Children ran around the park spraying their faces with water, couples danced to ranchera music and neighbors lined up for a plate of tamales, rice and beans at Vecino a Vecino , a neighborhood celebration Saturday on Blythe Street.
Long known as one of the most notorious streets in the San Fernando Valley for its gang-controlled drug trade and violence, residents of the low-income and mostly Latino neighborhood gathered to mark what they believe is a new era.
"This is the beginning of people in this area being able to say what they think needs to be done," said Margaret-Rose Welch, a member of the Immaculate Heart Community, a religious society of lay people who have acted as advocates for the residents for a year and a half. The group uses federal and local grants to improve the residents' way of life.
More than 100 people celebrated at a vacant lot converted into a park Saturday. Gone was the graffiti and garbage that once lined the street. And participants witnessed a rare sight on Blythe Street: a Los Angeles police officer mingling peacefully with a few local gang members, who had offered their services as security at Vecino a Vecino , or Neighbor to Neighbor.
"It really is like a little village here," Welch said. "The spirit of the street is amazing."
With the help of Welch's group, which seceded from an order of Roman Catholic nuns 24 years ago, residents have slowly begun to empower themselves.
The Immaculate Heart Community began working on Blythe Street last year and now rents five units at Casa Esperanza, a run-down apartment house in the middle of the block, where English, parenting and religion classes are held. The group also tutors children, communicates with local gang members and demands that help promised from community organizations is actually delivered.
"We want the people to change the condition of their lives here," said Welch, who directs the revitalization project. "There is a lot of natural leadership here and we just want to mobilize it."
For the last four months, the San Fernando Valley Partnership and Friday Night Live, two community groups that work to stop drug and alcohol abuse, have tapped into that leadership and organized the younger residents of Blythe Street to plan carwashes, softball games and Saturday's celebration.
"It really is something special," said Esmeralda Virgen, 14, of the Friday Night Live events. "All of us (in the leadership group) get along well. We communicate and learn how to respond to each other."
"It is a great way for neighbors to meet each other," said Albert Melena, head of the Blythe Street Leadership/Friday Night Live group, which has 50 members. "A lot of people who live here don't even know each other."
The Immaculate Heart Community is also administering a $20,000 college scholarship fund in the name of Donald Aragon, a Blythe Street apartment owner who was slain by local gang members more than two years ago. The fund was created for high school graduates by a donation from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation. Aragon was an Anheuser-Busch employee.
Immaculate Heart Community members say they are also in negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District to open up an alternative education and youth center at the Casa Esperanza.
"Some of the gang members wanted to get their high school diploma," said Welch, 69, who has an extensive background in counseling and educational administration. "It is hard to get some of them to go down the block to go to school."
Only a few gang members have joined the classes and participated in leadership events, but most approve of the Immaculate Heart Community's work.
"This is the first kind of (celebration) we ever had here," said Jose Midrigal, 21, a member of the local gang. "It is good for all the people, and my homeboys don't have a problem with it."
Midrigal said although he has noticed positive changes in the neighborhood, he still resents a city injunction that prohibits gang members from loitering in the area. "The cops still harass us," he said.
Police officers have also warned Welch and others against communicating with some of the hard-core gang members. But Welch believes that they, too, need help and that the Immaculate Heart Community can provide it.
"They think we don't know how to work with gangs," said Welch. "We know it is a delicate balance, but it can be done."