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Mayor Tries New Way to Fight Blight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing amid police and prosecutors in a Pico-Union park, Mayor Richard Riordan recently sounded the call for “neighborhood empowerment,” promising to help the community overcome its gang and drug problems if residents were ready to help themselves.

It was hardly a new theme: The mayor has made similar pitches at an East Los Angeles police station, in a west San Fernando Valley community center, and on the corner of a busy South-Central intersection. He has spoken to business people, civic leaders and ordinary citizens, through two campaigns and countless community gatherings, including three on Saturday.

But for Riordan, the notion of empowerment traditionally has been bound up in another belief: that only organized, determined, unified communities are in a position to take advantage of government help. The government, Riordan is quick to say, cannot often succeed if it takes the lead.

“Don’t come to me without a plan,” Riordan told a group of about 50 Highland Park community leaders Saturday. “You find the area and develop the idea. Be realistic. Come up with a plan that’s reasonable, then come to us as a resource. If you do the leadership, the funds will follow.”

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And yet, even as Riordan urges residents not to expect the government to take the lead role, he and his administration are in the process of launching a new approach to community organizing, one that will have city officials playing a more active part than in the past. No longer will the mayor’s office wait for communities to come to it. Instead, the Riordan administration, backed by $33 million in federal money and local agency commitments, formally embarked Saturday on a campaign to help begin reinvigorating 11 Los Angeles neighborhoods and to test the effectiveness of government-backed revitalization efforts.

The money is not much. Thirty-three million dollars would barely make a dent in the problems faced by many Los Angeles neighborhoods. But the plan, crafted by Riordan officials and approved by the City Council, is to use modest sums to begin building community organizations in the hopes that those organizations make some local improvements and then take off on their own, nibbling away at problems and setting an example for other communities.

The program, called the Targeted Neighborhoods Initiative, seeks to create or energize community organizations in each of the 11 target areas selected because they are poor but show promise. Once the initiative is up and running, officials hope to provide leadership training, guide the boards through the city bureaucracy and link them with the private sector. As seed money, each area will get $3 million--$1 million a year for three years.

Riding on the experiment is the principle of how best to breathe new life into struggling communities. It is a plum for the neighborhoods stretching from the northern San Fernando Valley to the harbor, but it is more importantly a test of Riordan’s approach to the problem.

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For Riordan, the new effort is unusual in part because it runs counter to his view of how communities can best help themselves. Riordan believes in local self-initiative, and he generally is wary of the bureaucracy trying to intervene to bring people together.

When he is approached at community meetings by residents who want to know what government can do for them, the mayor can be startlingly blunt. “Nothing,” he often responds.

“They have to get together and have a will to improve the quality of life in their own neighborhoods,” Riordan said in an interview last week. “Unless they come together first, there’s nothing government can do for them.”

Once a community has coalesced, Riordan does believe that the government can help. The mayor said city officials can speed the process of empowerment along, clearing roadblocks for residents who want to erase graffiti, mobilizing police services for residents who want to strike back at gangs, developing programs to keep kids off the streets. One example of which Riordan is particularly proud is the imposition of a new curfew enforcement program in Lincoln Heights.

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Parents in that area complained last year to police and other city officials about children roaming the streets at night. Initially, the Police Department was reluctant to do much in response. Although a curfew existed, it was enforced only sporadically, and some police officials were afraid to enforce it more aggressively for fear of antagonizing young people and their parents.

The mayor’s office then stepped in to argue the case of the parents who wanted tougher curfew enforcement. After much prodding, the LAPD did step up its efforts, and residents, once skeptical and divided, gradually came to support the program.

“We still have people who say, ‘Mi hijo, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ ” said Tammy Membreno, executive director of Barrio Action Group, an organization based in Boyle Heights. “But most people now see that this was not an issue of taking away their civil liberties.”

Despite a few small examples of progress, many Los Angeles neighborhoods are poorly defined and beset by problems, from stubbornly persistent pockets of crime to knotty traffic tie-ups and decaying streets to job shortages that leave too many men and women idle and poor.

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To be sure, some communities are improving. Street prostitution has been all but wiped out in parts of Hollywood; parks in area after area are receiving new money and attention; crime in the city’s multiethnic heart has declined perceptibly.

