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Teens walk the talk into history

Students lead tours of South Vermont Avenue, telling of its past as part of studying its economy.

June 10, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

A team of history-minded teenagers set out Saturday to change common perceptions of South Vermont Avenue, once a key economic artery for South Los Angeles.

The 20 students from area high schools led a walking tour of the wide boulevard, singling out landmarks and telling stories about local history.

Their goal was to highlight the economic history of their neighborhood, long buffeted by social changes, a declining job base and the 1992 riots that left some storefronts in ruins.

Still, the stories they told did not end there.

Students said they wanted to illustrate how some small businesses were thriving despite economic pressures and the neighborhood's reputation as abjectly poor and riddled with drugs, gangs and crime.

"The media shows what it wants to show. People say that people are dying here every day," said Ivan Lopez, 16, a student who told about the history of the Nativity Catholic Church and School, a longtime community center.

Other stops included one of the area's new supermarkets, the American Barber College, a popular barbecue restaurant that has survived nearly five decades of change, and a shopping plaza that once housed a Sears store and has rebounded with new businesses.

The tour was part of a local history project organized and sponsored by the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a private, nonprofit archive on Vermont that specializes in local labor, political and social history.

Forty students from 10 local high schools spent nearly four months researching local landmarks, combing through old records and interviewing residents. They received high school and college credit through Los Angeles Trade Tech College.

Several students said they enjoyed the project because their school history textbooks contained scant information about their neighborhood. If Los Angeles was mentioned at all, they said, it was cast as the home of Hollywood.

The students led two tours along Vermont Avenue, from 61st Street north to 53rd Street, accompanied by about two dozen residents, relatives and other students.

They strolled past shabby liquor stores, check-cashing services and weedy vacant lots behind rusted fences. But they pointed out promising businesses, such as the Gigante supermarket that opened in 2003, part of a chain based in Mexico. They said it was welcomed in the area, which has few supermarkets, and created 200 jobs.

They stopped again at the offices of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp., which is trying to bolster the neighborhood economy. The organization hopes to draw more sit-down restaurants to complement the fast-food places, said Jennifer Godinez, 17.

"That would create more jobs for our people," said Jennifer, who would like to see some Mexican, Salvadoran and seafood restaurants.

Jessica Gomez, 17, a senior at Fremont High School, interviewed the co-owner of the Pit BarBQue and sampled its food. Founded in 1958, it has survived financial ups and downs.

"It's known for its sweet potato pie, potato salad and hot links," she said.

Students said co-owner Wendell Taylor told them how he and his father stood watch on the roof during the 1992 riots. Their restaurant was one of the only businesses on the block that did not burn, Taylor said. As the surrounding community has shifted from largely white to black and now Latino, the restaurant has continued to serve its Southern-style menu.

"I admire its antiquity and the fact that it's still there," said Jessica, who will attend UCLA in the fall and wants to major in history and Latino studies.

She and other students said the project gave them new insights into their community, and, in some cases, uncovered old stories.

Taylor Harris, 15, of nearby Hawthorne said he hadn't known that restrictive covenants once barred many non-whites from buying property in certain areas of Los Angeles.

He gave a report on Slauson Avenue, which once was the southern boundary of areas where African Americans could live.

"I don't think it was right. It shouldn't have been allowed by our government," Taylor said.

Several students agreed that many people in other parts of the city associate South Los Angeles with crime and poverty, in part because news organizations overlook other activities in the area.

While news outlets report on high dropout rates, Ivan said, "In my magnet class, every senior graduated in the last four years. Why not report those statistics?"

Two more tours are scheduled for next Saturday, when another group of students will relate the history of transportation in the Vermont Avenue area.

More information is available online on the library's website: www.socallib.org.

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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