President Bush visited one of Los Angeles' grittiest neighborhoods Monday to praise a 72-year-old semi-retired janitor and the residents he has led in a months-long crusade to clean up the drug and gang plagued Oakwood neighborhood of Venice.
The President, who touched down in Los Angeles for less than four hours Monday on a quick trip through the West, bestowed one of his "Point of Light" awards on Foster Webster, founder of the Oakwood Beautification Committee.
"Oakwood is no longer a setting for terror," Bush told a noontime crowd of about 300, including some protesters who heckled him and criticized the committee. "It is a neighborhood for hope. The darkness of drugs, crime and fear is being banished."
Through combined efforts of the police and the community, Oakwood has experienced a 40-44% decline in overall crime, including gang- and drug-related activities, over the last nine months, Los Angeles police said. Earlier, residents had reported that drug dealing by day and gang shootings at night had made their neighborhood dangerous territory.
Beaming with pride as he accepted the award, Webster, who shed his trademark coveralls for a green suit, said, "We the members thank you, Mr. President. We know in this community we can get rid of the dope and save the people . . . save lives."
Afterward, he said, "It's a big day for me. Our group has been able to bring unity with the police and in the community. . . . We (the President and I) talked about driving the dope out of Venice and not driving the people out of Venice."
In keeping with Bush's ongoing efforts to draw attention to the achievements of American citizens, the "Point of Light" award is given to individuals or groups that exemplify Bush's call for volunteerism. This was the 148th award that Bush has bestowed. Rarely, however, does the President hand them out in person.
The President's journey to Oakwood, which he visited before a Republican luncheon that raised $700,000, was not without controversy. Some residents of Venice, whose kaleidoscope of grass-roots activism is nearer to the heart of the '60s than the '90s, were skeptical of the motives of the Oakwood Beautification Committee.
About 100 protesters showed up for Bush's appearance, many of them local activists who said they feared the underlying agenda of the committee was to gentrify the area, pushing lower-income renters out as real estate prices rise.
"We Need 1,000 Units of Housing, Not 1,000 Points of Light," said a sign carried by rental-housing advocate Carol Berman. "Beautify, Don't Gentrify," said another.
Others saw the President's visit as a shot-in-the-arm that would unify the community behind the committee's work. "I think it's going to have a lasting impact," said City Atty. James K. Hahn, also present for the event. "The whole country is going to know about Oakwood and Venice, California."
Still, hecklers shouted at Bush steadily as he addressed the crowd. Among the loudest was Addison Goodson, 34, an Oakwood resident with long dreadlocks, yelling, "Homes for the homeless!" Others in the crowd carried infants and held onto youngsters straining for a view of the President.
After greeting many of the Venice activists on the lawn of Webster's California bungalow-style home, Bush slipped inside for a private meeting with the beautification committee's board of directors.
Bush sat in Webster's living room in a white chair covered with plastic and was flanked by Webster and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl F. Gates, whose suggestion to honor the group brought Bush to Oakwood in the first place. Federal Drug czar William Bennett and U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) were also present.
Bush likened the community to the mythical bird Phoenix, who rose soaring from the ashes. "Oakwood is a Phoenix," said Bush. "It's a magnificent reminder of the power of the human heart."
Before the formation of the beautification committee, relations between police and the community were strained from years of periodic efforts to clean up the area, with no lasting benefit. Since Webster launched it less than a year ago, the committee has turned into a "super neighborhood watch group," members said, turning in drug customers' license-plate numbers, cleaning up gang graffiti and holding a candlelight anti-crime vigil.
One man attending the rally said Monday that the neighborhood still has far to go in fighting crime. Steve Hittelman, who said he was shot in the leg last July 4 and left partly paralyzed, found himself standing next to the woman who called police to get him help. "I had fears walking down here today," Hittelman said.
Some of the group's activities--and successes--have spurred worries among residents of Oakwood's low-income housing that developers will soon follow to tear down apartments and make way for homes the renters could not afford to buy.
Grant Hudson, a spokesman for the beautification committee, denied that the group's agenda included gentrification. The group's first concern, he said, is ridding the streets of crime, but it is also concerned about low-income housing.
Susannah Williams, on the group's executive board, also disputed charges that the group is elitist.
"We've heard that a lot," Williams said. "There are no yuppies moving into the neighborhood. . . . We've gone to these people many many times and said, 'Let's work together. We don't mind public housing--we just want to clean them up.' But they just shout us down."
Actor Beau Bridges, who has run a local acting workshop for youths for 15 years, said he was on hand to cheer the beautification committee in receiving the award, and to applaud the President for personally venturing to Venice.
"The overall feeling here is very positive, that President Bush would come here in the flesh," said Bridges. "The important thing is that he is here."
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report.