But for every success story, there is a counter-tale of unfinished business. For every prostitution-free stretch of Sunset Boulevard, there is a gang-besieged neighborhood in Venice, Boyle Heights or Highland Park.

As a result, the Targeted Neighborhoods Initiative is an attempt to take community empowerment one step further, according to Riordan aides. Rather than having government wait for communities to bring themselves together around an idea, the initiative calls for government to play the leading role, not just responding to neighborhood concerns but singling out communities, trying to mobilize leadership and sweetening the pot with a modest investment of federal money.

That’s an activist, government-sponsored approach of the type that Riordan, a moderate Republican who likes his government small, often has been quick to criticize when it comes from other officials.

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The mayor concedes that the new program does not square with his usual insistence that communities take the lead. But that, he said, makes the initiative an important test case for him and for the neighborhoods it touches.

Said Riordan: “The question that this will help us answer is: Can government truly empower?”

The answer to that, according to some community organizers and City Council members, is a highly qualified yes.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas is widely considered the council’s premier community organizer. The Empowerment Congress, based in his council district and overseen by him and his staff, brings together hundreds of volunteers and engages them in everything from policing to the Internet.

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The congress and its committees have fought to resist liquor stores in poor neighborhoods, to modify development projects, to attract grocery stores and to build support for the Los Angeles Coliseum, among other things.

“There are essential elements of strong communities,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Indigenous leadership has to be cultivated, it has to be educated and it has to be respected.”

At the same time, Ridley-Thomas is cautiously optimistic about the mayor’s community organizing effort.

“We will make it work in the 8th District because of the strategy we already have,” he said. “It will be reinforced, under-girded by the Empowerment Congress. . . . As for other areas, I think it’s going to require a lot of work.”

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Don Watson, a dentist whose Exposition Park-area office was burned down in the 1992 riots and who has long been involved in community affairs, agreed.

“We’ve tried for years to turn this area around,” said Watson, who is participating in the Targeted Neighborhoods program. “It’s a hard job . . . [but] this will help get rid of some blight. I’d like to see some of these parks used by children. They have these plans for these playgrounds, but nothing has ever happened. Maybe now we can get some playground equipment for the children.”

As the Riordan team embarks on its effort, it does have some experience to draw upon.

An earlier neighborhood effort, the Local Area Neighborhoods Initiative, known as LANI, yielded some lasting improvements. The latest campaign is a deliberate attempt to extend that initiative, which was launched in Riordan’s first term and which tapped federal transportation money to be spent in Los Angeles communities.

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Lauren Melendrez, who has lived for 23 years in Highland Park, is a veteran of the earlier neighborhood effort. She credits it with a modest slate of improvements--bus shelters and street lights along Figueroa Boulevard, trash cans and elementary school banners brightening the area--but says its more lasting impact was in helping to draw the disparate elements of the community together.

Artists, preservationists, human service providers and residents all united to help develop and supervise those neighborhood improvements. Eventually, the group spent about $650,000--all of it had to go toward transportation-related projects--and once that effort was completed, Melendrez and others went on to form the Highland Park Community Development Corp.

Now, that corporation hopes to work with the latest initiative to extend its community program and to reach out to still more groups. Although the $3 million is hardly a huge sum, community groups will have relatively broad discretion as to how it may be spent--or, in some cases, leveraged to get access to greater investments. Already, the corporation and its member groups have identified a slate of projects they would like to get started on with the new money.

Corporation leaders and others were among those who gathered Saturday morning to share ideas and run them by the mayor. Among the proposals: rehabilitation of second-story apartments along Figueroa, installation of public art in the neighborhood, removal of drug houses, restoration of a theater, even creation of a community newspaper.

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Melendrez acknowledged that $1 million a year won’t come close to paying for all that, but she said her organization could use the money to leverage other investments and, most important, to expand the community’s involvement in governing itself.

“What we learned from LANI is that we learned how to work together,” she said. “We brought all these groups together and got them talking. That was the real importance of that. . . . And that’s what we’re trying to do here too.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Targeted Neighborhoods

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1. Van Nuys Blvd.

2. Canoga Park

3. North Hollywood

4. Highland Park

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5. Echo Park

6. Washington Blvd.

7. Boyle Heights

8. Central Ave.

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9. Exposition Park West

10. S. Crenshaw

11. Harbor Gateway


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