Renewal of Hope : Willowbrook Renewal Brings New Hope to Once-Deteriorating Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

Ever since he was a high school senior 20 years ago, Ronald Brown has heard promises of new jobs, better homes and well-stocked stores for his aging Willowbrook neighborhood.

"It gets you down," Brown said last week, gesturing toward a dozen vacant lots that stretch for 200 yards from the 117th Street home he shares with his mother and brother.

"They tore down a lot of bad houses," said Brown, a security guard and part-time minister, "but look what's left. Weeds. So you have to learn to be patient like Job and wait."

But change is slowly coming to Willowbrook, an amalgam of tattered apartment houses and blue-collar subdivisions that began to sprout along a trolley line 85 years ago and grew quickly after World War II, replacing the sugar beet fields between Watts and Compton.

East of Brown's home, across the weedy lots cleared by the county Redevelopment Agency, blue signs at the new Kenneth Hahn Shopping Plaza are visible in the distance. To the south, an expanding medical school at the towering Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center has pushed to within a block of the Brown home. And immediately to the north is the bare earthen swath of the unfinished Century Freeway.

Will Be Nice Again

"It was nice here once upon a time," Brown said, "and I guess it will be nice again. At the mall, I see young people, new people. The drug people are being pushed out. (Once) I was scared to even speak to people. Now I speak and they speak. People are coming together as a neighborhood."

Government agencies have spent more than $100 million over the last 16 years on the hospital complex, shopping center and nearby subsidized housing, establishing a toehold amid the crime and poverty that came to define much of Willowbrook after the Watts riots of 1965.

Despite that construction in an existing 365-acre county redevelopment zone, large patches of extraordinary decay persist.

However, fresh promises of change are in the air.

Three weeks ago, the County Board of Supervisors, which governs the unincorporated area, authorized a study of about 1,000 acres in Willowbrook which by 1991 could be part of a new, 3,200-acre county redevelopment zone that would funnel millions more into community projects. The rest of the zone would encompass much of the Florence and Firestone areas.

County officials argue that a larger redevelopment zone--stretching three miles from Alameda Street to the Harbor Freeway--would allow them to retain tax revenue that will be generated by new businesses along the Century Freeway when it is completed in 1993. Two new trolley lines that will crisscross the area and increase traffic on the Alameda Street railroad corridor are also expected to spur growth.

With this surge of new investment, officials say they can build upon what they call their current Willowbrook success.

It is a success that may seem paradoxical, since one of Willowbrook's closest neighbors is the 5,000-resident Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, which is notorious for its youth gangs and disrepair.

Still, change is the talk of the Willowbrook community. Even those who are down on their luck say something big seems to be happening.

Robert Kelso, unemployed since 1987 and an area resident for 30 years, said he had heard "from a guy down the street that they're going to put a bunch of warehouses in here. I hope so. I need a job."

Crime Is Down

Jobs are already on the increase, thanks to the shopping center, the 2,700-employee hospital and the expanding medical school. County officials say they are sure that the redevelopment efforts along the new freeway will produce hundreds of new jobs.

Crime is down nearly 20% from a 1981 peak, reaching 10-year lows in robbery, rape and burglary during 1987-88. The area's 18 murders and 468 assaults last year, however, were the highest of the last decade, according to the Sheriff's Department, and Willowbrook's crime rate is still high compared to most Southeast and Long Beach communities.

Abandoned cars once left for months are now usually removed within days because of aggressive enforcement of county zoning and health codes, community leaders say. Few transients or gang members can be found on street corners during the daytime, apparently because some of the community's worst housing has been razed.

And many residents, including a solid core of longtime homeowners and an increasing number of middle-class professionals, are pouring money back into their homes.

Several streets near King Hospital are notable for their freshly painted homes, manicured lawns and clipped hedges. And for their anti-crime Neighborhood Watch groups.

One street is lined by large, 2-story houses moved out of the path of freeway construction and into Willowbrook in recent years. That's where George Green and his wife, both registered nurses, moved when they left Pomona six years ago. They've never been burglarized nor harassed by gang members, though there was "once a drug problem" on their street, Green said.

"I've got friends that tell me they can't come into this neighborhood because it's too dangerous" said Sandra Scranton, the Greens' next-door neighbor and administrator of a local child-care center. "But they come in the daytime and they say, 'My God, where do you get these houses.' "

The Greens and Scranton moved into Willowbrook to buy into long-term leases that give them the title to their homes if they live in them for 20 years, Scranton said. She is making payments on a $140,000 mortgage, but the interest rate is low and a similar house would cost twice as much in the suburbs, she said. About three dozen nice homes have been moved onto nearby streets by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, she said.

Ted Watkins, administrator of that nonprofit group, said it has replaced decrepit housing with about 200 single-family homes and built or repaired 200 individual apartments in the Willowbrook area during the last decade.

'Moving Back'

"Some of these people are middle-class professionals who've improved their status in life, moved out and now they're moving back," Watkins said.

Rhonda Pharr, a development planner at Drew Economic Development Corp., an adjunct of the Drew medical school, works in Willowbrook but has never lived there.

