For almost two decades, the headquarters of Community Coalition stood as a bunker at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 81st Street in South Los Angeles.
When the nonprofit organization moved into the city-owned building in 1997 during the height of gang violence, Karen Bass, the group's founder who is now a congresswoman, ordered crews to board up the windows out of fear that stray bullets might pierce the glass and injure workers or guests. The meeting room was moved to the center of the building to give additional protection to those inside.
In recent years, the gun violence has decreased significantly from its peak in the 1980s and '90s. Now, the precautions seem unnecessary. As part of a $5-million face-lift, the organization opened the building back up to the neighborhood by installing large windows that let in sunshine and allow onlookers to observe the community meetings, which will be in a room facing the street.
For Bass, the changes are powerful symbols of the effect community organizations can make.
"It was too dangerous to have windows like this," she said, scanning the large panes. "But because of the work of the coalition, this area is much calmer."
On Monday, hundreds of residents gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which included speeches from Mayor Eric Garcetti, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a former Community Coalition leader. Philanthropist and music mogul Russell Simmons and Robert Ross with the California Endowment presented sizable donations to help pay back the loan on the repairs.
The celebration marked a milestone for the group, which started in Bass' living room 25 years ago.
At the time, the crack epidemic was raging through the community, leading to mass incarcerations, orphaned children and gang wars. The coalition concentrated on cleaning up the blocks around its headquarters, which were no longer in Bass' home. Residents worked with city officials to shut down liquor stores and motels, which were a hub of criminal activity, and to support families who took in foster children.
Five years ago, the group bought the building from the city. Today, Community Coalition has about 40,000 supporters and 1,500 regular volunteers.
"We celebrate this morning because hope has an address and activism has a permanent home," said Alberto Retana, the organization's president.
After the ceremony, community members toured the building, which includes a computer lab and meeting spaces.
"It's brighter and welcoming," Joe Deguerre, 45, said. "It's not like a fortress and closed in. It's a new beginning for the community."