The dinner was a tasty mix of barbecued chicken, spicy black beans and homemade peach cobbler. But the most savored dish on the menu was peace.
On Valentine's Day, more than 250 people from Venice's Oakwood community gathered in the Westminster Elementary School auditorium for an awards dinner honoring those who helped make peace between the neighborhood's black and Latino gangs.
More than a dozen people--gang members, community leaders and youth workers--received plaques from an ad hoc group of neighborhood activists, honored for their efforts in ending a nine-month gang war that killed 17 people and wounded 55, many of them bystanders.
That conflict ended in June, when a truce was declared between rival black and Latino gangs. Among those brokering the peace were two probation officers and gang members themselves.
Oakwood residents said Tuesday night's dinner was a chance to celebrate the peace and recover from the violence.
"I have never seen a gathering of the Venice community this large in a long time," said Gene Weeks, an Oakwood resident and one of the event's organizers. "You've got groups of Latinos and blacks breaking bread together under one roof who last year would have been killing each other."
In a hall festooned with red and white balloons, community leaders, political aides, teachers and students came to pay homage to the recent period of tranquillity in their neighborhood.
The event featured dancing and singing by youngsters from Pearl White Theater, African drumming and an Aztec dance performance by local teen-agers. A Nigerian priest blessed the proceedings.
A highlight of the evening's program was an award to two gang members from the mostly Latino V-13s and two members of the mostly black Shoreline Crips for negotiating last year's truce. Only one of the gang honorees attended.
Another award went to Franklin Mint, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of ceramic products that recently set up a small factory in Oakwood. In November, the company permanently hired 10 "at-risk" youths to glaze, paint and refinish a new series of its ceramic plates.
Many in the community say jobs are the glue that can seal the peace and provide the ultimate solution in giving youths an alternative to gangs.
A document titled a "Declaration of Interdependence and Peace," which provides a guideline for community groups to work together, was read aloud by neighborhood activists.
Police at the event said the gathering was an indication of the community's improving climate. They said they hoped their attendance would lead to a better relationship with residents.
"In the past we didn't solicit input from people in the neighborhood," said LAPD Sgt. Tim Torsney, one of five officers who attended the dinner. "We now realize that we need more involvement in the community for better policing."
Many residents said the last eight months of peace have eased the fear that pervaded the neighborhood last year. Parks are crowded with families on weekends. People can walk on the streets in the evenings.
"There's much less violence. It's much more relaxed," said Jeff Belson, a manager at Franklin Mint and a local resident. "There are also more Hispanics and African Americans just hanging out and talking, which you would have never seen before."
In a community that has long been paralyzed by factionalism, neighborhood leaders are taking cues from the recent peace activities of the area's youth.
"This community has lost out on a lot of opportunities and resources because of our disagreements," said Tommy Walker, a counselor at Project Heavy West, a youth diversion program in Venice. "But the youth are leading the way. If we can follow their example, it could make things a lot easier."