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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

Seeds of Change Are Sown

September 01, 2003

Today's basketball tournament, dance recital and concert at the Jim Gilliam Recreation Center in Southwest Los Angeles is not your typical Labor Day picnic. It marks the grand finale of a high-energy experiment dubbed "Summer of Success" that, for six weekends, has transformed a park in a high-crime neighborhood into a multi-ring circus of games, movies and hip-hop classes that left kids little time to get into trouble.

In too many Los Angeles neighborhoods, the biggest quality-of-life worry is just staying alive amid gang violence. Following up on a campaign promise, City Councilman Martin Ludlow brought together a team of activists to attack street crime in the 10th District, which straddles the Santa Monica Freeway. Using the Los Angeles Police Department's new Compstat crime-mapping system to see where and when most crimes occurred, the group decided to target Baldwin Village on Thursdays through Sundays from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. A square-mile cluster of more than 300 apartment buildings and 10,000 people, the tough neighborhood is also known as "the Jungle," originally only because of its lush foliage. It is tucked against but a world away from well-heeled Baldwin Hills.

The activities staged for Summer of Success were nothing new -- video games, soccer clinics, midnight basketball. "It's not rocket science," says Karen Bass, executive director of the South L.A.-based Community Coalition and a project organizer. "It's keeping the kids busy and safe during hours that, between you and me, they need to be home, but they're not."

Managing a crowd ranging in age from 8 to 24 and some nights numbering 300 has required the deftness of a circus ringleader. The team hired Dorsey High School students to do door-to-door outreach and tapped gang-intervention groups already working in the neighborhood to trouble-shoot. Dance classes came courtesy of the Lula Washington dance troupe. Former heavyweight champ Michael Bent taught boxing and weightlifting. Once underway, the program inspired a parent to start jump-rope games for the under-10 crowd. Men from the neighborhood threw a barbecue.

"L.A. is a 'show me' kind of town, especially South L.A.," says radio personality and activist Dominique De Prima, who served as chief ringleader. "People have been made so many promises. But a lot of people are willing to say, 'OK, if you're really serious, let's do this.' "

De Prima and Bass are hopeful that seeds planted this summer will continue to bear results. Already, Dorsey High students have begun mentoring younger kids, and Bass' Community Coalition is helping grass-roots groups apply for grants. Today's celebration is both a reward for promises kept and a reminder of the long-term commitment needed to prolong this success beyond a single season.

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