Until recently, Cheryl Brooks was often plagued by the feeling that she was locked out of a good job.
The 22-year-old, black single parent was working as a security guard at the construction site gate at the $120-million Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
And as the higher-paid, male construction workers showed up for work, she was there to let them in.
"The guys kept telling me they needed more women to work on the construction site, they kept asking me to apply. So I decided to do it," she said. "It was the best deal I had so I jumped on it, and it was worth it. I landed a real neat job."
After a brief training period, she became a construction laborer, at double her security guard wages. She assists the skilled tradesmen, helping with the cleanup and doing other hard, physical chores. "It's the kind of work that any woman can do," she said.
Brooks was hired as a result of a massive effort by the city of Los Angeles and the developer, Alexander Haagen Co., to recruit both skilled and unskilled minorities to work on the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which is scheduled to be completed in November.
The recruitment drive has enabled the project to silence the criticism it received last year from leaders in the predominantly black community who complained that not enough was being done on the project to provide jobs, leases and investment opportunities for blacks.
Of the nearly 150 laborers working on the project on an average day, about 75 are black and another 45 represent other minority groups, according to the developer.
There are 17 firms owned by minorities and women, including 10 owned by blacks, sharing contracts on the project that are worth an estimated $7 million. Minority-owned firms are pouring concrete, putting in air conditioning, doing electrical work and trucking.
"It is extraordinary that pretty close to half the workers on the site are black," said Richard Benbow, deputy administrator of equal opportunity and contract services for the Community Redevelopment Agency. "We have more than exceeded our goals. I can't believe there are any projects of this type and size in the city with a higher representation of minorities, particularly for blacks."
Getting preference for minority workers was not easy, said Leopold A. Ray, a spokesman for Haagen Co. Ultimately, he said, some of the trades agreed to help the developer identify eligible black workers for the project while others bent the rules to allow more apprentices on the site. "We also received more minority workers because we contracted with more minority-owned firms," he said.
The sight of black workers on the construction site had a positive impact on the community.
"I think progress has been made," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "There has been a pattern established over the past several months growing out of the concerns that were expressed by the Urban League and others."
Echoing Mack's sentiments was Douglas Roddy of the African Collective, a black business group, which filed a lawsuit last year seeking to block construction on grounds that blacks were under-represented.
"Overall, it (minority recruitment) has been positive," Roddy said. "They were not doing any of the things they are doing today before we filed the lawsuit." The collective dropped its lawsuit earlier this year.
The two-story mall is designed to blend with the Art Deco styles of the existing Broadway and May Co. stores, both built in 1947. A Sears store is being added to the fully enclosed structure, which will include more than 100 other shops. The project is a joint venture between the Haagen Co. and the Community Redevelopment Agency. The city Community Development Department also put up money for the project.
The success of the mall will depend on whether it brings back thousands of shoppers from the largely black middle- and upper-class communities of Baldwin Hills, View Park, Leimert Park and other areas within a three-mile radius. Over more than a decade, these shoppers have abandoned their neighborhood shopping centers for newer, upscale malls such as the Beverly Center.
To encourage minority tenants to locate in the mall, about $2 million is being made available in low-interest loans. And City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter recently won approval of a $75,000-contract for hiring a consulting firm to provide technical assistance for minority store owners in areas such as accounting and marketing.
On June 11, Mayor Tom Bradley, who has been championing the project for years, and Galanter will meet at the mall site with representatives of several major national franchise chains in an effort to lure more businesses to the mall. Thus far, leases have been signed with 20 tenants, including five black-owned stores.
Although there has been progress on the issues of jobs and leases, Mayor Bradley's office has been unable to put together a group of black investors which would buy a portion of the mall.
However, the failure to reach an agreement has left some with a "wait-and-see attitude," said Anthony Essex, first vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Essex is still concerned that the mall will not have enough black investors and store owners.
"Yes, they do have more black faces on the site," Essex said, "but I'm still concerned that the mall is going to do no more than (drain) black dollars out of the community."