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Youth center opens as racial tensions ease in Harbor Gateway

On Wednesday, Latinos and blacks gathered for the opening of the Cheryl Green Community Youth Center, a sign that ethnic strife in the area is calming.

June 18, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz

After Cheryl Green, a black teenager, was gunned down, allegedly by Latino gang members, near her house after school, her mother was approached by several African Americans offering to retaliate violently for her daughter's death.

Earlier this week, Charlene Lovett recalled the moment, looking back on how tense relations between blacks and Latinos had become in the section of Harbor Gateway known as "The Strip."

That was in December 2006, at a time when blacks said they feared Latino gangs were trying to push them out of the neighborhood. Lovett said retaliation, however, was not the answer.

"That would not have accomplished anything," she said. "Anything is capable of changing, and that's the goal we're sticking to."

Lovett, who moved out of the area after her daughter died, returned this week to help L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn open the Boys & Girls Club of Harbor Gateway/Torrance: Cheryl Green Community Youth Center at Del Amo Boulevard and Denker Avenue.

She returned to an area where racial tensions have definitely calmed since the months before and after her daughter's slaying.

But the unease remains below the surface, and some black residents say they still often fear the Latino gang.

The youth center is badly needed in a densely populated area that has few places for young people to hang out. Until now, one gathering spot was the Del Amo Market, a convenience store that was once the chief outpost of the 204th Street Latino gang and off-limits to the neighborhood's black population, most of whom didn't dare venture north of 206th Street.

City leaders and gang-intervention workers say those boundaries, the racial strife that made the area infamous, and violent crime have been dissipating since Green's death. They see signs of progress in new community partnerships, more police patrols, a permanent gang injunction and the new youth center.

"Cheryl's death was the tipping point for L.A.," Hahn said, adding that crime in the neighborhood has dropped.

After Green's death, Hahn's office called for a heavier police presence and the installation of stop signs to slow traffic. She is now trying to acquire land for a neighborhood park and said the youth center will also provide adult education classes, a computer lab and a base for gang-intervention efforts.

The center is offering hope for residents, but the reality is never far from view.

Gang monikers are scrawled on dozens of houses, into a cactus and on trash bins, sidewalks and trees that line the area's streets. Black residents said they still sometimes look nervously over their shoulders and mostly keep to themselves. There are still boundaries they seldom cross, and several houses are for rent or have eviction notices hanging in their windows.

"It wasn't just Cheryl's killing. We lost a Latino man just a week before that. . . . Cheryl Green was just the straw that broke the camel's back," said Levi Wade, a gang intervention worker with the Toberman Neighborhood Center. Wade was referring to the Dec. 5, 2006, slaying of Arturo Ponce, 34, a Mexican immigrant and cook who was shot to death in front of his 205th Street apartment.

Wade, who has worked in Harbor Gateway for nearly a decade, is African American and walks through the streets with his Latino partner, Leroy Martinez.

"You first gotta show them that you believe in what you're doing," Wade said. He said changes to the neighborhood will not occur overnight, but noted small steps like a picnic in May that drew both black and Latino residents.

He cajoled some black residents to attend Monday's opening of the youth center and said it was a small step forward, although much more needs to be done.

Elvino George, 23, was born in Sierra Leone and moved into an apartment on 204th Street about seven months ago with his sister and her 4-year-old daughter.

He said the violence has not been as bad as they had heard. But he watches young men in hooded sweat shirts spray-paint 204th Street Latino gang graffiti on homes and often feels the stares of young Latinos in the neighborhood when he walks or drives past.

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Scott Coffee, who works a gang detail, said that several active and violent 204th Street gang members were arrested after Green's killing and that, though there have been shootings and other violence, there has not been a slaying in the area since.

Coffee said that many of the older gang members are either in jail or have moved away and that much of the graffiti is from youths.

Many at the opening of the youth center on Monday said they also saw signs of hope.

"I'm looking at all these young kids right now," Lovett said. "Hispanic and black and we're sitting next to each other, and that's what it's all about."

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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