning rainwater as it percolates down into the ground.

Planners installed solar panels between the new trees, which will ultimately blend into the surrounding foliage when the canopies grow.

People feel comfortable walking their dogs down the lane, which was meant to be shared between pedestrians, bicyclists and cars.

It’s exactly what Woods and other members of the Borderline Neighborhood Group have been seeking for almost a decade.

Woods is the chair of the group’s Improvement Committee, composed of dedicated residents who live next to the border of Santa Monica and Venice.

He’s also an urban planner by trade, and knew that the solution to the neighborhood’s problem was simple, if not cheap.

If City Hall could transform the dumpy back alley into a living, breathing organism that was better lit and attractive, the problem site could become a community asset.

“I always knew what I wanted,” Woods said. “I was driven, focused and I had the vision.”

The “shared street” concept is not a common one in the United States. In fact, Longfellow Street is now the second in the entire country after one in Cambridge, Mass., said Jessica ter Schure, a principal planner with the transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard, who designed the project.

Like so many things these days, the shared street is a return to the past.

Things like curbs, sidewalks and laws governing where pedestrians could and could not be are new inventions as our modes of transportation sped up from walking to carriages to motor vehicles, ter Schure said.

By creating a thin space dotted with obstacles, cars can’t speed through and pedestrians can feel safe.

“It’s for all to use without hierarchy,” she said.

The vision took eight years to fulfill.

Residents went in droves to the City Council, Planning Commission, Recreation and Parks Commission and any other group possible to drum up support.

In 2008, the City Council allocated the funds in the annual budget needed to make the project happen, and approximately eight months ago, construction began.

Patricia Godon-Tann, a leader in the neighborhood group, has lived in the area since 1975. It was, as she describes it, “the DMZ between Santa Monica and Venice.”

With Longfellow Street repaired and other changes over a long 35 years, it’s become a lovely, livable community, she said.

“This is the finest accomplishment done in this neighborhood,” Godon-Tann said.

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