When the telephone rings in Estelle Van Meter's living room, it could be her 79-year-old sister, who lives two blocks away. Or it could be LAPD Chief Darryl Gates, school board member Rita Walters, City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, the principal of Fremont High or 66th Street Elementary School, a probation or Fire Department official, or the director of the senior citizen center she founded and which bears her name. Or it could be a child down the block who needs new shoes.
Van Meter, 81, does business with them all. Almost unknown outside of South-Central Los Angeles, she is a legendary figure in her neighborhood, described by colleagues as the area's conscience, gut, backbone, matriarch, and inspirational source.
And she is one tough cookie. Despite her soft voice, gentle manner and grandmotherly looks, Van Meter makes it clear that she does not tolerate evil, ignorance, hatred, sloth, bad manners, property desecration or unkindness to others, all of which have increasingly invaded her environment.
While South-Central's murders, mayhem, gangs and crack houses may define the area for those who don't live there, Van Meter defines it for the good citizens who do. She is an unrelenting force, a five-star general with an army that includes both humble citizens and high officials. A thousand points of light all by herself.
On Monday of this week, for example, an impressive array of bigwigs showed up at the Van Meter Senior Center--76th Street and Avalon Boulevard, the heart of South-Central L.A.--and planted kisses on her cheek as if she were their kin.
It was the annual lunch meeting of the 77th Street Dames, a club founded by Van Meter after the Watts Riots, to show neighborhood support for police officers when many were calling them pigs. Hers was not a popular stance, and she took some flak. But the club has lasted longer than the epithets.
And the lunch guests weren't only from police ranks: L.A. City Fire Department battalion chiefs and captains, sheriffs, undersheriffs, probation department honchos and school board representatives, City Council members, juvenile justice workers, teachers, principals, and judges showed up, too. All dined together, as if in someone's home--at long tables with lacy cloths and fresh-cut flower centerpieces--on food cooked by members of the club. Senior citizens from the center helped out as did local children from the Explorer Scouts and a club called the Scribes (members address Christmas cards for the seniors every year). Bob Gay, deputy councilman to Gilbert Lindsay, assessed the crowd as a typical homage to Van Meter, whom he calls "unique, a great voice of South-Central, a courageous activist and inspiration to everyone who wants a better quality of life. She reminds us of a time past when elders were respected for their wisdom."
Not only did Van Meter single-handedly create the senior center, he says, but "she was also a driving force in getting the Juvenile Justice Center (an experimental juvenile court project) built. She knows the judges personally." And when the ACLU was trying to stop LAPD use of battering rams, he recalls, "Mrs. Van Meter supported its use. She confronts dope dealers, prostitutes" and other criminal elements and helps drive them out. Even a $2.7-million Youth Opportunity Unlimited grant (for a youth center) awarded by the U.S. Labor Department just last week, he says, "is largely due to her efforts. She articulated the need in this neighborhood for a place for kids to go. It didn't originally come from politicians, it came from her."
What's more, Gay adds, "she's not doing all this from some country club. She didn't have a rich husband who left her any money. She could lock her doors, collect her Social Security checks, go to the market for groceries and forget about everybody else." Others at the lunch echoed his thoughts, calling Van Meter their best "grass-roots" resource, the person who keeps them in touch with what's happening in South-Central.
Van Meter's Senior Center, for merly a construction office, is the focus of her days. She works in an award-lined office and runs the place like her own home: it is clean, inviting, cozy. Her motto--"everyone must feel comfortable here"--is carried out by the staff of four and by "regulars" who enjoy the center as if it were an extension of their living rooms.
In line with another of her mottoes--"feed your mind like you feed your body"--the center offers a variety of classes (Spanish, sewing, square dancing among them) every day. About 10,000 seniors, many poor, are served there every year, says director Billy Archibald. Van Meter has made sure they get an array of services that some say is the best of any senior center in the city: food, fun, education, advice and assistance on everything from personal problems to income tax returns.
A mobile post office visits once a week; fresh fruits and vegetables are distributed twice a week; bread and pastries are given out every Tuesday and Thursday. "Brown bag" necessities (such as honey, cereal, cleaning liquid, crackers) are offered every Friday.
But "Mrs. Van Meter" (no one calls her Estelle) says that neither she nor her seniors are "takers." They are all givers. "They have good manners and good morals. They are educated, and they continue to educate themselves. They help each other and the community as much as they can. I often wonder that those old men and ladies work so hard at their Spanish," Van Meter laughs, "but they do it because they want to be good neighbors to the Hispanics who have so rapidly come into our neighborhood."
