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Utopian ideals clash with gritty reality in South L.A.

Planners' $1-billion vision of a new Jordan Downs includes a health spa and stores -- but residents want barred windows too.

August 22, 2009|Sandy Banks

Ronald Perkins and his neighbors were nearly outnumbered by the consultants and architects who showed up at the Jordan Downs community center.

For three hours, they listened as a procession of planners depicted their home as an "island of poverty," and dissected it by "landscape character and typologies." But something puzzled Perkins as he studied the new homes that would replace their decrepit apartments in Watts. So when the tenants were asked for their opinions, he raised his hand: "How come I don't see no bars on the windows?"

The young architect in charge of Perkins' group brightened at the observation, plunging into an animated explanation of architectural innovations that would make the neighborhood so safe, "you won't need bars on your windows and doors."

Perkins took that in, leaned into a whispered conversation with his wife, then looked back at the architect.

"I think," Perkins said, taking pains to be polite, "that I would feel better with bars of some type."

Once again, the utopian vision of urban planners had run up against the gritty reality of project life.

The new Jordan Downs will cost more than $1 billion and take more than five years to complete. Current project residents will be moved into temporary housing across the street while their old homes are torn down and rebuilt. Then, if things go according to the master plan, they will move back into a new complex with middle-class neighbors, a bank of shops and businesses, and a cutting-edge high school campus next door.

"I think because of the focus on the people and the programs and the resources that are needed, that it's very much going to be a success," promised John King II, a planning director at the city's Housing Authority.


Residents skeptical

So far, tenants are less than impressed. Many have spent their whole lives in the projects -- long enough to remember when a similar renewal proposal 20 years ago crumbled amid political resistance and tenants' complaints.

Many suspect that this project is an excuse to kick them out of their subsidized apartments, where rents are based on family income; some say they pay less than $100 a month.

Others are weary of broken commitments, among them the city's promise three years ago to install Internet access if tenants dropped objections to security cameras.

And some are just too busy trying to survive to worry about abstractions like "landscape typologies," or choose between rooftop decks and community courtyards. Only about a dozen of Jordan Downs' 700 families turn out consistently at architects' planning sessions.

"The projects ain't feeling this right now," explained longtime resident Fred "Scorpio" Smith.

Aside from 13 years in the penitentiary, Smith, 37, has lived in Jordan Downs his whole life. He ticked off a string of tenants evicted for penny-ante transgressions, like elderly "Miss Lewis," kicked out after 53 years, Smith said, when a project employee saw a set of clothes belonging to her 47-year-old son.

"He lives in Riverside. Showed them his address." Still, Lewis was accused of violating her lease by harboring a tenant not on the lease, Smith said. "It's like they got a secret list. You blink twice and you're out."

Such stories fuel conspiracy theories, particularly among blacks who have watched the population in the project shift from virtually all-black 40 years ago to more than two-thirds Latino today.

King concedes that there has been a crackdown on lease violators by a new staff installed to remedy years of mismanagement. Evictions are up, he said, but blacks are not being targeted.

"We're just holding families accountable for what they should have been doing all along," he said. Every tenant "in good standing" will be allowed to remain and return when the new homes are done, he added.

King, who grew up a few miles away, understands why Jordan Downs tenants don't fully trust planners and public officials.

"Until they see it, it's hard to get people to trust," he said. "We're trying to build that by delivering on what we say."

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes Watts, has promised to protect residents' interests, and they trust her. She and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plan to meet today with residents at Jordan Downs.

Planners have worked hard to generate tenants' support. They took a team of locals on a national tour of similar redevelopment projects and have offered free lunches for tenants who sit through the marathon presentations and focus-group sessions.

They count on ambassadors such as Richard Alford, who lives a few blocks away but grew up in Jordan Downs; his grandmother, aunts and sisters still live in the projects. He visited Seattle, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Atlanta with the team of architects designing the project.

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