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Asphalt Jungle or Green Meadow?

Times Staff Writer

The sign overlooking Central Avenue and 99th Street in Watts declares the neighborhood “Century Cove,” although the nearest cove is 15 miles away in San Pedro.

Over on Manchester Avenue and Main Street in South Los Angeles, a sign welcomes visitors to “Green Meadows,” although the only green in sight is the paint on a transmission repair shop.

And at 78th Street and Normandie Avenue, three blocks from where the 1992 riots started, the area is proclaimed “Canterbury Knolls,” a puzzle to some.

The idea behind Los Angeles’ neighborhood names has been to try to give small areas a dose of charm and community identity, no matter how incongruous the monikers. But the naming has gotten a little out of control, some say, because getting city permission is too easy.

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Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents part of Watts, said the names help residents feel as if they’re living in a town, not an expanse of asphalt in a sprawling city.

“I think most neighborhoods want to have this small-town feel about them, and I think the naming of the community makes them feel better,” she said. “It gives them a sense of identity, and that’s a good thing.”

But some of the names are scarcely known even to residents.

“What Knolls?” asked Vince Avery, a freelance photographer who lives within sight of the sign. “When you go to a real neighborhood, like Hollywood, you know you’re in Hollywood. But nobody knows Canterbury Hills -- I mean, Canterbury Knolls. Nobody in Canterbury Knolls knows they’re in Canterbury Knolls.”

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If the names are meaningless, some say, it’s because too little oversight is involved in bestowing them. The process for getting a neighborhood name is simple: A group of residents, sometimes members of a neighborhood council, ask their council member to christen an area with a new title. The council member has only to ask the city Department of Transportation to put up a sign.

That, says Greg Nelson, general manager of Los Angeles’ Neighborhood Development Department, is too unstructured.

“This issue is alive and ticking,” Nelson said. “We need a real policy for naming neighborhoods.”

Hahn does not disagree, and work is underway to change the procedure. This month or next, she said, the subject will come before the city’s Education and Neighborhoods Committee, which she heads.

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“We are going to have a formal motion in committee to create a citywide process.... Eventually, the name change would need to be approved by the City Council.”

But Hahn said she strongly favors neighborhood names.

“The reason for all the names is to give neighborhoods an identity and distance themselves from the crime-ridden image and stigma of South-Central Los Angeles.”

In fact, in April, the City Council voted unanimously to change the term South-Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles.

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Many of the names were suggested in 2001 by the 8th District Empowerment Congress, an advisory committee of residents, business leaders and neighborhood activists headed by then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“A lot of the names are the historic name of the tract, such as Green Meadows,” said Ridley-Thomas, now a state assemblyman. “The empowerment congress set about the task of naming neighborhoods for the purpose of reclaiming their historical identity.”

South L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry said that sometimes the names can make “the history of the district more alive.”

For example, the neighborhood west of the Harbor Freeway and south of Imperial Highway recently was officially dubbed “Athens on the Hill,” although “the residents of that neighborhood have been calling it that a long time,” Hahn said. “There’s a legend there used to be a Greek community there, but we could never find a historian to verify it one way or another. So the residents wanted to formalize an urban legend.”

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Some officials said that distancing a neighborhood from the greater label of South Los Angeles also could have an economic benefit.

“Historically an area that is named will have a greater value in real estate than one that isn’t,” said Greg Fisher, a Perry deputy.

Some remain skeptical.

“OK, say I tell someone I live in Canterbury Knolls,” said Ray Lockett, a car detailer who lives in the area. “They gonna say, ‘Where’s Canterbury Knolls?’ And I’m gonna say, ‘78th and Normandie.’ ”

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