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Putting a New Face on a Neighborhood, a Dream at a Time

February 23, 1997|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Helen Johnson, 66, thinks South-Central has gotten a bum rap. And she's out to do something about it.

So, she's growing gardens.

She's putting in lights, so neighbors can safely sit in the gardens on hot, summer nights.

She's gotten a stretch of Vermont Avenue repaved.

She's gotten the neighborhood free of graffiti.

And she's gotten the Vermont Square Library--the oldest public library building in the city--not only reopened but rehabilitated, its huge windows squeaky clean, its original woodwork restored from under coats of paint, its study rooms so quiet that a visitor speaking in a whisper is nevertheless hushed for making too much noise.

She's also helped make the central plaza that gives her Vermont Square neighborhood its name safe enough that on a recent afternoon a young mother was teaching her son to walk while a man dozed under a tree, the scene looking like something from an Impressionist painting.

And she's even gotten a memorial--nine magnolia trees--planted to honor nine black soldiers who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their actions in World War II, when blacks still were not being given military medals.

But most of all, she's given residents who were once barricaded in their homes reason to believe in the future, to hold their heads high as they talk about their homes, their streets and their lives.

*

Indeed, a mere two years ago, the neighborhood association consisted of only three people. It now has 70 to 80 members, who convene at the sparklingly clean conference room beneath the library on the fourth Monday of every month.

And all of this activity is reflected in the way Johnson walks--it is more of a strut, really--around her Vermont Square neighborhood, not merely showing a visitor around her community, but showing off her community.

Her eyes glow; her words tumble one over the other as she describes this project and that; she walks up and down the sidewalks as if they were part of her living room, part of who she is and where she lives.

"If I had to pick one person in the city that I can't say no to, it's Helen," says Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. "She keeps talking until you say yes.

"When I was down there, she got me on the side and mentioned the waste-water drains were causing a flood in the neighborhood. I said I'd take care of it. She said 'When?'

"So, I had people go down right away and fix it," Riordan said with a laugh.

Nor is it only the mayor who has felt the power of Johnson's persuasion. A little more than a year ago, a top Department of Transportation official was in the area, accompanied by then-Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Joseph Drew and Riordan.

The media were also out in force.

"It was my big opportunity to put in a pitch for filling in the potholes," some of which had been on Vermont Avenue for years and ran so deep that cars had to come to a virtual stop to get around them.

The potholes, she told the officials, were caused by a combination of poor street maintenance and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, which crossed the pavement 6 inches above street level. And, as she conveniently understood it, all of it--the tracks, the potholes, the ruts--fell under the Department of Transportation.

"So, what better time was there to make my pitch?" Johnson asks.

She did--and she got not just the crossing but also an eight-block stretch repaved, as flat and smooth as a black, waxed surfboard.

*

So, who is this human fireball?

No, she's not a professional lobbyist or lawyer. She's a retired janitor from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

And when, as she was retiring from her job two years ago, she heard that the $6-million, 30-month Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI) was targeting her neighborhood and seven others to improve and beautify transportation-related facilities, she hopped right in as chairwoman for her neighborhood committee.

Johnson has an admittedly unique understanding of transportation-related facilities, which, to her mind, touch just about everything in her neighborhood. But, she explains, "I want no more than any other community in this city. I want the same thing. Give me a good reason why we shouldn't have it."

Nor has her lack of formal credentials, or status as unpaid volunteer, stopped her from using the program to rebuild her neighborhood. Thus, she points to the garden on Vermont Avenue, formerly an abandoned yard strewn with glass and garbage. After learning the finer points of growing plants, she and her neighbors started harvesting celery, cabbages, broccoli, onions and oregano.

With the garden up and running, Johnson surveys a lot immediately in front of it to see where light fixtures should be put in. The extra illumination, she says, will allow residents to come out of their homes at night, to barbecue, to chat and to reclaim their streets.

She discusses the project with a would-be contractor, checks to make sure he has the know-how, and encourages him to make a bid. Then she's off to the local bank.

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