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Neighbors Unite to Help Themselves : Government: Community group launches an effort to attract jobs and stores, provide child care, fix houses and ease racial tensions in an area damaged in last year's rioting.


VENICE — The vision is a cross between a block association and Rebuild L.A.

A new group called Oakwood United hopes to blend resident involvement with an official push for economic help to turn around a Venice neighborhood better known for gangs and crime than its quaint and affordable bungalows just blocks from the beach.

Following five months of meetings in the annex of a local church, the alliance of politicians, local social-service providers and residents now plans an unprecedented effort to attract jobs and stores, provide child care, fix up houses and even ease racial tensions in a poor but gentrifying neighborhood damaged in last year's rioting.

All that is a tall order--one skeptics say they've heard before--but it's based on a simple idea: If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, learn to squeak.

"I think we're on the brink of something big. I think we really have people listening for the first time," said volunteer Lenore Ritkes, who is on the group's child-care task force. "The time has come. Nobody's looking for a handout."

The initiative is noteworthy for the attention it has received from elected officials--a sign of heightened worry over the stubborn poverty, joblessness and violence that has made Oakwood one of their most troubled constituencies.

The neighborhood's meetings, hosted by Marvis L. Davis Sr., pastor of the neighborhood's New Bethel Baptist Church, have been a Who's Who of charitable organizations and activists in Venice, plus aides to U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, State Sen. Diane Watson, Assemblywoman Debra Bowen and City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose districts include Venice.

"This is really an effort from within the community. This is what grass roots is all about," said Galanter. "This is the way things will get done in an era of scarce government resources."

Organizers have begun wooing supermarkets, seeking grant money and linking local activists in hopes of forming a broad-based advocacy group run by residents. The eventual role will be left up to directors who will be selected after the group gets nonprofit status.

"Oakwood hasn't had a very permanent community advocacy. It's had a couple of groups but they haven't been able to get the high profile they needed," said Terry Conner, a Bowen field aide who has been a key organizer since activists began meeting in February.

"People don't view the community as a community in trouble," said Adel Martinez, executive director of the Neighborhood Youth Assn., a member of Oakwood United. "You have a community of Venice and Oakwood sitting smack in the middle of affluence. . . . So there's not a lot of attention devoted to it."

Oakwood United grew in large part out of last year's rioting, in which one neighborhood home was torched, several houses and stores were vandalized and one person was seriously beaten. The neighborhood also remains plagued by suspected gang members brazen enough to firebomb the homes of anti-crime activists and occasionally tussle with the private guards who patrol 15 federally subsidized apartment complexes.

The compact neighborhood--covering less than half a square mile west of Lincoln Boulevard--is one of only two Westside communities to qualify for special business assistance under a riot-relief law enacted last year (the other is Mar Vista Gardens). Under the law, which offers tax breaks and other incentives to rebuild damaged businesses, county officials named Oakwood a riot area eligible for the benefits.

Although the Oakwood group has no official tie to RLA, the private agency formed to spearhead Los Angeles' recovery from the riots, an RLA intern is serving as a liaison between the two organizations. The RLA board of directors may meet in Oakwood in September to draw attention to the area.

An early project is to lure a supermarket or other enterprises to a neighborhood where more than 20% of residents lack jobs.

Officials of the Ralphs and Vons supermarket chains have promised to look along Oakwood's commercial edges as possible locations for a new store, although only one or two locations appear viable, Conner said. The community, now served primarily by a Boys Market on Lincoln Boulevard, could benefit from new jobs and service provided by another store, he said.

"Competition tends to have a great leveling effect," Conner said.

Besides jobs and commerce, organizers are zeroing in on child care, youth services, health and housing for the community of about 9,000 people--half of whom are Latino, with the remainder split between blacks and Anglos. Space for an all-day child-care facility will be available soon, once a neighborhood after-school program moves to a new site with room to expand, Ritkes said.

Habitat for Humanity, a housing charity, has agreed to begin repairing houses that need refurbishing and possibly to build new ones, Conner said. There is also talk of hiring a community organizer to coordinate future long-term projects, such as organizing business cooperatives and job training.

But skeptics such as longtime activist Pearl White are steering clear of the group, saying it is directed from outside the neighborhood and duplicates existing community work. White said she is not opposing the new effort, but worries that whatever funding is found will be spent on services for people who do not live in Oakwood.

Well aware that the initiative is greeted warily by some, organizers are presenting the plans as a series of tiny, still-undetermined steps. They are hoping big, but promising little.

"Perception is reality. If people feel there's something happening--that's worth something," Conner said. "Maybe, finally, something is happening."

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