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A Sorely Needed Haven Is Little Used

Few take advantage of a Salvation Army recreation center in a tough part of South L.A.

June 14, 2005|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

At a bus stop near South Central Avenue and 67th Street in January, Eric Henderson was gunned down in broad daylight. It was his 19th birthday.

Henderson had known he was a target; he had been harassed before. But he didn't know where he could go to escape the attack. So he braved the streets. Gang members rolled up in a car Jan. 26 and shot him in the stomach.

It's hard to say whether anything would have saved Henderson in the short term. Maybe gang members would have found him anywhere. But that unanswerable question led his family to a troubling truth.

Like many residents of the area, Henderson didn't know where to go to get off the streets.

It is a common inner-city complaint: Why isn't there a safe place, a recreation center for young people who are most at risk?

Why don't poor neighborhoods have up-to-date computers? Or a place with arts classes, to replace ones stripped from the schools, and help with homework?

The more troubling question that rings in the cavernous building at Central and 76th Place is: What if you built it and no one came?

When the Salvation Army opened the doors of its $7-million gleaming, state-of-the-art recreation and community center two years ago, it boasted everything a child could want and nearly as much for struggling adults, including help with utility bills and emergency grocery money.

There is a computer lab with a staff to help with homework on weekdays. The center has art and dance studios as well as a darkroom. The soundproof music room is replete with electric guitars and a drum set. The gym offers basketball and soccer. The center's parking lot has the only skateboard park for miles around.

The center is so underused, however, that the Salvation Army estimates it serves about half the population it should.

There are a number of reasons the 37,000 square feet of opportunity is running at 50% of its potential.

First is its location. One gang's territory ends at the building's doorstep on Central Avenue, and a rival gang's territory picks up at the parking lot, said Mortimer Jones, the center's executive director. Some children brave the walk to the center, but many others are forbidden by wary parents.

Another reason is that from the outside, it is difficult to tell what recreational haven awaits indoors. No bold mural of children at play adorns the building. Instead, industrial green and yellow paint covers the concrete walls of the former warehouse. The sign out front says: "Salvation Army South Los Angeles Center for Worship & Services."

It looks like a huge thrift store.

"It happens all the time," Jones said. "People come in very excited and say, 'Where are the clothes?' The problem is that even after two years, people just don't know we're even here."

Those who do go there, however, say it makes all the difference in their daily routines.

"I go to art and I go to dance class and we do hip-hop and belly dancing and salsa and I use the computer and everything," said Lexus Nunez, 11, all in one breath. "The best is Sunbeam. It's kind of like Girl Scouts but it's Christian, and we get badges."

"And we made a book and that's me and that's her and it's called Anigirls" -- as in girls who turn into animals -- chimed in Lexus' friend Jazmin De la Cruz, 9. "She's a cheetah and I'm a -- here, this is me," Jazmin said, pointing to a picture of herself with butterfly wings.

For older kids, especially teenage boys, the center serves another purpose: a shield from violence and the allure of the streets, where drug dealers and gangbangers seem to have it all.

"You see people riding down the street in nice cars with chains around their neck, a nice girlfriend and a TV in their car," said Frank Bennett, 16. "Nobody wants to be left behind."

Slim and athletic, Frank goes to the center mostly to play basketball. "If I weren't here, I'd be in the streets doing something I shouldn't be doing," he said.

Many of his friends can't do the same, he added. "They're gangbanging and they can't come in this part of town," he said. "I just don't want to be in jail or killed at an early age."

Summer is coming, along with hair-trigger tempers and lots of free time.

"I can feel it already," Frank said. "A lot of people are about to die this summer. I know it. It's not going to ever stop."

Jones, however, says he is dedicated to seeing the violence stop.

"I came here thinking that I would open this center, get it up and running and then move on to the next assignment," said Jones, who previously was the director of finance for the Salvation Army's Caribbean operation.

"But I cannot imagine leaving Los Angeles now anytime soon. How can I? I have to fix this. It is the first thing I wake up thinking about and the last thing I think about at night before I go to sleep."

After two years in Los Angeles, Jones still is in a state of disbelief. He says he feels misled. It is not right, he maintains, for Los Angeles to market itself to the rest of the world as a place of undiluted glamour.

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