Putting On the Ritz at South L.A. Community Center

Times Staff Writer

As former employees of some of Southern California's most exclusive hotels, Jim Tetreau and Don Anderson know something about the well-appointed refuges of the rich.

They started a small nonprofit group, Strive, as a somewhat naive experiment: What would happen if a South Los Angeles neighborhood got a taste of the four-star treatment?

After 14 years of struggle, the two men are close to an answer. They are transforming a group of industrial buildings at 92nd and Main streets into a community center that Tetreau calls "a little sanctuary" from the oppressive realities of drugs and crime beyond its walls.

The hoteliers' touch at the Strive center is obvious: Ivy and bright bougainvillea creep tastefully over freshly painted courtyard walls. The flat-panel computer monitors in the carpeted after-school classroom are state of the art. The bathroom fixtures gleam.

"It seems like a lot of the facilities around here just do what they have to do just to get by," Anderson said. "They don't really create a first-rate environment."

The programs at Strive are modest for now: Fewer than a dozen students attend its after-school tutoring program, and its weekend hip-hop dance classes attract about 20 students. A small preschool program also rents space during the week.

When the renovation of the 11,000-square-foot campus is complete, Tetreau and Anderson expect more than 200 students a day to drop by to learn reading, math and computer skills. They also want them to be exposed to the kind of clean, well-lighted places that wealthy private school students take for granted.

"Even the parents have commented on the interiors," Anderson said. "When they come in here waiting for their kids, they say it feels like an oasis. They will sit on a bench and just write and read."

Neither man had any experience running a nonprofit before getting involved with Strive. And they didn't have much in common. Anderson, 46, was born and raised in South Los Angeles and wanted to contribute something to his old neighborhood. Tetreau, 39, from Nebraska, wanted to make a more substantial contribution to society in general.

They decided they could help most by focusing on the children growing up on the poverty-stricken streets just west of Watts. At two of the closest elementary schools, about 96% of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch programs, according to the state Department of Education. Drugs, gangs and prostitution are prevalent.

By 1995, Tetreau and Anderson had persuaded a local businessman to donate property for the project. Tetreau moved into the dusty old buildings for a while to work on opening Strive, but after about 18 months, break-ins by gang members forced him to move out.

The pair kept raising money and investing it in the property, using drywall, carpet, paint and their sense of style to give the place a radical makeover. A second property owner donated an adjoining property in 1997. Strive opened its doors to day care in 2001 and began after-school tutoring a year later.

The locals have been impressed. "They're real nice people and they're trying to help," said neighbor Robert Mar, 60. "They've really been struggling for a while, but it's finally coming along."

"There aren't many programs for kids around here," said Albertina Molina, 46, a single mother and factory worker who has sent her 8- and 10-year-old daughters to Strive for tutoring the last year. "I want my girls to be prepared for a good job when they grow up."

As Tetreau and Anderson learned more about the neighborhood, they also found themselves changing their politics. When they began Strive, they said, they were moderate liberals who believed in the power of government to solve social ills. Today, they are conservatives who believe that a focus on strong families, respect for the law and personal responsibility are keys to improving neighborhoods such as these.

Part of that philosophy includes rejecting government funding, a position that Tetreau says slowed the project. Both men believe that accepting government money would erode their independence and foster a sense of mediocrity.

"And you just can't count on it," Anderson said. "It can be gone in a moment's notice."

At the after-school tutoring sessions, the focus is on reading and math, and seldom on that conservative philosophy. Tetreau can foresee an expanded role for Strive that would include readings by authors and community discussions that represent the full political spectrum.

To make that happen, Strive is trying to raise $250,000 to convert a 4,000-square-foot warehouse into its main learning and meeting room. Gary L. Wilson, chairman of Northwest Airlines, has pledged a $125,000 matching grant. Tetreau and Anderson are soliciting other private donors for the rest.

On a recent morning, Tetreau took a visitor through the warehouse. A tattered volleyball net stretched across its grim, concrete expanse, but Tetreau painted the future with his hands, showing the carpet and desks and computers that were to come.

"It's going to be like the Ritz-Carlton down here," he said.

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