The center opened in 1983. Since then, Patricia Hernandez, 37, has taught six hours of Spanish each week to a class of about 40 mostly black senior citizens. "Classes like this usually die after a single semester," the teacher marvels, "but after seven years we are stronger than ever." As Hernandez points out, South-Central is an area in transition. Once a predominantly black area, many portions are now largely Hispanic. But many older black residents, who have raised families and own homes there, are either unwilling or unable to move.
Van Meter is neither willing nor able, though in a rare moment of gloom she concedes that conditions now are sometimes "unbearable" even for her.
Born in Woodville, Miss., 21 miles from Natchez, she moved to South-Central in 1930. "It was beautiful here then, with flowers everywhere and so safe you could walk anywhere, day or night, and leave your doors unlocked all the time." (Now Van Meter's front and back doors are made of heavy metal, and even those have been broken through by thieves.) She first worked in the catering department of the Hollywood Bowl. Then she went to real estate school and became a broker. "I made a good living and bought my own home," she says. Her husband of 28 years, a messenger, died long ago and they had no children. But her sister's and brother-in-law's children, she proudly points out, grew up only blocks away, attended college, became professionals and now live in other parts of town. "You see, the opportunity is there for anyone who wants to grasp it."
What caused her to become an activist about 25 years ago, she recalls, was an influx of outsiders "who came here with so-called programs and lots of federal money, collecting up the young people and sending them to 'centers.' Instead of teaching you to behave like they used to," they were taught instead to seek "free meals" and to feel the country owed them something "because their grandmothers were overworked and underpaid.
"What I'm saying is that those federal programs were the worst thing that happened to the black masses since slavery," Van Meter says. "Many working in this field (of federal programs) are what I call black hustlers and white tricksters. They are out to help no one but themselves. I don't object to them making money. But they shouldn't use people with less intelligence than theirs to make their living, which is exactly what some of them do."
Van Meter's preferred method of helping people over the years, she says, is to help them find suitable jobs, housing and a productive lifestyle through a network of friends, neighbors and local community resources.
If a family comes in with six children and no money, she says, "I immediately tell everyone not to call welfare. We prefer to do it ourselves." Once jobs and housing are found, she says, the family knows it can get along on its own and feels committed to the community.
When Van Meter realized there was no place in the area for older people to congregate, she began to lobby city officials for a senior center. "It took years," recalls Carol Hamilton, who is executive assistant to councilman Lindsay. "She got all sorts of officials involved in the project to give her idea credibility. Even when funding was finally approved, it was Mrs. Van Meter who found the building, who persuaded the owner to sell it for a price the city would pay, and then to get it furnished through her private efforts."
Van Meter is modest about her accomplishments. But a friend, who prefers not to be named, recalls that she recently marched up to a crack house proprietor, told him he was ruining the neighborhood, and requested that he voluntarily shut down or she would have him shut. He is (perhaps temporarily) gone.
Then there's the matter of the alleys. L.A. City Fire Department battalion chief Terry Manning, says that about six months ago, Van Meter noticed the local alleys were overrun with "debris, trash and discarded material." He says she coordinated with the LAFD and her contacts at other agencies. "Those alleys were cleaned up within one month." he says, adding that "Mrs. Van Meter is quite famous in these parts. She's a positive influence, a mover and a shaker."
Van Meter has turned the center into a community fulcrum, a place where new police and teachers are welcomed, where seniors sometimes arrive in the morning before the doors open at 7:45, and where they often stay all day. And now, director Billy Archibald has come up with even a more bold dream, as a living homage to the center's founder. He would like to get a crack house across the street torn down, and raise money to build the Estelle Van Meter Senior Residence, where many of the people who drop by daily could spend the rest of their lives.
And he would like to establish a $1-million fund, through contributions, so that the Van Meter Senior Center could operate on its own, and perhaps with a few more amenities. As it is, city funds barely pay the minimal salaries of the the four employees (Archibald, retired from the probation department, earns about $21,000 a year). There is not enough money for utility bills, office supplies, various insurances and the like, all of which are paid for by pancake breakfasts and other small fund-raising events.
Van Meter doesn't comment on his proposals, although she knows safe housing for seniors in South-Central is needed. Her own pretty house and immaculate lawn are now fenced, as is her car in the driveway. She no longer uses the garage because it's too dangerous for her to go there. Her breezy porch, once filled with exotic potted plants, now holds just a few because thieves stole most of them. The old Dodge has an alarm that she says is worth more than the car. When it goes off, she knows "they" are out there. She dials 911 and then stands in her hallway, so the thugs won't see her moving around and shoot at her silhouette through the curtains.
On balance, however, Van Meter is optimistic about South-Central. She believes the community will "get the crime and drugs out of the neighborhood" that parents may start to behave like good parents again; that children may start studying and playing like children again. And, in her lifetime, perhaps South Central will start to flourish.