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Park Story's Script Gets Rewrite

Gang members leave the playground, apparently because of its film series and a crackdown on crime. Families delight in the plot twist.

February 12, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

The gangsters who years ago took over Helen Keller County Park near Gardena have decided to give the neighborhood kids back their playground.

Apparently they like what park volunteers and film producers have done with the place.

Since June, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles has helped turn the park's modest multipurpose room into a makeshift movie theater, hoping its monthly screenings will draw kids and give the park a more positive reputation.

"We don't hardly have any gang activity out here now," said Marvo Hider, the park's recreation service leader. "Everything's pretty much cleaned up."

It wasn't too long ago that gangsters ran things at Helen Keller.

"People in the neighborhood were too scared to come out here," Hider said.

Four people were killed in 2004 at the park in the unincorporated Athens area north of Gardena, Hider said.

"It was horrible," he said.

And for him, it was also the last straw. Hider called on the Sheriff's Department after realizing that his efforts to initiate community programs were of no avail.

Capt. Rick Adams of the Lennox sheriff's station said extra officers started patrolling the park last July, sweeping up loitering gangbangers on suspicion of narcotics and other gang-related offenses. By mid-August, he said, "the gang activity had subsided."

Not one person was killed at Helen Keller in 2005, park officials said. Meanwhile, Cameron Bonner, a park volunteer and founder of the park's after-school program -- Common Unity Respecting Everyone, or CURE -- met with BAFTA/LA board member Katy Haber last spring to see if they could bring something positive to the park.

Haber said she and the film organization were eager to help.

"For a nominal cost you can change people's lives," she said. "It's shocking that this is something nobody else has come forward to do."

As credits rolled and crime dropped, gangsters left, but not without sharing a few words with Bonner: Thanks for helping our kids, they told him. We're going to declare your park off limits to us.

"They applaud that we're out here helping their babies and their nieces and nephews," Bonner said. "They realized that if they weren't going to be a part of the solution, that they could at least not be a part of the problem."

Saturday marked the program's biggest screening yet. BAFTA/LA and Miramax Films presented the Oscar-nominated "Tsotsi," a movie about South African gang violence and redemption. Film producers, director Gavin Hood and leading actor Presley Chweneyagae attended.

South African Consul General Jeanette Ndhlovu, who served as host during the presentation of the film Thursday night at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival's opening in Hollywood, also was among the 200 people at the screening.

"It's really commendable that BAFTA has decided to share that film with those young people," Ndhlovu said. "South Africa is a world away from them, but I think this film may inspire them."

Bonner said the monthly movies are the only outlet many of the children have and that they keep the youngsters off the streets, where there are reportedly as many as 10 rival gangs surrounding the playground.

"There's nowhere else for them to hang out," Bonner said of the kids, who until recently have been too scared to play at the park. "There's no theaters. There's no museums. Drive around any of these inner-city neighborhoods, and you'll see portable basketball courts in the streets."

For BAFTA/LA officials, giving children in the urban core a glimpse into the filmmaking world is a plus.

"We're not a bottomless pit. We are a nonprofit organization. But if there's something worthwhile, our end of the bargain is to make it happen," said Peter Morris, BAFTA/LA chairman, who added that the cost of the screenings runs into the thousands of dollars. "We're in it for the long haul, as far as I'm concerned."

The park's grassy fields have become a place where preschoolers play duck-duck-goose in the mornings. Earlier this week, 11-year-old Salena Ortiz shot free throws on the basketball court by herself.

"Her mom would never let her be up here alone" before, Bonner said. "The issue now is that the children feel safer out here."

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