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Juanita Tate, 66; South L.A. Community Activist

Times Staff Writer

Juanita Tate, an activist who sought to improve the quality of life in South Los Angeles neighborhoods by building affordable housing, helping to establish a credit union, fighting environmentally unsound projects and inspiring others to invest in the community, has died. She was 66.

Tate suffered a stroke Saturday and was taken to California Hospital Medical Center downtown, where she died Monday, said her son, the Rev. Eugene Williams.

Tate was a Philadelphia communications worker and labor organizer until the early 1980s, when she moved to Los Angeles to care for her father. Shortly after settling here, she heard of the city’s plans to build a huge trash incineration plant in a poor, working-class area of South L.A.

Fearful of the pollutants it might generate, she mobilized a group of citizens against it and was victorious despite a formidable opponent, veteran City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, the project’s main supporter.

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Her success in thwarting the Lancer incineration plant led her to launch Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles. She was executive director of the nonprofit community revitalization group, founded on principles of social, economic and environmental justice. Since 1985, the group has built more than 300 units of affordable housing.

“She got things done by her charisma, her knowledge and her tenacity, but also by her core belief that people ought to be able to own their own homes and have a decent quality of life,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose 9th District includes parts of downtown and South Los Angeles. “She saw [home] equity as the pathway to true power.”

Tate was creative in her approach to low-income housing. Last year, she helped broker an unusual partnership among Concerned Citizens, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and the California Community Foundation to build 23 townhomes on Central Avenue between 46th and 53rd streets. A land trust agreement will allow low- to moderate-income families to lease, rather than buy, the land beneath their homes and still qualify for conventional mortgages.

She also guided the development of a $13-million retail plaza at Slauson and Central avenues that will feature a Food 4 Less grocery store, the only supermarket for miles around.

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“It’s not just a shopping center to us,” Tate told The Times last year. “We’re going to bring goods and services to this community that have not been here before. We won’t be the poor old South-Central everybody wants to talk about.”

Tate grew up in a public housing project in Philadelphia and completed high school and some college there. Her roots, however, were in South Los Angeles, where four generations of her family have lived. In 1984 she took a job as an administrator with Pacific Bell’s massive Los Angeles Summer Olympics operation and worked for the phone company until her retirement in 1990.

By then her reputation as a fierce community advocate was firmly established.

Sherri Franklin cannot erase the memory of her first meeting with Tate in the mid-1980s, after the victory over the planned Lancer plant. She had just quit her job in the private sector and had been encouraged by a friend to see Tate. “I walked into the room and she had a member of the CRA pinned against the wall. She looked at me and said, ‘You tell this blankety-blank guy I need some money for my community. We need to rebuild our communities.’ I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ That’s how we got started.”

Franklin helped Tate form Concerned Citizens and launch its first housing project, the 40-unit Roberta Stephens Villas. The first multifamily housing development built in the community in 40 years, it was completed in 1992 and fully leased almost immediately.

Concerned Citizens now owns and operates six housing developments, each of which serves what Franklin called Tate’s holistic vision. The Stephens Villas, for instance, also provide child care and adult education. Another development, One Wilkins Place, has a job training center, and Central Avenue Village Square has a wellness center staffed by volunteers from UCLA. The Gwen Bolden Manor, on 41st Street across from Jefferson High School, includes housing for emancipated minors. Each project has a technology center and will have wireless capability, the result of Tate’s late-life conversion to the digital revolution.

She also spurred Concerned Citizens to build soccer fields and start the Antes Columbus Football Club to promote closer relations among Latino and African American youths. In a community long bereft of financial institutions, she spearheaded the creation of the South-Central People’s Federal Credit Union in partnership with the Black Employees Assn., which represents county and city workers.

Tate’s collapse Saturday came as she was showing off Concerned Citizens’ latest project: the renovation of Mount Zion Towers, a residence for seniors founded by the late Rev. E.V. Hill of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Under another operator, the residence had become dilapidated and a haven for prostitutes and drug abusers. Before his death last year, Hill asked Tate, a longtime friend, to buy it and rehabilitate it.

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She completed the purchase a few months ago and immediately got to work. She cleaned it, made the prostitutes move out, hired security guards and set new rules restricting noise and visitors. “Then, she threw a big picnic for the seniors,” Eugene Williams said Wednesday.

Word of the transformation reached Perry, who wanted to see the revamped facility herself. Tate was about to give the councilwoman a tour when she was felled by the stroke.

Tate’s work will continue in part through her three children, each of whom she studiously prepared for lives of community service:

Eugene Williams was a union organizer before he became a pastor and head of Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, which teaches clergy, laypeople and others how to revitalize their communities.

Mark Williams went to law school and engaged in policy research before branching out into building community soccer fields.

Daughter Noreen McClendon was trained in construction management and has represented Concerned Citizens projects at City Hall.

“My mother knew that her time was getting short,” Eugene Williams said. “She was very passionate about making sure we understood every aspect of how organizations run. We are prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was not being able to have her here.”

In addition to her children, Tate is survived by nine grandchildren.

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A memorial service is being planned. The family requests that any memorial donations be sent to Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, 4707 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90011.


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