One O.C. Neighborhood Fears Cutbacks Will Hit a Vital Spot

Times Staff Writer

From the outside, the Oak View Community Center in Huntington Beach looks small, its walls old and worn, a tired-out building in a tough part of town.

But it's a beacon of hope to those who live in the low-income, predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood, nicknamed the "Slater Slums," near Slater Avenue and Beach Boulevard.

Now the city plans to slash funding for the center, which could wipe out programs that help children escape gang influence and help parents build better lives.

"We've spent years fighting for the center and recommending they bring in more services to match those at other community centers," said Martha Cervantes, a Parent Teacher Organization president and community leader. "We are poor people. We want the center to serve as our social meeting place, to hold dances and other social activities on Mother's Day and other big holidays."

Since it opened in 1976, the community center has helped provide the social glue, assisting immigrants, offering classes in parenting and other skills, and helping defuse police-community tensions, such as those that boiled over in May 2001 when an officer shot and killed a young man with a toy rifle.

Oak View has typically received $175,000 a year. City officials intend to cut that to $51,000 to help make up a $7.5-million shortfall in the city's budget, said Jim Engle, community services director.

The city also proposes that a private, nonprofit agency -- the Children's Bureau of Southern California -- operate the center. A spokeswoman for the group, a $17-million agency headquartered in Los Angeles, declined to discuss the center's future because of pending contract negotiations with the city.

The funding cut at the community center, Engle said, is part of a financial belt-tightening throughout city government. Already, the Shipley Nature Center has been closed, and two positions, including a supervisor's job, have been cut at the city's senior center.

The shared pain is small consolation to community leaders such as Fran Andrade, 66, who came to work as a liaison between Oak View Elementary School and the community in 1969. The center was first a portable building, then moved to someone's home before the permanent building opened, she said.

When it opened, the center provided services such as after-school activities, field trips, youth leagues and, for adults, mental health and alcohol counseling, job referrals, computer training, literacy programs and English classes.

In addition, the center has been a haven for youngsters who otherwise might be influenced by neighborhood gangs and who have few recreational outlets, Andrade said.

"You have to understand this was a safe place to be for the kids," she said.

"They live in crowded apartments with no place to play."

City Administrator Ray Silver defended the proposed takeover by the Children's Bureau, saying the agency can provide more social services than the city, which is shifting Oak View's funding source from the general fund to a community development block grant.

"We had to find new money or cut services," Silver said.

The city hopes to make up for lost programs with services at the Oak View library branch, such as family literacy, computer instruction and homework help.

Oak View Elementary Principal Karen Catabijan said it would be disastrous if the center closed. Numerous programs for Oak View students have been linked to the local library and the center.

"If anything, programs need expanding," to include such things as tutoring and homework assistance, she said.

Catabijan said she has heard parents' wishes that the center be converted into something more family-oriented, to encourage greater participation among residents -- "something to give them pride in their community."

"That would help curtail some of the other problems, like the gangs, down the road," she said.

Armando Guzman, 18, a senior at nearby Ocean View High School, recalled that as a youth he enjoyed basketball and other community center activities.

"I used to play in the league there when I was little," he said.

"A lot of us from around here did."

During the summers, the center sponsored trips to a nearby swimming pool and amusement parks.

For Guzman and friend Eddie Alvino, 17, the center has meant having a place they could call their own away from the cold stares of gang members.

Residents know how quickly violence can erupt in the neighborhood. In May, two teenage boys were shot and killed. And in July, a 19-year-old man was found dead from an apparent gang shooting.

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