When Nora King moved to Nickerson Gardens 21 years ago, she was a single mother with four sons. Back then, she says, you could sleep outside and leave the doors unlocked.
Nowadays, gangs, unemployment and violence rack this Watts community--the city's largest low-income housing complex, with 1,066 units and 5,000 residents. The order of the day for King, as the newly elected president of the complex's residents advisory association sees it, is to help tenants take charge of their lives and their community.
"The biggest part for me is to give hope to the people. I'm stepping out on faith," King said. "I don't know which way I'm going, but I know where I want to go."
King is back as president of the organization after a two-year break. She and six other people won seats on the board of directors of the Resident Management Corp, which acts as liaison between the Los Angeles Housing Authority and residents.
At first, King said, she wasn't sure she wanted to run for a seat on the board, but then she realized how much was at stake.
"How could I say no when I look around and see the little children running around out there?" said King, who has 12 grandchildren. "Maybe I can make a difference."
King was voted president by the board members, and they were installed Jan. 4 to begin their two-year term. Members of the committee are Mary Ruth Sanson, vice president; Kathy Williams, secretary; Mae Retha Gaines, recording secretary; Retha Beech, treasurer; Georgia Reese, assistant treasurer, and Josefina Navarro, sergeant-at-arms.
The seven candidates who received the most votes out of the field of 17 candidates became board members. Residents who are listed on the lease and are at least 18 are eligible to vote. The committee is responsible for finding financial support for programs that will train residents and locate jobs for them.
"Whatever the people are concerned about is strictly our concern," King said.
And King is known to deliver.
From 1989 to 1992, King served as president of the residents advisory committee and brought about several changes.
Under her leadership, Nickerson Gardens received a $1.3-million grant from the city's Transportation Department to train residents as drivers and put them to work shuttling other residents to jobs and local hospitals in a fleet of five vans. Residents were also trained and licensed as security guards by the city.
She got in touch with several agencies to donate and discount computer equipment to set up a computer lab for residents.
King also worked with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) to create a day-care center at the project for children 5 years and older. And she envisioned a training program in which volunteers would earn their master's degrees while tutoring residents.
Both the day-care center and the volunteer program have become a reality.
"She's a go-getter," said Harlan Brooks, manager of Nickerson Gardens. "When she has an idea in mind, she's very adamant about getting it."
One of her ideas that wasn't well-accepted by residents was tenants' ownership of the project's units. The federal government had planned to help residents learn to manage the complex and eventually buy the units they lived in. But residents turned down the idea of home ownership. Eventually, a dual management program was put in place in which residents are trained as managers by the Housing Authority.
King pushed the ownership idea when the residents weren't ready for it, she says. She was voted out of office in 1992.
"They didn't know how much she was doing for the community," said 29-year-old Ira Clemons, a lifelong resident. "People found jobs when she was president."
Clemons credits King with helping him find work as a maintenance worker for the Housing Authority--a job he has held for the last two years.
Another resident, Charles Winbush, said King helped him get a job as training supervisor for the transportation department.
"With Mrs. King, so many things happened. She opened doors for us," Winbush said. "When we heard she was coming back, it lifted everybody up. We knew things were going to get better."
The new volunteer board already has a few changes in mind. King said they are planning to create a day-care center for preschool children, and hope to set up a coin laundry business on the premises. To keep youths off the streets, they want to establish a Boys and Girls club.
Her main focus is getting the computer lab into operation so that the residents will be competitive when they enter the job market. "People are the best commodity we've got, our best asset. We need to educate ourselves," King said.
In this "city within a city," as King calls it, residents need to be educated about one another. Latinos have gained ground in a community that was once predominantly black. She wants to provide Spanish and English classes to help communication.
"Society has thrown people together who don't understand each other's backgrounds and cultures," she said. "We don't want a war between black and brown. We need to live and create together."