Revitalizing Vermont Avenue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawrence Koonce, like a lot of his neighbors near Vermont and Manchester avenues in South Los Angeles, stands up for his part of L.A. But sometimes what he hears really hurts--as when relatives in New Jersey recently told him they wouldn't come for a family reunion.

"They tell me, 'Go down there? You're going to be carjacked,' " the 33-year resident of the Vermont Knolls area recalled.

"There's pride in my voice when I tell people, 'This is a good area to live.' I don't see roving gangs; that's what the media says about us. But that doesn't exist on a day-to-day basis."

Although the fortunes of the area around Vermont and Manchester have suffered in recent years as it has struggled with a variety of problems, including spates of gang violence and an economic downturn, Koonce and other residents say it doesn't deserve its rap as a dangerous part of town.

They see its good side--the neatly kept homes west of Vermont, a new residents' organization and the area's historic past--as well as its liabilities.

"It's the best of times and the worst of times," Koonce said.

The area around Vermont and Manchester's once vibrant shopping district, complete with movie houses and streetcars, collapsed in the 1950s and '60s.

The closing of several heavy-industry factories sent unemployment soaring. Pepperdine University, once a small liberal arts college and a prominent fixture at Vermont and 79th Street, moved to posh Malibu in 1970.

The area took a devastating hit during the 1992 riots. Destruction left many empty lots where businesses had been. Elsewhere, owners held on to aging storefronts, hoping they would be bought out if times got better.

And, indeed, that might be about to happen.

Planning is underway for a $50-million shopping center on Vermont, between 83rd Street and Manchester, that city officials hope will help revitalize the commercial district. They hope a new supermarket and some other major retail outlets will anchor it.

In addition, construction is expected to be completed by December on a new facility for a continuation high school at Vermont and Manchester. Though it may not bring in shoppers, the new campus, some say, is a sign that things are looking up.

Several new affordable-housing complexes for seniors have recently been built. A notorious crack house on Vermont has been turned into a three-bedroom model home--an example of the kind of family housing officials would like to see more of here.

The area's largest church, the Crenshaw Christian Center, which took over the Pepperdine property, remains a stable component, employing many locals in a variety of jobs.

Pepperdine's old administration building, with its landmark tower, dubbed the "tower of power," is being renovated as part of a proposed retail development next to 36 new townhouses on Vermont at 81st Street.

While residents such as Koonce look to the future, others miss the Vermont and Manchester of old.

"This is a wonderful area, but it's devastating to have to leave it to get access to groceries, clothes, cars, candy," said Marva Graves, president of the Vermont Knolls/Vermont-Manchester and Vicinity Assn. "We had all of those things and we miss them."

Before World War II, a vibrant shopping district flourished on Vermont, surrounded by largely white neighborhoods of single-family homes. A streetcar line, with connections to downtown, brought in shoppers.

"We lived at 121st and Broadway," remembers community activist Brenda Shockley, "and we considered Vermont and Manchester considerably more upscale. We thought it was the Westside. It was really a thriving commercial area . . . the shops, the National Dollar [store]."

"I don't think there was a better area in Los Angeles," said Gerry Reeves, whose family lived near 91st Street and Halldale Avenue. "You could walk the streets at night. The Balboa Theater was a big, beautiful old building. The shopping there was very nice. The drugstore [at the corner] had the best chocolate sodas in the world."

After the war, the neighborhood began to change dramatically.

Blacks began moving in as housing discrimination was fought in the courts, and many whites left as a result.

A slow decline began, spurred by the closing of the General Motors assembly plant in South-Central and other nearby factories. The electric streetcars on Vermont disappeared, prompting officials to replace the tracks on the wide thoroughfare with a grass median.

Familiar landmark businesses, like the Balboa Theater, went under or moved away.

Although the neat cottage homes on 80th Street and Halldale--valued at $180,000 and more--remained as bright and inviting as ever, other sections, particularly those between Vermont and the Harbor Freeway, declined in value and appearance.

Spanish-Speaking Immigrants Arrive

By the 1980s, the second postwar influx of arrivals, this time from Mexico and Central America, brought more changes.

Hundreds of Spanish-speaking immigrants, eager to come to the U.S. to avoid wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, moved into areas east of Vermont, fueling a change in businesses. Taco stands, carnicerias (meat markets) and other businesses catering to Latinos soon opened.

But the 1992 riots brought new problems. Twenty-two structures were destroyed and an estimated $15 million in damage was sustained.

Now, the area is finally showing signs of recovery.

Two resident-based organizations, Community Coalition and Community Build, were started. Community Coalition began as an anti-drug organization but has sponsored programs for youth leadership. It helped to eliminate problem liquor stores and motels, and lobbied on behalf of poor people. Community Build offers job training programs for residents.

A residents group, the Vermont Knolls/Vermont-Manchester and Vicinity Assn., was formed to oppose a plan to build more than 130 townhouses on Vermont. Residents said commercial development was more important.

The fight energized the group, especially after the number of townhouses eventually built was far fewer than had been proposed.

A mini-City Hall on Vermont, which was opened with great fanfare in 1991, was rebuilt after being burned during the riots. And the Nation of Islam has taken over the Balboa, where it plays videotaped speeches weekly of its leader, Louis Farrakhan, as well as offering help to the needy.

A Call for the City to Invest in Corridor

Much of the new optimism is centered on a proposed $50-million shopping center east of Vermont, which would feature 200,000 square feet of commercial space.

But there is a difference of opinion about how best to make it a viable reality.

City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, is pursuing a redevelopment plan to make it happen and has offered a variety of economic incentives, including subsidies and the use of eminent domain, the authority to seize property for a municipal project.

He sees the project as a cooperative effort between the city's redevelopment arm and the developer.

That sounds all wrong to critics such as Shockley, director of Community Build, who contends that the city must aggressively infuse public money to spur revitalization. She said a redevelopment project won't be enough.

"Vermont is a major corridor. You have the makings of a vital renewal, but the public sector needs to take the lead," Shockley said.

"It takes time and resources and political will to make it work. I can point to Hollywood. Improving Hollywood is supposed to be good for Los Angeles. People have to understand and buy into the idea that developing South-Central is good for Los Angeles."

Another political leader who represents the area, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, argues that city officials, including Ridley-Thomas, haven't aggressively pursued the project.

"They need to get in there and make something happen," she said.

Ridley-Thomas has heard similar criticism from Waters before. The two politicians differed on the construction of the townhouses on Vermont. The councilman favored a mixed-use approach, including a commercial component, while Waters favored an exclusively commercial project to rekindle Vermont's status as a shopping district.

Told of the criticism, Ridley-Thomas, who ticked off a list of improvements he has had a hand in bringing to the area, recounted the numerous meetings he has held with developers and supermarket executives, cajoling them to embrace the idea that the area is worthy of major investment.

Considerable effort, he added, has been spent trying to persuade hesitant property owners to go along with the idea.

"In less than 30 days, we'll name a developer for this project," he said.

With that, the councilman wrote the word "RESULTS" in capital letters on a yellow pad and circled it in ink. That's the bottom line, he said.

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