A trifecta of African American culture in South LA

Photos by Lisa Rau
Mural photo by Adrian Scott Fine

imageWhen Golden State Mutual Life Insurance went bankrupt in 2009, the historic building that had housed the West Adams firm since 1949 was seized by state regulators and slated for liquidation of all assets.

This week, the Los Angeles City Council named the building, on the corner of Adam Boulevard and Western Avenue, an official historic monument, ensuring the preservation of a trio of cultural legacies: the first and largest African American-owned insurance company in California; building design by the first African American certified architect in California, Paul Revere Williams; and scores of murals illustrating African American history in California.

“There are few places around—not only in California but across the country—where you can point to all those things happening in one place,” said Adrian Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “It has extreme significance of that level of telling the story of African-American heritage.”

The building has since been sold to Community Impact Development, Inc., which has encountered legal challenges regarding ownership of the building’s murals. State regulators wish to sell the building’s assets—including the murals—to repay company shareholders. Art that once sat in display cases inside the building has already been sold.image

Community Impact Development plans to lease the property to Friends of South Central Los Angeles Regional Center, which is underway with plans to restore the aging building and erect a new one in the adjacent parking lot to house the center’s existing 250 employees. They plan to fill the renovated structure with community organizations and small businesses to encourage commerce in the West Adams district.

“We’re going to stimulate development in an area that has rarely seen development in quite a few years,” said Dexter Henderson, executive director of Friends of South Central Los Angeles Regional Center. “We would like to maintain the historic legacy of that building and really help transform that corridor and that area with commerce and development.”

Funding for the project will come from the New Markets Tax Credit Program, which provides federal funds to economic development ventures. The group plans to have both the renovation and construction project underway by late 2011 or early 2012.

Metro public meeting hears an outpouring of complaints

imageThe good news for South Bay residents is that the Metro light rail is expanding. The bad news is that the new line, which will connect Exposition Boulevard to LAX Airport, comes with some extra baggage.

More than 80 residents and business representatives congregated at the Flight Path Museum Tuesday for a meeting held by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that invited public comment about four proposed locations for a new maintenance yard. The year will support a new light rail that will connect the existing Expo and Green Metro lines.

Of the 25 speakers, 19 were residents of Fusion Center, a housing development in Hawthorne. Many expressed concern that the proposed location near their community—an expansion of the existing Division 22 Metro maintenance yard—was added late in the selection process without proper notification to the surrounding community.

“We had started an environmental analysis of some sites, and for various reasons, those sites proved to be problematic,” said Roderick Diaz, Metro project manager.

Diaz pointed out the comparative ease of expanding operations at an existing yard as opposed to building one from scratch. “With environmental analysis, we are always focused on evaluating different alternatives.”

In response to complaints that the plans for the proposed Metro site near Fusion Center were not sufficiently communicated to residents, Diaz said that Metro purchased commercial mailing lists to reach all residents and businesses within a half mile of each site and that perhaps these lists were not updated or accurate when they were sold.

Aside from notification problems, Fusion residents were not quiet about the wide range of reasons they oppose the yard near their community. One by one, speakers approached the microphone to voice health concerns, risks to property values and noise pollution from a facility that would sit 50 feet from Fusion homes.

The proposed yard will cover a minimum of 15 acres to accommodate a train storage facility, several new buildings and a paint and body shop to service a minimum of 60 train cars.

Air contamination was one of the factors included in Metro’s environmental impact report. Contaminants such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide are predicted to be higher if a maintenance facility is built, but the report does not claim to draw direct health implications from the results. For example, the study reported that carbon monoxide emissions would not exceed the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards, resulting in a “less-than-significant” projected impact at any of the four sites.

“A lot of the impact that we’re concerned about is really hard to quantify,” said Joel Reeves, a Fusion homeowner and realtor with Shorewood Realtors. “My concern as a real estate professional is that when industrial goes in next to a residential area … the feel is not welcoming, not family-oriented. At Fusion, we’re trying to create that family atmosphere.”

The six non-Fusion speakers included residents and professionals from Redondo Beach, Westchester and Inglewood. Some urged Metro to more strongly consider the location along Arbor Vitae Street between Airport and Aviation boulevards instead of their communities because it would be the least intrusive to residential areas.

Other groups expressed concerns with land use and property sales. Rob Antrobius, vice president of AMB Property Corporation in Redondo Beach, stated that his company would not be willing to sell their land to Metro for the maintenance facility if the location at Marine and Redondo Beach boulevards is selected.

“Typically, what happens is that if we decide that we want to purchase a site, more than 90-something percent of the cases, we do an appraisal, an offer is made and there’s a sale based on that offer,” Diaz said. “In the other percent of the cases, we might explore the possibility of eminent domain.”

“We try to avoid that as much as possible,” he said.

Diaz and Metro representatives told residents that over the next few weeks, they will take the public comments about the proposed facility locations into consideration when presenting final evaluation results to the Metro Board of Directors this spring for their decision.

The next meeting for public comment will be held March 31 at Inglewood City Hall from 6 to 8 p.m., and the deadline for public input is April 11 at 5 p.m.

Read more coverage of the maintenance yard debate:
Hawthorne residents caught off guard by Metro project

Photo credit: Lisa Rau

Hawthorne residents caught off guard by Metro project

imageA proposed new Metro rail yard has raised concern among Hawthorne residents, who say they were not sufficiently notified about the site. They fear the site may bring health risks to the surrounding residential communities.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority will discuss the matter Tuesday at a public meeting.