She hopes to change that next year by moving into one of 48 townhouses her firm plans to construct on land packaged by the Redevelopment Agency next to the medical school. About half of the townhouses, which will have their own child-care center, are reserved for single mothers. But Pharr said she expects the others to be rented by hospital workers for between $550 and $800 a month.

"I think this community is really on the move," Pharr said.

The 140,000-square-foot Hahn shopping center is the current focus of community attention and pride. Its neighbors say it has made life easier, since they no longer have to drive for miles to buy groceries, lumber, pharmaceuticals and general merchandise. It also employs about 200 local residents.

The Willowbrook branch county library, torched by rioters 23 years ago, has also been moved into the shopping center. Book check-outs are up 25% in the year since the move, Librarian Alfredo Zuniga said.

"It's nice. Everyone likes it. Wouldn't you rather drive a new car?" he said.

The shopping center, secured by decorative fencing and its own highly visible police force, represents the potential success of Willowbrook redevelopment but also its current limitations.

Government grants or bonds paid for 75% of the $23.8-million project. But the only restaurants developers could lure were fast-food outlets.

'Needs Restaurant'

"They tried to bring in a Denny's, a Marie Callender, a Sizzler, but nothing happened," Pharr said. "The area needs a restaurant, so we're trying to figure out how to do that. Right now, the market is just not right to support that kind of operation."

Still, many people are pleased with what has occurred so far.

For Terrell Williams, 17, redevelopment has meant a hard-to-get first job as a clerk's helper at the new Boys market. For supermarket security guard David Tillman, 22, it means a 5-minute commute to work instead of a 1-hour drive each way.

Beverly McClain, an unemployed mother of four school-age children, said she used to have to ride her bicycle three miles into downtown Compton to buy groceries.

"Now everybody comes up here." she said. "If they steal your purse here, you get some help. My boys use that library. The guy right there at the key place will come to your house to fit your lock. They're nicer here."

Jesus Arias, one of hundreds of Mexican immigrants who have moved into Willowbrook in recent years, said he bought a home there because he could find no other he could afford.

He bought a shack, he said, for $34,000 in 1983. Encouraged by the new construction around him, he has spent $20,000 more to rebuild his small house and enclose his yard with high protective bars.

"Everything now I like, and I fix my house more and more and more. I don't want it to look like junk," said Arias, 36, a cemetery worker. "Now I want them to push the people here and keep it clean."

In fact, strict enforcement of health and zoning regulations is another outgrowth of redevelopment, said Gloria Quary, director of the community-based Willowbrook Project Area Committee.

"We have a person who goes out into the community and finds inoperable cars and animal violations," then contacts county authorities, said Quary, whose family has lived on the same well-tended block since 1945.

Fear Condemnation

But Arias, Ronald Brown and many other residents worry that they may not be around to reap the benefits of large-scale reconstruction. They are aware that their properties can be condemned and purchased for market value by the county.

"Some community members are complaining a lot that they have been encroached on, that they are being displaced," said librarian Zuniga.

Ernest and Mary Munoz, who live across 119th Street from the shopping mall, have already been notified that their home of 46 years will be condemned.

"Oh, everything is very nice now," Mary Munoz, 76, said. "We've got everything we need right here. But I hear we've got to move. They sent us a letter a year ago. But I hope they forgot about all that."

County officials have not forgotten. The Munozes' block was scheduled for redevelopment this year, but investors were not very interested in the part-retail, part-residential proposal the county had in mind, Jesse Lewis, a redevelopment manager, said. Only two proposals were submitted, he said, and neither was acceptable.

The county now plans to build 100 homes on seven acres south of the shopping center and will request bids on the project this year, Lewis said. However, financing for the purchase of the acreage is "not in the bank right now," he said.

Nor will money for other Redevelopment Agency projects be easy to come by, since federal grants and bonds are drying up and banks are still reluctant to lend money for inner-city projects, he said.

But the county--and the city of Los Angeles, which is studying a 20-fold expansion of its nearby Watts redevelopment zone--both are counting on the expected Century Freeway boom. Taxes on all new construction in a renewal zone go to the Redevelopment Agency for reinvestment in the community.

Anticipate Development

Officials are also anticipating large-scale development along the Alameda Street rail line once it is included in the zone, since the renewal agency could then purchase parcels at non-speculative prices and offer them to investors as a cut-rate package.

Some new construction can be seen among the junkyards and marginal businesses that border the rail line--even without government assistance. Owners along the line say investors began returning to the area about eight years ago.

But no one is predicting a quick turnaround for Willowbrook.

Redevelopment officials say they have been investing in Willowbrook for the long run--building a new water system within the existing renewal zone and identifying parcels that should be ripe for development in the proposed new zone.

"I can see a Denny's right there," Lewis said recently of the junction at Wilmington Avenue and the Century Freeway, across from the shopping center. But he couldn't guess when a restaurant might be built there.

The county is creating the demand for investment right now, and the market "will soon begin catching up with us," he predicted. "It already is."

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