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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

No Reason to Run

September 11, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

If you don't live there, 36th Street west of Vermont registers as drive-through territory. That is, you drive through it to get somewhere else, and the quicker the better. You don't linger on 36th Street, you don't pause to soak up the bright afternoon.

That's because 36th Street, over the years, has obtained all the symbols of urban menace. The houses have taken on the lock-down look, window bars everywhere. A stray dog kicks up dust in a vacant lot. Down at the corner, young men hustle and huddle outside the post office.

It's a block that, depending on the hour, can scare anyone. Yet, every day, 36th Street also functions as a major artery for schoolkids headed for Weemes Elementary three blocks down. Many a first- and second-grader must navigate the passage twice each day.

That's why, this fall, Norma Washington plants her lawn chair in the front yard of her turn-of-the-century apartment on 36th Street in the mornings and afternoons. The kids pass by. Norma Washington sits and watches.

"No one's gonna bother them as long as I'm here," she says. "And I'm always here." On her blouse is pinned an I.D. card that says, Kid's Watch.

All over this neighborhood, other members of Kid's Watch go to their front porches and lawns during the hours of the school walks. On the blocks leading to Weemes, Norwood Street School, Foshay Learning Center, Norwood Avenue School and 32nd Street/USC, the little kids are passed, in effect, from eye to eye as they make their way to class or home.

In doing so, the watchers have reclaimed their neighborhoods, at least during the hours of the school walks. There are gaps in the coverage and the program is still under development with the help of the LAPD and USC. But, as such, the Kid's Watch program remains one of the first in the country to try and assure the safety of children during one of the most dangerous parts of their day: the journey to school.

"The big kids would be robbing the little kids, taking their lunch money," said Washington. "Or they would steal their jackets. One time I saw two big kids jump over the wall down by the post office and try to rob some little kids right there on the sidewalk. There was three of the big kids and they had surrounded the little ones and were taking their stuff. I yelled at them and they ran back over the wall."

Norma Washington has lived on her block for 34 years. She is a large, comfortable woman who exudes good sense and cheer. She and her husband were both born in Charenton, La., and made their way to California along the classical route of blacks fleeing the dead-end economies of the South. First they migrated to Indianapolis, then to New Jersey and, finally, when greater opportunities arose, to Los Angeles.

"My momma raised eight of us in Charenton. She chopped sugar cane, never took a cent from nobody," she said. "I went to school in a little building that didn't have paint. Just bare wood. But no one was trying to steal the clothes off our backs when we went to school. These little ones today deserve the same consideration, at least."

On this afternoon Norma Washington was joined in her watch by her grown daughters and two neighbors from across the street. All of them have witnessed the neighborhood erode over the last quarter-century and all have resented their own retreat into homes and apartments made into fortresses. But now, almost miraculously, they believe the neighborhood has begun to turn around.

It started, they say, several years ago when Randy Cochran, a community police officer, encouraged them to organize the neighborhood and resist a band of thugs who had taken over the block, roaming the street day and night.

Traditionally, the street held a block party each August. That year, on the day of the party, Washington noticed the thugs hovering at the fringe and decided the time had come.

"I figured they couldn't hurt me 'cause there was so many people around. I walked over and said, 'Let me tell you something. There's not gonna be any more shooting or robbing here. We are in charge, not you. You're welcome here but only if you behave.'

"You know what? They came over and had some lunch! And then they left and didn't come back."

*

Ever since, Washington and her neighbors have felt in control of their block. And when the Kids Watch program came along--also promoted by Randy Cochran--they welcomed it as a chance to expand that control.

"People always talk about South-Central as the worst kind of place," she said. "But we help each other here. If your car won't start, someone will come and work with you. And while they're getting your car started someone else will feed you breakfast or lunch or whatever you were missing while you had car trouble."

As she talked, a couple of little kids passed by on their way home. They were not kids from the block and they didn't know Mrs. Washington by name. Still, they sensed the safety of the small crowd in her yard and mumbled a little-kid greeting.

"Good afternoon to you too," Washington said. The little kids continued down the block, walking in the slow, eternal rhythm of children who have finished their long day of classes. School was out and they were simply going home. No reason to hurry, no reason to run.

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