Striking Back: What Happened in Oakwood Was Ugly--but No Surprise

One of the underreported stories of last week's catastrophic unrest was what took place in the seaside neighborhood of Oakwood, an area of about 9,200 residents in the middle of Venice. Unlike other parts of the city where businesses were the primary targets, in Oakwood, dozens of homes were attacked.

One of the worst episodes occurred Wednesday night, when a mob of about 25 people came crashing through the gates of Alan and Caren Smith's rented two-story home on Indiana Avenue. They picked up planters and smashed through the glass doors and windows, looting and destroying the home before setting it on fire.

The Smiths were out, but their 26-year-old live-in baby sitter, Maria Mejia, and 5-year-old son, Dereck, were home. When Mejia heard the mob, she grabbed Dereck, ran to the laundry room next to the garage and locked the door until the episode was over.

In the aftermath, I stood in what used to be the Smiths' living room. Their marble dining room table was in pieces. The walnut cabinets built by Alan from trees he cut himself were burned. Dereck's room was charred beyond recognition. A half-inch layer of wet ash covered part of the floor. The smell of smoke was nauseating.

"How am I supposed to feel?" said Alan. "What am I supposed to do?"

Caren surveyed the living room, her eyes filling with tears. "What if they had gotten my son? What if we had been home?" She looked at her husband. "You probably would be dead."

Many other Oakwood homes were vandalized--mostly with bricks through windows--and those targeted were not just the white and/or affluent, but blacks active in the local Neighborhood Watch, considered "snitches" by local gang members.

The violence was driven by a slightly different dynamic than the one operating in the rest of our ravaged city.

Unlike South Los Angeles, where residents are "kept in" by an economic apartheid, many Oakwood residents are being pushed out. Pressure has been building in the area for years, ever since beach-area real estate prices began their dramatic rise.

Dubbed "one of the Westside's hottest real estate markets" in the late '80s, the community of small bungalows and federally subsidized apartments was once the only Westside neighborhood where blacks could buy homes. Indeed, African-Americans were a majority in Oakwood until the '70s. Today, they account for only 22% of the population. In the past decade, the number of whites has steadily increased to 26%. Half the residents are Latino. Just as in other parts of the city, there is a dearth of jobs, organized recreation for youngsters and rehabilitation programs for those in need.

For some time now, the "haves" have been pushing up against the "have-nots"--sometimes on the same block--and the economic disparity is inescapable.

Robert Shipp, 31, a pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church and manager of one of the subsidized apartment buildings, says, "People who are buying homes now want to get rid of the apartment buildings. They feel if the apartments go, their land values will go up. People (who rent) worry that they will have to move to Watts. If that happens, they will definitely burn down other places here. They will try to scare the developers away."

Shipp, who grew up in Oakwood and once belonged to a gang, would like to buy a house one day, but says he will have to leave the neighborhood to do it. Oakwood's $250,000 bungalows are out of his range.

So are the big new homes--many of them industrial-style, fortified-looking concrete blocks--which have begun to spring up on the western edge of the neighborhood, bordered by Lincoln and Abbot Kinney boulevards and Rose and California avenues. And the big houses usually come equipped with tall fences, another sore point for some. Los Angeles social critic Mike Davis derides these "stealth houses" that hide their "luxurious qualities with proletarian or gangster facades."

"People move in and build up high fences and look down at other people," says Regina Hyman, 39, a tenant organizer who lives in an apartment house on Brooks Avenue. "They don't care for the people in this community. Venice has always been a multicultural place. But the one thing we always had in common was nobody was rich. It bothers us that people come here building condos we can't afford. I do know this: Before blacks leave, Venice will burn."

Phil Raider, 44, a general contractor and longtime Venice resident, bought his Oakwood home on the corner of 5th and Vernon avenues three years ago. A former member of the board of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, he's not happy about the big houses and speculative condominium projects, either.

But on Wednesday night, his windows were broken while he was out, and neighbors he phoned warned him not to come home.

"It's disheartening," says Raider. "I'm somewhat of a child of the '60s, and we should all, as the current phrase says, 'Get along.' The other night, things in this neighborhood degenerated from political consciousness to a revenge-oriented retaliation. But I'm not in favor of all the development here. The only thing I need to see changed in Venice is the violence and the poverty."

Over the weekend, there was an encouraging outpouring of help for the Los Angeles neighborhoods most devastated by the rioting.

But there has been almost no support for the Smiths, who are staying at a nearby hotel. Their immediate neighbors were helpful, and managed to douse the flames before firetrucks arrived, but they can't get police to take the report they need in order to file an insurance claim.

Mildred Reynolds, a community activist who has lived in Oakwood 20 years, says that those responsible for the violence might blame the Rodney King verdict for their actions, "but this is just an excuse. I think they're upset about the new people coming in."

"It seemed like it must have been a personal thing," says Hyman, the tenant organizer. "There's too many new people moving in."

"I don't know why that took place," says Shipp, the pastor. "Usually, I go out and talk to the gang members and drug dealers, but I haven't had a chance to do that yet."

"I don't know these people from Adam," says Raider. "I can't feel sympathetic because I don't know them."

What will happen in Oakwood now that a measure of calm has replaced the storm?

Lots, hope the residents.

Monday, the managers of the 15 federally subsidized apartment houses in Oakwood opened contract bids from a number of organizations interested in providing security for the buildings, which are beset by open drug dealing and gang activity.

Many of the tenants are rooting for the Nation of Islam to receive the contract, though the Nation's involvement has generated a lot of controversy.

The tenants are also talking to the Department of Housing and Urban Development about buying their buildings under a new federal program.

"It's very exciting," says Shipp. "People need to have their own homes. A person values something more if it's their own. Everybody deserves a chance."

To encourage more involvement on the part of Latino residents, the Police Department has set up a special mobile unit in the parking lot of a nearby drug store to take crime reports in Spanish on Mondays.

Raider was hoping one of the local churches will organize some kind of peace march through the neighborhood, but isn't encouraged. So far, no one seems interested.

Mildred Reynolds would love to see her black neighbors get together to buy and develop some of the neighborhood's vacant lots.

For some people, of course, life will never return to normal in Oakwood. The Smiths do not plan to return. They had once planned to buy a home in the area. But they don't feel welcome and they don't feel safe.

Last week in Oakwood, the wages of gentrification came due with a vengeance. And some who felt pushed out pushed back.

What they did was unfair and ugly. But it was not, finally, much of a surprise.

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