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Not Welcome : Oakwood struggles to retain its black identity in the face of what many residents believe is a conspiracy among police, whites and developers to drive them out. Distrust has foiled renewal efforts and sparked growing tension between oldtimers and newcomers.

March 05, 1992|SHAWN DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When federal officials recently balked at a proposal to hire the Nation of Islam to rid 14 federally subsidized apartment buildings in Venice's Oakwood section of drug dealers and gangbangers, residents knew why.

"They won't let the brothers in because they want to keep us oppressed," said Regina Hyman, a tenant organizer. "They want blacks to keep getting shot up."

Some residents of Oakwood have long suspected that developers, real estate speculators and police have allowed crime to fester at the buildings because they want an excuse to tear them down. The roadblocks tenants are encountering in trying to get Louis Farrakhan's black Muslim organization to protect them, they say, only confirm these suspicions.

"There's no doubt that there is a sneaky campaign to get rid of the HUD buildings so land values will go up and the majority of the minorities would be out of here," said Robert Shipp, a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in Oakwood.

Many Oakwood residents, especially blacks, believe that this so-called campaign is part of a bigger plan to shove poor people out of the neighborhood altogether.

"There's a conspiracy. Rich people want our property to build condos and luxury homes on it. And they're working with the council and the city and the police to get it," said Pearl White, a longtime Oakwood activist and a leading proponent of this theory.

Police and city officials acknowledge that the conspiracy theory has taken firm root in Oakwood, and they say it sometimes makes law enforcement and community improvement efforts significantly tougher.

Oakwood was once the only neighborhood on the Westside where blacks were welcome, and until the 1970s, it was a predominantly black community. Locals point out that when Venice founder Abbot Kinney willed his elegant canal-side home to his black chauffeur, Irving Tabor, Tabor had to move the home to nearby Oakwood.

Covering less than half a square mile and containing about 9,200 residents, Oakwood still has a substantial black population. According to the 1990 census, the two census tracts that make up Oakwood were 50% Latino, 26% Anglo and 22% black.

But Oakwood has also become a chic place to live, attracting artists and celebrities such as Dennis Hopper, who regularly cleans gang graffiti from the walls of his home. It has also become one of the Westside's hottest real estate markets. The reasons: It has a certain tattered vibrancy--and single-family homes just a few blocks from the ocean for less than $300,000.

Supporters of the conspiracy theory are often vague when asked to describe the "they" that is the enemy. But evidence of the plot against them, they say, is obvious. For one thing, "Look at all the new condos springing up," said Louis Carr, a member of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, a community group. "There definitely is a hidden agenda to get the blacks out."

The Nation of Islam dispute, residents say, is simply the latest case in point. Late last year, the group's security agency, NOI, appeared on the verge of receiving a contract from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to patrol 14 Holiday Venice apartment buildings, which are scattered through Oakwood. But then some Jewish organizations and a few Oakwood residents objected, and HUD postponed its decision. Residents of the apartments who originally recruited the Nation of Islam now predict that the contract will eventually go to another firm.

Antoinette Reynolds, another member of the beautification committee, estimates that 75% of the black community shares such thinking--although she does not. "They don't understand the economic change going on," Reynolds said, alluding to the gentrification that is transforming Oakwood.

The Latino community, despite its large numbers, has played little role so far in this or most other neighborhood issues. Maria Daldivia, a Latina who said she is constantly trying to encourage others to participate in community issues, said she is usually told they are too busy working to attend meetings. Others are illegal immigrants, she said, and want to keep a low profile. Another problem, she said, is that while most of the black activists who dominate Oakwood grass-roots politics are women, Latino women rarely join anything without their husbands.

City officials are exasperated by the conspiracy talk.

"There's this perception that City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and the city attorney and police are working with developers to move out poor black people," said Susan Wagner, an aide to Galanter and a 12-year Oakwood resident. "It's ridiculous."

"Anybody with an ounce of intelligence and a fair, open mind could see it's coming from left field," said John Wilbanks, the recently retired captain of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division.

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