YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A School of Hope in Neighborhood of Poverty, Fear

October 03, 1994|GEORGE RAMOS

Hope is a tough thing to come by on the streets of the Westlake district just west of Downtown L.A.

Carlos, a 12-year-old who loves the Dodgers, hates to walk to school because he's constantly bothered by drug dealers and prostitutes. Amalia, a 7-year-old girl with expressive eyes, knows never to go out after dark because she's afraid she'll get shot.

Scott Bayles, a 42-year-old aspiring merchant who would like to start a small dry cleaning business in Westlake, looks over prospective locations on 7th Street but shakes his head at the graffiti. "This is going to be tougher than I thought," he murmurs.

Nevertheless, it is here that residents have banded together with the cops and area merchants to try and turn Westlake around. The effort to clean up the community is centered around a place that literally means hope --Esperanza Elementary School.


The reasons for the effort are obvious. Westlake is one of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods in Southern California. Mostly comprised of Spanish-speaking immigrants, it's plagued by drugs, prostitution and street gangs. Rampart station officers--who say more crime is committed in their patrol area than anywhere else in L.A.--report shootings are common in Westlake.

"People will even steal clothes off the clothesline," says Rosa, a longtime area resident. So fearful is she and her neighbors near Union Avenue that they wouldn't talk unless a reporter promised not to use their full names.

When Esperanza opened last year, it became clear that a lot would have to be done to prevent the bad side of Westlake from swallowing up the new school.

Some of the narrow streets near it require widening to accommodate school buses. Used condoms and soiled syringes routinely turned up not far from Esperanza. School officials worry about some vagrants living in a vacant lot across an alley from the school. And there's the matter of making Wilshire Boulevard and 7th Street safe enough for the kids just to get to school.

The parents' fears were underscored earlier this year when a youngster, Kimberly Lopez, was struck by a car and killed at 7th and Union Street, in plain view of Esperanza. While they wait for proper speed signs lowering the speed limit on 7th, a homemade sign was erected near the spot where the youngster was killed.

"Slow down," the sign pleads, "there is a school here."

The parents have decided they must protect their kids and the new school. "My commitment to this community is for my kids," one woman told me the other afternoon. "It's for them that I care what happens here."

Meanwhile, property owners such as Cathy Lee, whose family has owned businesses and buildings in Westlake for three generations, echo the concerns of area residents. "We want the area to be clean and safe," she says. "I'm afraid of the drugs and the gang activity. The police have been very cooperative."

But, she adds, "Right now, the cops are outnumbered by the gang members."

Past efforts to clean up Westlake have failed miserably, either because residents were afraid to speak out or they couldn't sustain their crime-fighting efforts. At times, area residents and merchants eyed each other with suspicion. "Some merchants just cheat you," Westlake resident Juan Pedroza lamented as he ignored the panhandlers on Wilshire.

This time, promises community activist Berta Saavedra, things will be different.

"Everyone understands this is going to be a long-term thing," she says. "The businesses are interested in making it a reality. The parents will be here (to help) because their kids are here."

Saavedra has helped organize community meetings at Esperanza to tackle numerous issues, including finding open playground space near the school and encouraging merchants and parents to meet informally to tackle nagging problems such as the dumping of trash at street corners. They talk up the school garden where donated flowers and plants are steadily growing. Another meeting is scheduled for this Thursday.


Everyone I talked to admits that the new effort in Westlake faces an uphill struggle. With Los Angeles police resources already stretched to the limit, it will be left to the sometimes frightened parents, the gang-weary merchants and their allies to carry the day.

But there are a lot of incentives for this fight. And I heard them the other afternoon as I fended off the druggies and the streetwalkers on Burlington Avenue.

"I want to be a lawyer," 9-year-old Sergio says.

"I want to be President of the United States," 6-year-old Ana Maria giggles.

"I just want a business of my own," admits Bayles, the would-be dry cleaner. "I want to be a part of something."

Los Angeles Times Articles