Foster Webster, clad in his trademark coveralls, calmly swept up freshly mowed grass at the curb of his California bungalow in Oakwood, as if this were any other day.
The activity swirling around him suggested otherwise, particularly the sight of Secret Service types in shirt sleeves and ties peering over fences and checking out the neighbors. A temporary telephone trunk line had been strung hastily above the street and a big, red fire truck had rolled up, unannounced, to check Webster's house for fire hazards.
The President of the United States is to drop in on the 72-year-old, semi-retired janitor Monday and personally deliver a "Point of Light" award for Webster's work on the Oakwood Beautification Committee.
The group was formed about a year ago at the suggestion of the Los Angeles Police Department, which was frustrated in its efforts to clean up the crime-ridden streets in the Oakwood area of Venice. Drug dealing in broad daylight and shootings between gangs by night had made it one of the city's more dangerous neighborhoods.
Relations with the police were marked by years of hostility. Some residents complained of what they perceived as sporadic, heavy-handed sweeps through the area that had little lasting impact on crime.
Webster, a World War II veteran who bought his Venice home in 1962, is a founding member of the committee. He said he was first approached by Borden Olive of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. "I told him we need to organize something concerning drug abuse and the way the people are letting the community run down," Webster said.
The son of a farmer who raised corn and cotton, Webster was reared in Waco, Tex., where he began working at 14, after the eighth grade. "My philosophy of life is work," Webster said emphatically, leaning forward on a plastic-covered chair in the living room where George Bush will meet with him and the rest of the Beautification Committee board. "I have never been unemployed."
Webster was a psychiatric aide at a veterans' hospital in Waco, and held a similar job with the Veterans Administration in Westwood until his back was injured in a traffic accident in Santa Monica and he was forced to take a disability retirement. He went on to do janitorial work in commercial buildings on the Westside, which he still does part time.
The coveralls are part of a solution to his back pain, Webster said. Wearing pants with a belt hurts, he explained, though he will forgo the uniform and don his Sunday best to greet the President.
Webster, who sent his two daughters to school out of the neighborhood, said he tried to be involved in another citizens' group, but found they only wanted to complain, not improve things. He concedes that some members of his community resent the success of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, but he was intent on bringing them in to work for the common good. "Our goal is to fight drugs and not to fight people," he said.
Asked what he does for fun, Webster repeated what he said he told his wife: "Honey, at my age, the fun days is over." He said he derives pleasure from church activities and visiting with relatives on holidays.
"He's not a rah-rah type," Police Lt. Jerry Szymanski said. "He's a quiet leader (who) doesn't need to stand out from the rest but is always there for support."
According to Szymanski, crime is down perhaps 44% since the police's Oakwood Task Force has been concentrating its resources, including foot patrols, in the area bounded by Rose Avenue, Electric Avenue, California Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard. Szymanski, who heads that force, said his officers have become part of the community and relations have never been better.
Police nominated the Beautification Committee to the White House, which was looking for a "Point of Light" that George Bush could personally deliver.
One component of the committee's plan, which they said Bush will inaugurate, is the posting of signs with the word DOPE in a circle with a diagonal line through it. The caption reads: "Buyers and dealers BEWARE. Your license plate numbers are being reported to police."
Committee spokesman Grant Hudson said that when the group got started this would have been considered a risky statement to make. Though some in the community have criticized the group for not immediately soliciting help from veteran community activists, Hudson said the group had to build slowly because people were afraid of retribution if their names were associated with a fledgling crime-fighting effort.
As it is, Hudson said, he has been threatened. One woman's car windows were smashed and shots were fired through another man's window. Now that the multi-ethnic group is cohesive, everyone is welcome, Hudson said. The group's coming-out party was a "Taking Back the Streets" march last month, attended by City Atty. James Hahn and Venice Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. Both have worked with the group from the outset.
Longtime community activist Pearl White said she is one who fears that the group's true agenda is to gentrify the neighborhood for high-income whites and force poor people out of an area of wildly escalating property values.
Hudson, a renter, said his involvement stemmed from frustration over neighborhood conditions that nearly prompted him to move "to get out of this hell hole. . . . People are getting involved in it because they will not tolerate the living conditions here."
Foster Webster is one of those people. He noted that government housing built for low-income families has been abused by people who live there and who treat it as a gift instead of their home. "Some people have chances and don't want them," he said. "Nobody can keep you from having what you want."
Webster also insisted that the committee is not trying to push people out, only to stop drug dealing. One of the things he said he likes best about the committee's work is the respect he has gained from the drug dealers themselves, who now politely move on when he asks them to.
And, although a few eggs were hurled at the 300 marchers last month, Webster said one drug dealer called out to him: "You all are going to march us off these streets, aren't you?"
That's the plan.