Terror Takes Brief Holiday : Drugs, Gangs Resurface in Oakwood Neighborhood Only Hours After Bush Visit


For one brief, shining moment this week, Oakwood shed its battered image.

A visit by President Bush to the troubled Venice neighborhood to honor a community activist for his fight against gangs and drugs gave some residents a rare opportunity to cheer.

It gave recognition to community leaders who have waged a near-Sisyphean struggle to rid the neighborhood of an intractable foe. And it gave the President a national forum to promote his volunteer program and express his vision of hope.

But hours after semi-retired janitor Foster Webster, 72, received his "Point of Light" award from the President and the Secret Service agents and police left the streets, the light gave way to darkness and Oakwood became Oakwood again.

Drug dealers and gang members returned to their haunts. Crack buyers looked for sellers one block from where Bush told an audience that Oakwood had ceased being a major crime setting and a "setting for terror."

A few blocks from Webster's house on Broadway, a man flagged down a reporter's car. "Hey, you get high?" the man asked. He explained that the Secret Service had been in Oakwood for a week, but they were gone now. It was back to business.

Los Angeles Police Sgt. John Onyshko said the Pacific Division headquarters noted a marked increase in complaint calls for narcotics activity in Oakwood shortly after the President's departure. It was not surprising, he said, because there was no police presence--their resources having been depleted during Bush's daytime visit.

Although everyone agrees that crime rates are down from a year ago, Oakwood still is not the safe haven that some would have people believe. The Police Department's Westside gang unit now waits uneasily for the next outbreak of violence in an area that they say was unseasonably quiet in the last few weeks, as cruisers increased patrols in anticipation of Bush's visit.

Police, who acknowledged that they stepped up their presence in the community for 12 consecutive days before the visit, said Wednesday that patrols had returned to normal levels. But they said they would continue with their regular patrols, which police considered a winning formula for combatting crime in Oakwood.

For Bush's visit, Los Angeles police unveiled statistics saying crime in Oakwood was down 44% since the department launched the Oakwood Task Force last year.

While some community activists question the accuracy of the police statistics, nearly all agree that crime appears to be down and the streets generally are quieter.

But getting a consensus on the merits of Bush's visit proved to be much more difficult.

"I think the whole thing helped Bush more than it helped the community," said Cain E. Davis, director of the Venice Teen Post, a community education and recreation program. "In my opinion, I think the only reason Bush came to the area was because it was convenient for him since he was on his way to a luncheon in Bel-Air."

Such cynical views are common to Oakwood, an urban island of long-term poverty, unemployment and high crime amid a sea of affluence more typical of beach communities. Only about 15 blocks long, the area's notorious reputation stretches clear across the county.

Although fewer than 15% of Venice residents live below the poverty line, most of those reside in Oakwood, according to a survey by the National Data Planning Corp.

This was not always the case. Historians say that Oakwood was a predominantly middle-class black neighborhood from the beginning of the century until the late '50s, when beatniks first brought drugs to the area. The community was settled by employees of Abbot Kinney, the founder of Venice, whose egalitarian views were not shared by others who lived in Venice.

True to his vision of equality, Kinney willed his home on what today is Windward Circle to his chauffeur, Irving Tabor. But according to Alexander, there was so much resistance from other neighbor's to Tabor's presence that in 1925, he moved the house in parts to 6th Street in Oakwood.

That feeling of displacement still exists today. Many Oakwood residents say they have been neglected by numerous city agencies, particularly the Police Department.

Recent attempts by the police to improve relations in the community led to the formation last year of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, which Bush honored this week, but even that group's existence has fueled suspicion.

A number of community activists believe that some people behind the group are attempting to gentrify the neighborhood. Protesters voiced those complaints during Bush's address Monday, but members of the beautification committee say the dissenters' charges are groundless.

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