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Community News: Mid-City

WESTLAKE : Group, Store Owners Stress Cooperation

November 06, 1994|LESLIE BERESTEIN

When three liquor and convenience stores near Hoover Street School were destroyed in the 1992 riots, some parents hoped they would never come back. They had long considered the stores a nuisance, and felt they attracted drunken panhandlers whom they say often harassed their children for money as they walked to and from the elementary school.

But when the stores rebuilt, the parents and teachers of the Hoover Street School Parent Center, a group dedicated to providing English and parenting classes to the community, took it on themselves to work with the liquor store owners to ensure the children's safety.

More than a year's worth of efforts later, both the parents and the owners of the store nearest the school--a 7-Eleven at 9th and Westmoreland--are pleased with the results of their cooperation.

After the 7-Eleven reopened in June, 1993, the parents' group approached its owners, Myung-Jah and Ernest Lee, with a few suggestions they felt could help discourage loitering during school foot-traffic hours.

"We were worried about the safety and well-being of our children," said Hilda Escalante, who has a son in the fourth grade. "We didn't want them to see drunks hanging around on the street. It's a bad influence."

Their suggestions included not selling small sizes of wine, single containers of beer and single cigarettes between 6 and 8:30 a.m., and between 2 and 3:30 p.m.

The city had already imposed certain operating conditions on the store, including a ban on pornographic materials, graffiti removal within 48 hours, a well-lit parking lot, no-loitering signs and security, but the parents' suggestions were geared toward making the premises less inviting to panhandlers.

"When you sell small quantities, it encourages people to loiter and ask for money," said Isabel Vasquez, a former Hoover Street teacher who helped organize the parents' group. "It's easier to hang around and gather 20 cents to buy a single cigarette than it is to gather enough for a whole pack."

The Lees agreed to try out the voluntary conditions suggested by the parents. Although Myung-Jah Lee still sees loiterers in her parking lot, she feels the situation has become less severe during the time the store curbs its single-serving sales.

"They still hang around, but during those hours, we don't see them much," she said. "Now they hide, and come back later."

To maintain good relations, the parents began inviting the Lees, as well as a representative from the Southland Corp., which owns the 7-Eleven chain, to their monthly meetings last fall. These meetings soon attracted representatives from the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, city officials, Los Angeles Police Department officers and several other local liquor store owners, whom the group is now trying to convince to adopt the same voluntary school-hour conditions.

"Some complain that they are mom-and-pop stores, and can't afford to lose sales," Vasquez said. "But the kids have to walk through this every day, and that's an issue to consider."

By working together, the Lees and the Hoover Street School Parent Center have tackled another problem--graffiti on the side of the store. Trying to abide by the city's graffiti-removal order, the Lees found themselves painting their Westmoreland Avenue-facing wall almost daily, until a local loiterer suggested that perhaps painting a religious symbol on the wall might help discourage taggers.

The Lees brought this suggestion to a meeting, and the parents toyed with it for a while. Although they ruled against the idea of religious symbolism, a mural was decided upon.

The Southland Corp. donated paint, and Cynthia Vargas, a 23-year-old art student working as a teacher's aide at Hoover Street, volunteered her talent. While she worked on the mural this summer, she also recruited the help of several local youths.

The result is an educationally themed mural titled "Lecciones del Pasado" (Lessons From the Past), unveiled last month.

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