BALDWIN HILLS : Destruction Yields to Constructive Crew

Nine months ago, a block of apartments on Nicolet Street in Baldwin Village was an urban war zone captured by squatters, gang members and drug dealers.

"It looked like New Jack City over here," said Donnell Washington, who lives nearby on August Street. He gestured toward walls that once were scrawled over with graffiti, windows that were broken out and ceilings that were torn open by thieves who wanted the aluminum insulation to resell on the street. Things got so bad that, one by one, tenants abandoned all 12 units by last August.

But now a community program that employs neighborhood residents is taking back the apartments at 4045 and 4051 Nicolet St. The two buildings bustle with construction activity and are sporting fresh paint and new floors and ceilings.

Eight men on the rehabilitation crew are local residents. Some are former gang members who once prowled the block and who say they are ready to clean up their acts along with the buildings.

For the past month, building owner Bondie Gambrell has employed the men as part of a grass-roots solution to the problem of physical decay that has long plagued Baldwin Village, known as the Jungle.

"We're putting these guys in the position to rehab themselves," said Gambrell, who also owns a company called 40 Acres Real Estate.

Gambrell began work on the building a month ago and plans to open it for rentals in the next three weeks.

"We've lost control of the neighborhood," he said. "The only way to deal with it is to take the community back ourselves."

Gambrell and project manager Michael White rounded up locals to supplement the RLB Construction crew they had contracted for the job. In addition to $7 an hour, they offered residents a chance to develop journeyman skills, make employment connections, and train at other apartment buildings and construction sites around the city, with Gambrell's help.

Billy Marshall, 28, jumped at the chance to work even though his day begins at 6:30 a.m. and often doesn't end until 12 hours later.

"It's good to have a job," he said. "A lot of guys want to work but don't get the opportunity. Everybody I know wants to work here now. I'd like to be a manager myself when the buildings open."

Gambrell said he got the idea to put local residents to work from his friend and fellow property owner Malcolm Bennett, who owns several apartment buildings in South-Central.

Bennett, president of the Minority Apartment Owners Assn., began a community-employment program at other troubled locations where workers and even residents were leery of going.

"The bottom line is, if (trouble-makers) get involved, they're much less likely to tear things up," Bennett said. "They get more out of construction than destruction. These guys are taking pride in their work. They come up to the project manager and say, 'Check this, check what I've done.' "

Bennett added that since the project began, a stretch of Nicolet that once was a favorite hangout of gang members and vandals is now usually empty.

Javier Bolden, 28, relishes the calm. Bolden, who lives across the street from the two buildings and was hired as a security guard, said he is happy to take part in improving a place where he once saw one of his homeboys shot and killed.

"When I was young, I was responsible for this--breaking windows, doing graffiti . . . this place was a hangout," he said.

"This is a great idea, hiring guys in the 'hood. People want to give back to the community, but you don't really get the chance. It's like I'm putting back all those windows now."

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