Arzalee Porter, a resident of Avalon Gardens, talks about her 50 years in… (Los Angeles Times )
Azalee Porter is not the typical resident of City Council District 9, the city's poorest and most blighted. And that's one of the challenges facing whoever wins the seat Councilwoman Jan Perry is vacating in July.
Porter has lived in Avalon Gardens in South Los Angeles for more than 50 years, having arrived from Greenville, S.C., with her husband Clarence Ray Porter Jr., an Air Force veteran, and their three children in search of a better life. At the time, the complex of low-slung garden apartments with shared lawns was reserved for service members and their families. Its 164 units are now run by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles for low-income residents in general, so you might refer to it as "the projects." To Azalee Porter, however, it's a "development," a word more suited to the complex she moved into than the version she occupies today.
I sat down with Porter recently and with Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, the 33-year-old chairman of the South L.A. Power Coalition, a community organizing group, at the three-bedroom apartment she shares with one of her granddaughters and a great-grandson. She and Jitahidi agree that progress in the 9th District depends on members of her community getting more engaged, but they have contrasting views about why attitudes are the way they are.
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Jobs were plentiful when the Porters and their three young children arrived in Los Angeles in 1962. The Postal Service hired her husband, and the couple quickly had four more children. But 22 days after their last child, Tara, was born, Clarence Porter was grievously injured while driving to work on the Golden State Freeway. He never regained consciousness. That left his wife, then 36, to raise seven kids -- none of whom had finished middle school -- on her own.
As with many families, the Porters' climb up the socioeconomic ladder has been unsteady. Public assistance sustained them as the kids earned their high school diplomas, then left Avalon Gardens for jobs and careers. When her youngest turned 16, Porter went to work as well, providing in-home care for the elderly until she retired in 1996. But her offspring have endured numerous setbacks, including the shootings that killed one son and maimed another in the 1990s (no one was ever arrested in either incident) and the layoffs that have sidelined several of them even as their own children have landed jobs or gone to college.
Gang violence plagued the neighborhood for many of Porter's years in the development. "There was a lot of killing in this area," Porter said, pointing around the development. Her first apartment was strafed with gunfire in one incident; happily, no one was hurt. After the Rodney King verdict, she said, rioters were "burning everything up." At times, she said, "It was like the OK Corral, there was so much shooting."
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Jitahidi said that these sorts of experiences have led younger adults in the district battling a continual sense of despair and abandonment by the powers that be. They don't recognize either of the candidates running to represent them on the council, state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) and Ana Cubas. And they don't see the point in voting, Jitahidi said, because they assume Price and Cubas don't care about them.
"I don't think in my lifetime, people have seen government work," he observed.
"Because the people have to work it," Porter retorted. In her experience, the problem hasn't been unresponsive government agencies. She's never had a problem summoning the police or getting the attention of the Housing Authority. The problem she sees is that members of her community don't know how to get things done or to do them for themselves.
Porter's not happy about the cutbacks that threaten to reduce the computer-training and job-finding classes in her neighborhood, and she's eager to see more summer jobs for youths. But she also recognizes that the government can't solve the 9th District's economic woes.
"We're going to have to try our best to create jobs for ourselves," Porter said. "You have to talk to people and show them, because a lot of them haven't been shown the right way to do things." Her message to people has been, "Step up, so I can help train you" to take on some of the work she's done. But it's been a struggle to get them to respond.
Her view, in short, is that the 9th won't recover unless residents do more for themselves. Yes, City Hall still has to deliver more services to lay the foundation for a recovery, including the sanitation and enforcement efforts to stop people from dumping trash on the streets and in alleys. But that won't happen until more residents press for those services.
Jitahidi agreed, saying he advises residents: "Don't just call once. Keep calling. Burn up their phone. The squeaky wheel gets the oil."