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WALLS AND BRIDGES : USC Has Worked Hard to Repair Relations With Its Neighbors, but Area Residents Have Not Forgotten the Bitter Battles of the Past

March 21, 1993|DIANE SEO

In many ways, the brick and wrought-iron fence surrounding USC's campus symbolizes the "fortress mentality" that has distanced the school from its South-Central neighborhood over the years.

Whether intended or not, the fence is widely perceived by the area's mostly poor, black and Latino residents as an attempt by USC to shoo them away from its neatly trimmed lawns and stately buildings.

But while physical barriers continue to shield the university from its surroundings, many believe USC has taken much-needed steps in recent years to chip away at the wall that separates the affluent private school from its less fortunate neighbors.

Longtime community leaders, who in the past were quick to criticize USC for apathy toward its neighborhood, now praise the university for creating programs that reach out to local youths, families and entrepreneurs. And many people believe Steven Sample, who became USC's president in March, 1991, is more committed than his predecessors to helping the community in South-Central and on the Eastside, where the County-USC Medical Center and the university's health sciences are located.

But along with this optimism, bitter feelings remain. It is not surprising considering that the median family income in the area surrounding the South-Central campus is $16,369--about the cost of tuition for one year at USC.

"The university is trying a lot harder to improve its relationship with the community, but it may not be fast enough or as effective as people hope," said Ezekiel Mobley, executive director of the United Neighborhood Council, a consortium of local business owners and residents trying to improve conditions near USC. "When you have a university in a community with so little resources, you're going to have a 'rubbing.' "

Alvin Rudisill, USC's associate vice president of civic and community relations, describes the situation as a love-hate relationship.

"The reality is we're big, and we look affluent and green, while people (in the community) are barely surviving," he said. "It's hard to sit three blocks away and say, 'That's a great institution.' But there isn't any question that communication is better and that the level of our involvement is much more intense."

In almost every area where the university has attempted to reach out to the community--whether through education, business or social service programs--there has been positive as well as negative feedback.

For instance, at the same time people are praising USC for involving Foshay and Adams junior high school students in an academic program that could lead to full scholarships for some of them to attend the university, high school students from the same neighborhood are feeling snubbed.

Robert Barner, principal of Manual Arts High School, said USC is dragging its feet on a project that would involve a group of the school's students selling Ben And Jerry's ice cream on USC's campus. Barner said USC verbally committed to the project two years ago, but has not provided written consent.

"All we need is a letter of commitment from Sample, but we're still waiting," Barner said. "I've called him 10 to 15 times, but he's never returned my calls. So right now, the project is on hold."

For his part, Sample said he has heard "something about the project," but does not know what is causing the delay.

Barner said he has also asked USC if the school could use its baseball field and was turned away.

"There's some reaching out, but frankly I'm a little disgusted by what the university has not done for us," he said. "We have very superficial contacts with them."

Rudisill said USC's facilities are open to the community, but on a limited basis because the school cannot accommodate its own intramural sports teams.

In almost the same breath that the Rev. Brian Eklund of St. Mark's Lutheran Church talks about the university's successful Upward Bound education program, he brings up the issue of the swimming pool.

Before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, McDonald's Corp. donated $4 million to build a pool on USC's campus with the agreement that it be open to local youths for summer use. Today, the pool is closed to anyone younger than 16; adults wishing to use it must pay a fee of $50 per semester.

"The idea was for it to be a joint community-USC venture, but it's now just a USC pool," said Eklund, pastor of the church on Vermont Avenue. "I've never seen a person of color in that pool, except for a tan body."

Rudisill said that the pool, more than six feet deep at its shallow end, is not open to children because it's not a "playground pool." "We can't have young kids in a pool where you have to be an accomplished swimmer."

At the health sciences campus, USC's neighbors at the East Los Angeles Occupational Center appear to be pleased with its outreach efforts.

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