SOUTH-CENTRAL : This Cleanup Was an Act of Congress

When she first moved to her 73rd Street home three years ago, Maria Gutierrez would never walk the one block to Tom’s Liquor Store at Florence and Normandie avenues.

Even before its notoriety as a flash point of the 1992 riots, the intersection--especially the corner fronting Tom’s--was a haven for rowdy and sometimes law-breaking drunks, she said.

“There were always a lot of them outside fighting. Some sold drugs,” said Gutierrez, 34. “They scared me.”

But thanks to the efforts of neighborhood residents and a local community organization, now it’s not uncommon for the homemaker to head for Tom’s to buy a quart of milk and other small items. “It’s a lot safer now,” she said.


More than 400 people from across South-Central Los Angeles recently gathered to applaud the improvements at the intersection as one of the accomplishments of the 8th District Empowerment Congress.

The congress, launched by Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas two years ago, attempts to encourage grass-roots activism by teaching community members how to use city government to improve their neighborhoods. Its membership, which ranges in the hundreds and includes merchants, residents, religious leaders and local activists, gathered recently at USC’s Davidson Conference Center to swap advice and experiences.

Although the Empowerment Congress didn’t form officially until early 1993, future members were already laying its foundation when scores of community members gathered at a public hearing shortly after the 1992 riots to denounce Tom’s as a public nuisance.

From that seed, an organized movement grew under the leadership of the newly formed congress and the nonprofit Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, which works to curtail so-called problem liquor stores, among other projects.


Empowerment Congress activists walked the neighborhoods around the liquor store, spurring residents to chronicle problems at Tom’s and present their findings at public hearings.

“A community that’s empowered knows how to work a system to serve its interests and improve its quality of life,” said Sylvia Castillo, associate director for the Community Coalition.

Through efforts by residents and Castillo’s group, store owner Tom Suzuki was eventually ordered to post a professional security guard, limit business hours, and discourage drinking and loitering on the property.

“It’s better right now,” Suzuki said. “There aren’t so many people around here now.”


Among other successes touted by the congress were closing drug houses, expanding block clubs and efforts to convert trash-strewn alleys into gated recreation areas complete with landscaped walkways, picnic areas and playgrounds.

“We do make a difference, and we do have to step forward,” congress member Claudia Noonan said.

Haas Avenue resident Mary Lydia recalled how the Empowerment Congress helped her block club rally city resources to tear down a dilapidated building in her neighborhood.

Not only was the vacant structure an eyesore, but it often served as an illegal dumping ground and, at times, a chop shop where thieves would strip stolen cars. “It was just awful,” Lydia said.


Through the Empowerment Congress, Lydia’s block club met frequently with similar groups in the southwestern part of the 8th District. From those meetings, the 10-year community activist said, her group picked up tips on prodding city agencies into action.

After 1 1/2 years of complaints, the city finally tore down the building at 6210 Van Ness Ave. last month. “What a Christmas present,” Lydia said.

Empowerment Congress plans for this year include clamping down on public drinking and loitering and launching cleanup campaigns.

Another goal is to put information about city services on-line to allow computer users greater access to local government.