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Working to Save a Haven in Violent Turf Despite Killing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a decade, St. Andrews Park Recreation Center in South Los Angeles stood as a haven from gang violence. In the never-ending battle to rid parks of gang crime, an uncommon truce was struck by park staffers who did not fight gang members--they welcomed them.

And peace prevailed.

A disheartening coda to that work occurred, however, when two suspected gang members entered the center’s lobby Nov. 28 to gun down 13-year-old Marquese Rashad Prude, a tutor in the center’s after-school program. He wasn’t a gang member.

Before the shooting, Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks staffers at St. Andrews shunned a heavy police presence at the park, choosing instead to deal with gang members themselves.

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The staffers tore down signs prohibiting loitering and, they say, earned the respect of gang members by treating them like anyone else. Rather than hassle gang members with questions, they asked them to form basketball teams and urged them to bring their children to play.

Now, police frequently patrol the park, some city officials want volunteers to help escort residents across the grounds, and some residents have urged authorities to “get the snakes out.”

Many of the noisiest residents are skeptical of the staffers’ longtime tactics of trying to pacify gangs.

“Some of the community members make the observation that it’s hard to distinguish the people with gang ties from the people who run the park,” said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area.

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“A huge investment has been made into this park over the years,” he added. “I don’t think it should be a comfortable place for people who don’t respect other people’s rights.”

Adding to murky waters that officials such as Ridley-Thomas are entering is the fact that Prude’s killers have not been caught. Los Angeles Police Capt. Jim Miller called the investigation “fairly focused” but said witnesses have been uncooperative.

In the meantime, no one knows the exact reason for the slaying. What is known is that in the area, St. Andrews still is relatively safe, Miller said.

The LAPD’s 77th Street Division, whose territory includes the park, led all other divisions with 82 homicides in 2001; about 50 of them were gang-related, police said.

But until Prude’s killing, the park had escaped that violence. Among the vacant lots and grocery stores on Manchester Avenue--about a dozen blocks east of Hollywood Park--St. Andrews is shielded from the busy street by shrubs. Covering one city block and positioned on a small hill in a neighborhood of modest one-story homes, the park stands like a queen.

Even on the surface, staffers say, you can tell it is safe.

“Graffiti tells stories,” said Assistant Director Rayford Miles. “Just by the fact that there is no graffiti, that tells you it’s a respectable park. . . . Graffiti doesn’t come here.”

Said area resident William Givens: “If it does, it’s in Crayola.”

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Miles believes that park workers have successfully navigated among the 22 active gangs in the 77th Division, even keeping the peace with the 83rd Street Gangsters, who claim the area that includes St. Andrews. Members of a rival gang are believed to be responsible for Prude’s death, Miller said.

The park started as a clubhouse and playground in 1949, but was languishing by the 1970s as gangs began using it as a meeting place. Gang members scared away families and athletic teams.

“You might have thought it was closed,” Miles said.

In fact, the park did close after money was found for a new building and new equipment. It reopened in 1992. The turning point occurred at the first meeting of the new staff, which was composed entirely of people from the nearby neighborhood.

Previously, St. Andrews staffers came from all over the city. Miles was part of the new group and is one of three originals who remain.

“It helped get people talking in the community. We were home-grown. It was ours,” he said.

Coming from the area, they also knew the nearby gang members and decided early on to include them in the renaissance.

“Gang members need to play too,” Miles said.

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Since then, basketball, baseball, tennis and academic groups have come to use the facility. Annual revenue from those groups increased from $28,000 to $160,000 in just the last three years.

“We defied the odds,” Miles said.

Leaders of four surrounding parks have used St. Andrews as a model for how to live peacefully in a violent area. Gang experts said St. Andrews staffers were right to handle gangs themselves.

Ron Noblet, a consultant to gang-intervention programs, said, “You can’t separate the gang from the neighborhood.”

The shooting of Prude doesn’t necessarily call for changing direction now, he said. “Because you have an anomaly, that doesn’t mean that you should rethink your strategy.”

But about a week after Prude’s death, the mayor, police chief, district attorney and City Council members all came to march against violence in the area surrounding St. Andrews. They brought new ideas, such as arming park rangers and stepping up surveillance.

While residents met with the officials, one woman yelled out her plan for dealing with the gangs: “People at these parks have been lying with snakes. Get the snakes out.”

In an interview after the meeting, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks was adamant about the stepped-up patrols.

Many residents--including Prude’s mother, Sharon--left the meeting skeptical about the officials’ response.

At an impromptu news conference, she advocated continued cooperation with gang members, maybe even holding a gang summit. Asked if she knew she might be cooperating with a group that includes her son’s killers, Prude said, “Yes.”


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