As fans tapped on the tinted windows of Barry White's limousine Tuesday, the soul singer inside pointed toward a row of homes in Los Angeles' South Park neighborhood near Avalon Boulevard and 51st Street.
"I have beautiful memories here. I used to live two blocks away. I just don't want it destroyed," said White, known for his resonant baritone on such "make-out" hits as "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," and "You're the First, the Last, My Everything."
More than 70 homes there could be bulldozed to make way for a new Los Angeles Unified School District high school currently under study. A small slice of the park where White played dominoes as a teenager, got into brawls after school and played music on Halloween might also become part of the new campus.
White joined nearly 300 community activists, ministers and residents Tuesday afternoon in a demonstration at the park led by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) to protest the district's proposal. After the rally, about 60 protesters boarded buses and headed to the district's downtown headquarters where a school board meeting was being held.
White did not go downtown, but Waters did, and she got into an angry exchange there with school board member Genethia Hudley Hayes.
Waters said the school plan would destroy homes that "should have been designated historic landmarks a long time ago." Waters told board members that the neighborhood supports new schools, but not by demolishing housing, which is in much demand. She suggested building on empty lots or spaces where abandoned buildings now stand.
Hudley Hayes chided Waters for coming to speak on the project so late in the planning process. The exchange was a rare public display of animosity between two of the city's most powerful African American elected officials.
"We've been interested in briefing you about South Park, but we've gotten no response from your office," Hudley Hayes said. "We're glad you're interested now."
According to Kathi Littmann, L.A. Unified's director of new facilities, the district tried to avoid taking homes, but there are few alternatives in densely populated South-Central Los Angeles. Industrial properties are much more difficult to clean up than residential sites, she said.
She added that the high school plan, which has not yet been approved by the school board or reached the point of property acquisition, would preserve most of the park's open space. A new school and a refurbished park could help rejuvenate a neighborhood that used to be home to other famous musicians besides White, including Dizzy Gillespie and Nat King Cole, Littmann said.
White, who will be 58 on Thursday, lived in South Park with his mother and brother from age 10 to 17. He developed his love for music there and sang in a local church choir. At age 11, he played piano for R&B; artist Jessie Belvin.
At 16, he sang and played piano for a Los Angeles band called the Upfronts.
White harbors bittersweet memories, too. In 1983, his brother was shot dead in the neighborhood, a victim of gang violence.
"When I look over here, I can [remember] people who used to be living," he said, "including my brother."
White alleged that the city and school district want to destroy the neighborhood after neglecting it for so long.
"The people are getting older and dying and leaving. But to me, some things are sacred, and this is one of them," White said.
Earlier, White addressed a crowd at the park, where he was swarmed by fans wanting photos and autographs. A loudspeaker played some of his hits.
Before his driver steered the limousine off the park's grass, he said: "It's the same song, baby. Every time."