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Renewal of Hope : Willowbrook Renewal Brings New Hope to Once-Deteriorating Neighborhood

November 17, 1988|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Ever since he was a high school senior 20 years ago, Ronald Brown has heard promises of new jobs, better homes and well-stocked stores for his aging Willowbrook neighborhood.

"It gets you down," Brown said last week, gesturing toward a dozen vacant lots that stretch for 200 yards from the 117th Street home he shares with his mother and brother.

"They tore down a lot of bad houses," said Brown, a security guard and part-time minister, "but look what's left. Weeds. So you have to learn to be patient like Job and wait."

But change is slowly coming to Willowbrook, an amalgam of tattered apartment houses and blue-collar subdivisions that began to sprout along a trolley line 85 years ago and grew quickly after World War II, replacing the sugar beet fields between Watts and Compton.

East of Brown's home, across the weedy lots cleared by the county Redevelopment Agency, blue signs at the new Kenneth Hahn Shopping Plaza are visible in the distance. To the south, an expanding medical school at the towering Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center has pushed to within a block of the Brown home. And immediately to the north is the bare earthen swath of the unfinished Century Freeway.

Will Be Nice Again

"It was nice here once upon a time," Brown said, "and I guess it will be nice again. At the mall, I see young people, new people. The drug people are being pushed out. (Once) I was scared to even speak to people. Now I speak and they speak. People are coming together as a neighborhood."

Government agencies have spent more than $100 million over the last 16 years on the hospital complex, shopping center and nearby subsidized housing, establishing a toehold amid the crime and poverty that came to define much of Willowbrook after the Watts riots of 1965.

Despite that construction in an existing 365-acre county redevelopment zone, large patches of extraordinary decay persist.

However, fresh promises of change are in the air.

Three weeks ago, the County Board of Supervisors, which governs the unincorporated area, authorized a study of about 1,000 acres in Willowbrook which by 1991 could be part of a new, 3,200-acre county redevelopment zone that would funnel millions more into community projects. The rest of the zone would encompass much of the Florence and Firestone areas.

County officials argue that a larger redevelopment zone--stretching three miles from Alameda Street to the Harbor Freeway--would allow them to retain tax revenue that will be generated by new businesses along the Century Freeway when it is completed in 1993. Two new trolley lines that will crisscross the area and increase traffic on the Alameda Street railroad corridor are also expected to spur growth.

With this surge of new investment, officials say they can build upon what they call their current Willowbrook success.

It is a success that may seem paradoxical, since one of Willowbrook's closest neighbors is the 5,000-resident Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, which is notorious for its youth gangs and disrepair.

Still, change is the talk of the Willowbrook community. Even those who are down on their luck say something big seems to be happening.

Robert Kelso, unemployed since 1987 and an area resident for 30 years, said he had heard "from a guy down the street that they're going to put a bunch of warehouses in here. I hope so. I need a job."

Crime Is Down

Jobs are already on the increase, thanks to the shopping center, the 2,700-employee hospital and the expanding medical school. County officials say they are sure that the redevelopment efforts along the new freeway will produce hundreds of new jobs.

Crime is down nearly 20% from a 1981 peak, reaching 10-year lows in robbery, rape and burglary during 1987-88. The area's 18 murders and 468 assaults last year, however, were the highest of the last decade, according to the Sheriff's Department, and Willowbrook's crime rate is still high compared to most Southeast and Long Beach communities.

Abandoned cars once left for months are now usually removed within days because of aggressive enforcement of county zoning and health codes, community leaders say. Few transients or gang members can be found on street corners during the daytime, apparently because some of the community's worst housing has been razed.

And many residents, including a solid core of longtime homeowners and an increasing number of middle-class professionals, are pouring money back into their homes.

Several streets near King Hospital are notable for their freshly painted homes, manicured lawns and clipped hedges. And for their anti-crime Neighborhood Watch groups.

One street is lined by large, 2-story houses moved out of the path of freeway construction and into Willowbrook in recent years. That's where George Green and his wife, both registered nurses, moved when they left Pomona six years ago. They've never been burglarized nor harassed by gang members, though there was "once a drug problem" on their street, Green said.

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