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Power to the People

Whether the issue is safety or beautification, residents are finding strength in numbers.

May 23, 1999|KAREN LINDELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Karen Lindell is a Sierra Madre freelance writer

When a "nuisance liquor store"--one that sold alcohol to minors and was a hangout for drug dealers--threatened their South Los Angeles neighborhood in 1992, residents fought back.

Already organized as the 90th, 91st, 92nd and 93rd Street block clubs, the homeowners used their clout to pressure the city to require the owner to install security lighting and hire a security guard.

Because of the clubs' persistent efforts, the disgruntled owner moved out and the store is now a coin laundry.

The four South Los Angeles block clubs are among the thousands of neighborhood organizations in Southern California.

Representing an area as small as one block or as large as an entire community, neighborhood organizations or associations have the same goal: working together to improve the quality of life for residents.

They are thriving in neighborhoods rich and poor and take on tasks ranging from graffiti cleanup to crime prevention to lobbying against new development.

The exact number of neighborhood associations is difficult to track down, but there are 700 to 1,000 in the city of Los Angeles alone, according to Terry Cooper, professor of public administration at USC, who is compiling a database of neighborhood organizations in the city.

Neighborhood associations--volunteer, grass-roots groups--are not the same as homeowners' associations, which usually feature mandatory membership.

Residents of condo complexes or other developments where ownership of land and amenities is shared automatically become members of homeowners' associations, which manage budgets and control maintenance and repair services.

Community associations are not new. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the first true neighborhood organizations were charitable groups that helped the less fortunate and civic associations formed to maintain upscale appearances in wealthy areas.

It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s, however, that the idea of neighborhood associations really took off, when social activism spurred the growth of federally funded organizations in lower-income areas.

More recently, neighborhood groups are emerging in higher-income communities.

"In the past five years, we're getting more calls from exurbs and suburbs," said Ricardo Byrd, executive director of the National Assn. of Neighborhoods.

Concerns From Crime to the Environment

"People are concerned about crime and environmental issues. The problems are not to the same degree as in the inner city, but these areas are not the utopia people once thought they were."

According to Karen Harber, spokesperson for the national organization Neighborhoods USA, which has 1,100 members, up from 350 seven years ago, "The reason for the growth of these groups is that the amount of money cities allocate to neighborhoods is tighter, and people don't like the way government is spending money."

Lack of funding has forced homeowners to take responsibility for such services as street and park maintenance, either by pressuring government for more aid or doing the work themselves.

The Garfield Heights Neighborhood Assn. in Pasadena, for example, has raised $40,000 from a community development block grant and $25,000 from Wells Fargo Bank to develop a neighborhood plan with the nonprofit Los Angeles Community Design Center.

"The plan will look at issues such as signs, lighting, beautification and other improvements," said Aprile Boettcher, president of the 320-household association.

"We're trying to be creative in our sources of funding," she said, explaining that besides grants, the association seeks services and donations from residents.

"For example, when we beautify our walkways, we'll ask people who are gardeners to help and ask people whose walkways are being improved to donate $20."

Garfield Heights--which is north of Orange Grove Boulevard and bordered on the west by Marengo Avenue and the east by Los Robles Avenue--was recently named a landmark district by the Pasadena City Council.

The designation marks an area's historical or architectural significance, and residents are restricted in the changes or improvements they can make to their homes.

Throughout the Southland, residents also are realizing that if they want to improve their communities, they have a better chance of influencing city government if they band together.

"As a group we are so much more powerful than an individual," said Juliet Kiperman, vice president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., which has 1,362 members and is one of the oldest neighborhood organizations in Los Angeles.

One of the Los Feliz group's most recent accomplishments was lobbying city government to update the outdated water system in nearby Griffith Park, which was creating a fire hazard for residents. Members, by writing hundreds of letters and turning out in full force for standing-room-only hearings, convinced the Department of Water and Power, the mayor and the City Council to replace the pumps.

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