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Why the NFL Should Give L.A. a Pro Team

April 18, 1999|Susan Anderson | Susan Anderson is a writer and former director of external affairs for Local Initiatives Support Corp

It is sad that the faint possibility of the Dodgers leaving Chavez Ravine and relocating to Exposition Park has suddenly rehabilitated the surrounding neighborhood in the eyes of National Football League owners. Before the appearance of last week's news stories disclosing "preliminary talks" toward such a move, the owners were hesitant to bring professional football back to the Coliseum, despite lavish proposals to renovate the sports landmark, because they regarded its environs as an urban wasteland of crime, gangs and graffiti. It just wasn't safe to play football there.

Ironically, it is the much-maligned Exposition Park neighborhood itself, not the prospect of the Dodgers playing on the site of the Sports Arena, that should convince NFL owners to award Los Angeles a football team. Contrary to the stereotypes, the largely working-class Latino and African American neighborhood is one of the most vital, healthy communities in the city.

The area is bounded by the Harbor Freeway on the east, Normandie Boulevard on the west, Jefferson Boulevard on the north and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the south. There are still too many pawn shops and liquor stores. There are gangs, low wages and dilapidated buildings.

But despite these problems, Exposition Park is what urbanologist Jane Jacobs calls "a successful city neighborhood . . . a place that keeps abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them." Such neighborhoods "maintain an area that is usable, in a civilized way, not only for its own residents but for other users--workers, customers, visitors--from the city as a whole."

Galvanized by the 1992 civil unrest, residents of Exposition Park began working together to tear down illegally posted signs, paint over graffiti and pressure negligent landlords to clean up their buildings. They formed numerous block clubs to develop and implement neighborhood plans. Los Angeles police officers, operating under new community-policing standards, joined with other crime-fighting groups, including state police, to crack down on illegal activities in the Coliseum area. Business owners assumed their portion of responsibility for the community where they do business. Nonprofits created new networks. The result is a neighborhood undergoing an urban revival. As the banners of the Figueroa Corridor Partnership declare: "It's Happening!"

It's also working. Crime in Exposition Park has declined at a faster rate than in the city as a whole. Studies by the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division show that in few of the city's neighborhoods has crime fallen so dramatically.

Neighborhood-based efforts, large and small, are the underpinnings of this success. As longtime resident John Black, head of the city's Hoover Area Community Advisory Committee, puts it, "A community starts from the bottom to the top." The area's councilman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has played a key role through his sponsorship of the 8th District Empowerment Congress, which is a national model of citizen participation. And property owners in the Figueroa Corridor Partnership tax themselves and, through the city, receive the revenue to pay for bike patrols during the day, clean up graffiti, steam-clean sidewalks and paint light poles and other structures.

Religious institutions like St. Mark's Lutheran Church also have contributed to the neighborhood's revival. Its congregants participate in street cleanups and block clubs. The church itself runs a food pantry and Spanish-language classes. In contrast to the L.A. school district's high dropout rate, 90% of the church's student parishioners go on to college. The area, says Pastor Brian Eklund, is "alive and it's cooking. This place just keeps generating energy."

This is the "neighborhood of choice" for many residents, in the words of Melanie Stephens, director of economic development for the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing Corp. "This is where they've raised their families, chosen to stay, even as they've gotten better jobs, their kids have gotten educated. They have roots." Esperanza has kept one apartment building on West 39th Street affordable for 45 families, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. Nearby, on Budlong Avenue, the group is working with others to construct Richardson Family Park, a planned 14,000-square-foot oasis of greenery, play lots, a basketball court and picnic tables.

Elsewhere, campaigns of the nonprofit Community Coalition have transformed liquor stores into housing and retail outlets. Residents heavily lobbied City Hall until the city helped turn four crime-breeding areas into productive sites: a 98-cents bargain store on King Boulevard; affordable senior housing on 37th and Vermont; a Smart & Final at Vermont and Jefferson; and a Broadway Federal Bank under construction at Figueroa and King.

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