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Neighborhood cleanup pits nonprofit agency against L.A. city councilman

March 09, 2009|Louis Sahagun

An effort to organize a grass-roots voice for residents of a hard-pressed portion of South Los Angeles known as King Estates has pitted a nonprofit agency against City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

The Community Coalition recently kicked off its Neighborhood Transformation Project with the goal of reducing crime and cleaning up streets and alleys. But Parks, whose district includes the area, near USC, said significant improvements are already underway and that the coalition "is creating solutions for nonexistent problems."

Of particular concern to the coalition is the intersection of 39th Street and Western Avenue, which features Martin Luther King Jr. Park and the city's new Bethune Branch Library, an architecturally stylish structure across the street from a liquor store, three motels, a recycling yard, a substance abuse rehabilitation center, an auto repair shop and a suspected crack house.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a topless woman walked past the library, where patrons sat at study tables near picture windows.

Coalition leaders contend city officials have not done enough to enhance security in the area, which is home to about 19,000 residents, most of them Latinos and African Americans. The coalition wants them to shut down an estimated 25 sites it considers magnets for crime.

"This library and park are in danger of falling into disrepair," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of the coalition, which to rally support for its cause has sponsored a community meeting at the library and several door-to-door campaigns in nearby neighborhoods. "Our goal is to ignite the spirit of activism. We're going to show a core group of concerned residents how to achieve concrete changes," he said. "After 18 months, we'll evaluate our progress. If it works, we'll try it in other areas of South Los Angeles."

Parks said he recently received assurances that improvements at the park -- including new basketball and tennis courts, additional lighting and a security camera system -- would be completed by summer. A multipurpose building at the park, which was closed in October after health officials discovered toxic mold in its foundation, would be fixed and reopened within two months, he said.

Parks also said that he recently met with his field deputies to discuss cleaning up a trash-strewn dirt alley behind Century Liquor, a squat beige building across the street from the library and a block from Foshay Learning Center.

"Why the coalition believes they have to educate people to force us to do things when we are already doing them, I don't understand at all," Parks said.

But Harris-Dawson said Parks missed the point.

"We are intimately aware of the conditions in the neighborhood, and our information is based on the authority of the people who live there," he said. "We've spent hundreds of hours in the park, conducted hundreds of interviews with residents and done significant statistical research.

"We are not in this to strike a blow against Parks," he added, "and we hope he is not going to try and strike a blow against us."

Over the last year, numerous coalition-sponsored petitions have been filed with the city office of zoning administration, demanding that action be taken to stop alleged activities at Century Liquor, including prostitution, public drunkenness and loitering.

On Tuesday, just days from a scheduled appearance before city zoning authorities, Century Liquor co-owner Steve Park covered a large outdoor tequila advertisement with a coat of beige paint and hired a security guard to monitor the parking lot. In addition, he said, "I'm considering changing the name of the business to something like Century Mini-Mart."

That may not be enough to satisfy coalition leaders or their supporters.

"I go home to someplace else at night. But the kids who use this library live here. That's my big concern," said senior librarian Claudia Martinez.

On a recent weekday, a dozen schoolchildren gathered on the steel grandstands of a youth baseball field behind the library, a few yards from a cluster of trees where prostitutes and crack addicts routinely congregate. City officials said they may remove the trees and, for security reasons, replace them with another species with less foliage.

"People are fed up with what is going on on that street corner," said Sylvia Davis, a senior coalition member who lives a block from the library, which she described as a "rose in a thorn patch."

The coalition's immediate task is to try to convince as many people as possible that pledging time and energy is a vital step needed to upgrade the community and invest in the future.

On a recent weeknight, coalition member Karume James, 24, carrying a satchel full of pledge cards, was upbeat as he strode down a street lined with modest stucco and wood-framed bungalows, many of them with lush gardens in their front yards.

At one house after another, he urged people to join his effort to "put pressure on politicians to concentrate city resources in this area and make it the safe and healthy neighborhood you deserve." Then he asked them to sign one of the cards, which he promised would eventually be delivered to City Hall.

Each card read, in part: "Dear Mayor Villaraigosa . . . Make King Park Safe for Our Children!"

"It doesn't take much thought to know that having a liquor store on one side of a city library and a park full of crackheads on the other isn't a good thing," James said. "We're going to start holding people accountable."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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