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Would It Work Here? : Cities Grappling With Some of the Same Problems Facing Central L.A. Have Found Effective Solutions

September 12, 1993|LUCILLE RENWICK

In Chicago, car pools of once-unemployed workers from the job-depleted city travel to the suburbs to $7-an-hour, entry-level jobs. In Newark, N.J., serious community commitment has proved that neighborhoods can revitalize themselves and thrive.

In the quest to rebuild Los Angeles' inner city, solutions might be found in cities thousands of miles away--cities that suffer from the same social ills, from illiteracy and escalating school dropout rates to teen-age pregnancies and unemployment.

In each city, community-based organizations and philanthropic agencies tackle several problems at a time.

"The face of poverty today is radically different than 20 years ago, because there are multiple barriers versus single barriers," said James Johnson of the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. "So when you talk about how to intervene in someone's life, you're talking about multiple strategies."

Although the organizations featured in this article use varying methods to advance their projects, each has thrived on a common goal: to first empower the community to change its situation.

"Sometimes people just need to know they have the power to make a difference in their own lives," said Msgr. William Linder, founder of the New Community Corp. in Newark. "This can happen anywhere."

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Blight: About 70,000 tons of trash are dumped illegally in Central Los Angeles each year, creating festering heaps of debris. Nearly 500 abandoned dwellings dot inner-city streets as neighborhoods struggle to improve.

NEWARK

There are no captivating buildings or massive shopping centers with Art Nouveau architecture in Newark's Central Ward. Structures in that low-income section of the city are Spartan, just as they are in many parts of Central Los Angeles.

But it's what goes on inside these buildings in the heart of Newark that is alluring. Beyond the wooden facades are the workings of the New Community Corp., a 26-year-old grass-roots organization that has become a paradigm of community commitment and revitalization.

In inner cities throughout the country, many residents' primary goal is to make enough money to move to a better area. The sense of community commitment has diminished in much of South Los Angeles, once the center of Los Angeles' black community. Between 1980 and 1990, more than 20% of blacks in the region left, according to U.S. Census figures. A number of residents who remain in the neighborhood have the goal of getting out.

But residents in Newark's Central Ward vowed to stay put and rebuild after five days of rioting in 1967 left 26 dead, 1,500 injured and $10.2 million in property damage. And while some revitalization ventures start strong and bottom out within a few years, it is the fervent commitment of residents and the organization's founder that has allowed New Community to flourish.

"This is a story of urban excellence," said Denise Fairchild, program director of the Local Initiatives Support Organization in Los Angeles. "This project has demonstrated that long-term commitments, not quick fixes, are what is needed to develop some change."

An outgrowth of the Newark riots, which ravaged the Central Ward, New Community was the brainchild of Msgr. William Linder, a clergyman in the area.

Linder began with a 20-year plan of development and a 20-year commitment from residents interested in being on the board of directors. The last turnover on the board was in 1977, when one of the directors died. Linder and the board started New Community with a modest goal: provide improved housing to needy residents of Central Ward, home to about 50,000 low-income people.

Today, the grass-roots venture has more than $300 million in assets and more than 65 acres in the city. Its developments and achievements include 15 affordable-housing developments for about 6,000 residents; nine child-care facilities, including one for babies with AIDS; a credit union; a 180-bed nursing home for the poor, and transitional housing for 102 homeless families.

It is one of the largest employers in Newark, offering 1,266 jobs to area residents. In 1990, it helped bring the first supermarket to the area since 1967 and became part owner of the operation, providing jobs to nearly 300 community residents.

"This is the real story of the phoenix rising," Fairchild said. "Out of total devastation comes new life and hope. . . . It shows what it takes to rebuild after a civil disturbance."

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