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Program offers rays of hope in an area on the edge

In the wake of summer school cutbacks, the Summer Night Lights recreation program is seen as critical.

July 05, 2009|Scott Gold

Words failed Roslyn Haywood-Broadnax, and that doesn't happen often. Her eyes softened and she pointed to the ceiling -- or, rather, through it, toward the heavens.

Her three oldest are grown and gone, one a mental health counselor, one a hospital administrator, one studying crime-scene investigation. Her youngest, Arah, is on her way to Howard University to study psychiatry.

No drugs, no gangs, no arrests. She's not sure how she pulled it off, raising four children here, in the heart of South Los Angeles. Mostly, she said, she just prayed -- that they would make it to school safely, learn something while they were there, make it home at the end of the day.

Haywood-Broadnax, 47, couldn't chat long; she was on her way to join neighbors on a picket line outside the headquarters of the L.A. Unified School District, which recently cut most summer school programs to save money. That decision, shrugged off in some areas as an inconvenience, is viewed by many in South L.A. as a betrayal.

"It angers me in my soul," Haywood-Broadnax said. "People here don't have money for camp. Parents can't afford to take time off from work. Shutting down schools means pushing kids into the street. It's going to be a mess."

Enter Summer Night Lights, a recreation program that may never have been more needed.

For weeks, City Hall has been ramping up for its newly expanded summer parks program, in which the lights will be kept on until midnight Wednesdays through Saturdays at 16 recreation areas, most of them in crime-ridden communities.

Summer Night Lights was already widely anticipated in South L.A., which is home to five of the 16 sites and abuts three others. Now, the program, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sept. 5, is seen as essential; it represents the sum of the distractions available to thousands of children and teenagers.

"There is so much riding on this," said Danielle Lafayette, a City Hall gang reduction manager who is overseeing Summer Night Lights programming at Mount Carmel Recreation Center. Six gangs claim territory within three blocks of the park, which is west of the Harbor Freeway and north of Florence Avenue.

The summer school decision could not have come at a more critical time for South L.A.

There are suggestions that the area, long plagued by so much violence that city officials a few years back did away with the name "South-Central" in an attempt to shed its stigma, is at a tipping point.

Social services are flooding in, tens of millions of dollars in construction projects are underway and the city won court approval earlier this year to roll out an injunction targeting gangs in a 13.7-square-mile patch of South L.A., the largest such police action in state history. The injunction restricts the movements and activities of six gangs that together claim at least 3,000 members.

The city's cautious optimism is based largely on falling crime rates, especially gang violence. In the LAPD's Newton and 77th Street divisions, the two responsible for enforcing the injunction, there had been 24 homicides by June 27, compared with 52 for the same period two years ago. That's a 54% drop.

Some who work the streets say the tenor of the neighborhood is changing in subtle ways. In the past, certain shootings -- those that took place on a particularly contested block, for instance -- almost always unleashed a wave of violence.

"That's just not happening right now," said Jorge Reyes, a regional supervisor in the mayor's Office of Gang Reduction & Youth Development, known as GRYD.

But summer, historically, is the most violent time of year here, and a bad one could undo much of the progress, authorities say.

That concern dominated a recent meeting between Newton commanders and school officials, even amid reports of gang recruitment and rampant marijuana use among students. Some area schools have year-round schedules and are not affected by the summer school cuts; others, like Jefferson High School, have traditional schedules, and are.

"What happens with those schools?" asked Capt. Mark Olvera, Newton's commander.

"Officially, the doors are closed," outgoing Jefferson Principal Juan Flecha responded.

"We're very concerned about that," Olvera told him.

"It's going to leave a big hole," added L.A. School Police Sgt. Lyndon L. Cullen.

The increased pressure on Summer Night Lights to help deliver a relatively peaceful season has created a feverish atmosphere around preparations.

The program began last year at eight parks. Law enforcement officials were wary of keeping the facilities open so late, especially in areas where parks have been used in recent years as gathering spots for gangs.

"These are places where people would not go during the day," much less at night, said Summer Night Lights director Guillermo Cespedes.

But the results, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Monday in a speech, were unmistakable. In the neighborhoods surrounding those parks, the number of shooting victims fell by 43% and gang homicides by 86%.

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