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Community News: Mid-City

WESTLAKE : Community Garden Tries to Take Root

October 30, 1994|LESLIE BERESTEIN

Along the stretch of Burlington Avenue between 3rd and 6th streets, young men wearing pagers loiter warily on the sidewalk, their eyes darting from side to side as they boldly approach slow-moving cars with whispered offers of narcotics.

People who live there say that gangs control the street, and their power is evident in the graffiti covering almost every building, fence and wall.

Until recently, a trash-filled vacant lot just south of tiny Maryland Avenue served as a hub for the neighborhood's illicit activities, from drug transactions and consumption to prostitution.

But little by little, a group of local residents is wresting control of the lot from the street's rougher elements. And as soon as they can get a fence put in, they plan to turn the neighborhood's most blighted spot into its brightest--a community garden and playground.

"We're hoping we can create a safe place for kids, away from all the drugs and gangs," said Maria, a neighbor who preferred not to give her last name. A native of Guatemala, she raised her two children--now college graduates--in an apartment next to the future garden, which she has volunteered to help maintain.

"When my children were growing up, they didn't have to deal with all this," she said. "But it's more dangerous for kids these days. We want them to have something they can do, so that even if they have to see the gangs and the drug activity, they don't have to participate."

The lot on which the garden is slowly taking shape was once the site of a home where an elderly couple lived and cared for neighborhood children, including Maria's. But the house burned down more than a decade ago, and the lot has been vacant since.

Last spring, the lot's owners, who live out of town but were tired of receiving complaints about goings-on at the site, contacted Rampart Division police about offering the property for community use, said Nola Marie Mott, a neighbor who is also a member of More Advocates for Safe Homes in Los Angeles, a Westlake-based community improvement group.

Mott's group had been involved in an unsuccessful attempt last year to acquire a lot at 6th Street and Shatto Place for a community garden. Rampart policeman David Bachman, aware of the group's failed effort, mentioned the new lot to them, she said.

Joined by several other local residents, Mott's group managed to negotiate a deal with the owners to lease the property on a yearly basis for $1 a month, provided they maintain it. A similar deal was struck with the owner of a smaller adjacent property that makes up the remainder of the vacant site.

If the owners ever decide to develop, Mott said, the gardeners will be given 60 days' notice to vacate. But, for now, those putting the garden together plan to use the land as best they can.

"We're planning to have 25 plots, a communal shade area with picnic tables, a composting area and a play area," said David Ceaser, a volunteer helping the group, as he planted a sapling at a recent garden kickoff ceremony.

Although he lives in Montebello, Ceaser learned of the garden project through his girlfriend, Carrie Johnston, an Echo Park resident who works with Mott.

Experienced in volunteer work, Ceaser and Johnston have helped the garden group acquire donations of labor and materials. So far, they have made contact with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which donated the tree.

The corps agreed to till the land once the area is fenced in, Ceaser said. In the meantime, the couple are working to have seeds, plants and other materials donated.

Finding someone to donate a fence remains an obstacle to really getting the garden started, he said. Afraid that local ruffians will destroy the fruits of their labor, neighbors have been reluctant to begin planting without one.

Already, gang members have tagged an incomplete mural on the retaining wall at the rear of the property that was begun by neighborhood children the day of the tree-planting ceremony.

The vandalized section had not yet been painted, but the group would like to ensure that the completed section of the mural does not get tagged as well. So until the fence is up, they have no plans to paint over the graffiti.

"Right now, we're trying not to antagonize the gangs," Mott said. "They own the street, we don't. We wouldn't want to see the tree chopped down, or the kids' mural defaced."

Although the group realizes that a fence won't guarantee peace between gangsters and gardeners, they are hopeful that once the fence is up, the mural is complete and the garden is under way, gangbangers will have a little more respect for their efforts and let their work stand.

"I'm sure once we get it fenced, we'll still have some problems," Mott said. "But there could be such a difference on this street."

Information: David Ceaser at (213) 722-7323; Nola Marie Mott at (213) 736-4512.

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