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Revitalizing Vermont Avenue

Communities: A once-vibrant district near Manchester Avenue has hopes for an economic revival centered on a $50-million shopping center.

November 08, 2000|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawrence Koonce, like a lot of his neighbors near Vermont and Manchester avenues in South Los Angeles, stands up for his part of L.A. But sometimes what he hears really hurts--as when relatives in New Jersey recently told him they wouldn't come for a family reunion.

"They tell me, 'Go down there? You're going to be carjacked,' " the 33-year resident of the Vermont Knolls area recalled.

"There's pride in my voice when I tell people, 'This is a good area to live.' I don't see roving gangs; that's what the media says about us. But that doesn't exist on a day-to-day basis."

Although the fortunes of the area around Vermont and Manchester have suffered in recent years as it has struggled with a variety of problems, including spates of gang violence and an economic downturn, Koonce and other residents say it doesn't deserve its rap as a dangerous part of town.

They see its good side--the neatly kept homes west of Vermont, a new residents' organization and the area's historic past--as well as its liabilities.

"It's the best of times and the worst of times," Koonce said.

The area around Vermont and Manchester's once vibrant shopping district, complete with movie houses and streetcars, collapsed in the 1950s and '60s.

The closing of several heavy-industry factories sent unemployment soaring. Pepperdine University, once a small liberal arts college and a prominent fixture at Vermont and 79th Street, moved to posh Malibu in 1970.

The area took a devastating hit during the 1992 riots. Destruction left many empty lots where businesses had been. Elsewhere, owners held on to aging storefronts, hoping they would be bought out if times got better.

And, indeed, that might be about to happen.

Planning is underway for a $50-million shopping center on Vermont, between 83rd Street and Manchester, that city officials hope will help revitalize the commercial district. They hope a new supermarket and some other major retail outlets will anchor it.

In addition, construction is expected to be completed by December on a new facility for a continuation high school at Vermont and Manchester. Though it may not bring in shoppers, the new campus, some say, is a sign that things are looking up.

Several new affordable-housing complexes for seniors have recently been built. A notorious crack house on Vermont has been turned into a three-bedroom model home--an example of the kind of family housing officials would like to see more of here.

The area's largest church, the Crenshaw Christian Center, which took over the Pepperdine property, remains a stable component, employing many locals in a variety of jobs.

Pepperdine's old administration building, with its landmark tower, dubbed the "tower of power," is being renovated as part of a proposed retail development next to 36 new townhouses on Vermont at 81st Street.

While residents such as Koonce look to the future, others miss the Vermont and Manchester of old.

"This is a wonderful area, but it's devastating to have to leave it to get access to groceries, clothes, cars, candy," said Marva Graves, president of the Vermont Knolls/Vermont-Manchester and Vicinity Assn. "We had all of those things and we miss them."

Before World War II, a vibrant shopping district flourished on Vermont, surrounded by largely white neighborhoods of single-family homes. A streetcar line, with connections to downtown, brought in shoppers.

"We lived at 121st and Broadway," remembers community activist Brenda Shockley, "and we considered Vermont and Manchester considerably more upscale. We thought it was the Westside. It was really a thriving commercial area . . . the shops, the National Dollar [store]."

"I don't think there was a better area in Los Angeles," said Gerry Reeves, whose family lived near 91st Street and Halldale Avenue. "You could walk the streets at night. The Balboa Theater was a big, beautiful old building. The shopping there was very nice. The drugstore [at the corner] had the best chocolate sodas in the world."

After the war, the neighborhood began to change dramatically.

Blacks began moving in as housing discrimination was fought in the courts, and many whites left as a result.

A slow decline began, spurred by the closing of the General Motors assembly plant in South-Central and other nearby factories. The electric streetcars on Vermont disappeared, prompting officials to replace the tracks on the wide thoroughfare with a grass median.

Familiar landmark businesses, like the Balboa Theater, went under or moved away.

Although the neat cottage homes on 80th Street and Halldale--valued at $180,000 and more--remained as bright and inviting as ever, other sections, particularly those between Vermont and the Harbor Freeway, declined in value and appearance.

Spanish-Speaking Immigrants Arrive

By the 1980s, the second postwar influx of arrivals, this time from Mexico and Central America, brought more changes.

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