The long-planned light rail will connect the existing Green and Expo Metro lines, but the project comes with some baggage. The new rail will need a maintenance facility to service the trains that are expected to serve up to 21,300 riders per day. Since approval of the $1.4 billion project in 2008, Metro has surveyed dozens of possible locations along the 8.5-mile route from Exposition Boulevard to Los Angeles International Airport for the facility’s home, and they have narrowed it down to four possible sites.

There’s just one catch: one of the candidates was a last-minute add.

The proposed Hawthorne location sits near Marine Avenue on a stretch of Aviation Boulevard with an eclectic mix of industrial steel and glass from Northrop Grumman buildings interspersed with grassy athletic fields, the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center and residential areas such as Fusion Center, a gated community of about 500 residents that already borders a Metro maintenance yard.

If selected for the new yard, the existing facility, known as Division 22, would expand from 3.5 to 15 acres to accommodate an additional 60 train cars for painting, cleaning and other services.

“The proposed maintenance facility expansion proposes no use of residential property, only industrial land,” said Roderick Diaz, project manager for the light rail and maintenance facility location survey.
“The types of uses at the maintenance facility would not be significantly different than the uses at the existing Division 22 maintenance facility in Hawthorne.”

The Aviation Boulevard site, however, was not identified in the initial public meetings held by Metro, which discussed the three other proposed locations in Inglewood, Los Angeles and Redondo Beach.

The Division 22 expansion was formally added to the list in November, and the Fusion Homeowners Association maintains that it did not receive a formal notice from Metro about the selection.

Metro released an environmental impact report to several community organizations to inform them about potential noise pollution, traffic and environmental hazards, but Fusion Center was not included in the distribution list.

“Expanding this maintenance yard that’s right next door to our community—literally right on the other side of the wall—is going to lower our property values and reduce the standard of living. It would probably reduce everyone’s home value by five percent,” estimated Steven Johnson, the president of the Fusion Homeowners Association, who cited traffic and noise pollution as major disturbances to the community. “The notice about the MTA’s open house meeting for public comment only came to us less than two weeks ago.”

Fusion board members also expressed concern about the possibility of an increase in electromagnetic radiation, an impact that is not regulated by the State of California, and thus, not included in Metro’s environmental impact report.

In 2007, Southern California Edison conducted a test for electromagnetic radiation at Fusion Center after residents expressed concern that the existing maintenance yard might be producing unhealthy levels of the contaminant. Using standards set by the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements, readings were normal across the community, except on the northern side that faces the yard. The council recommends a safe reading of 0.9 milligauss; the northern side produced readings of 3.8 milligauss.

“It’s conflicting for me because I really support light rail,” said Bonnie Shrewsbury, a Fusion homeowner who was one of the residents who received a notice from Metro in December and attended a public meeting regarding the project. “But I don’t want them expanding the yard next to us. I hope nobody takes this as we don’t support the Metro. We’d just like them to have their yard somewhere else.”

The Hawthorne location is the only one of the four under consideration that would abut a residential community. The proposed facility will cover a minimum of 15 acres, provide 272 new jobs and create several new buildings, including a paint and body shop.

“It’s important that the city leaders listen to the residents and look out for increasing their quality of life,” said Hawthorne City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Alex Vargas. He visited Fusion Center in January at the request of residents who wanted Hawthorne council members to see for themselves how close the facility would sit in relation to the community.

“There are alternate locations where Metro can locate these yards without surrounding residences,” he said.

In mid-February, the Hawthorne City Council passed a resolution to formally oppose the maintenance facility, which will be discussed at Tuesday’s Metro’s meeting.

“The resolution will be considered with other comments received during the public comment period,” Diaz said. Metro expects to complete the locations survey by the end of April. In May, the Metro Board of Directors will select a location for the facility.

Tuesday’s meeting will be held at 6661 Imperial Hwy from 6-8 p.m. Public comments during the meeting will be limited to two minutes per person, and a follow-up public meeting will be held on March 31. The deadline for comments to be considered by Metro is April 11 by 5 p.m.

Photo credit: Lisa Rau

Inglewood Unified principal takes hands-on approach to education

imagePrincipal Richard Barter makes it his business to know the names of all 750 students at Oak Street Elementary School in Inglewood.

When Barter steps onto the playground, he’s welcomed by rousing choruses of “Hi, Mr. Barter!”

Smiling warmly under his bushy moustache, he replies, “Hi, Chris. Hi, Anthony. Hi, Fatima.”

He often joins the students outside for recess, during which he emerges wielding a boom box, hula hoops and jump ropes. On a recent morning, children ran toward Barter as he threw a yellow hoop over his head and began swirling to the music.

“I realized when I first became principal that I could not say, ‘Hey, you in the blue shirt.’ The children wouldn’t turn around,” said Barter, who recently began grading tests in his free time to get to know the students even better.

“It gives me a personal connection with the child. Because then I can say, ‘Hey, you passed the division test. I’m really proud of you.'”

Barter’s involvement would be appreciated at any school. But in the Inglewood Unified School District, which has experienced declining enrollment in part due to the increased presence of local charter schools, Barter’s good reputation has helped retain current students and recruit new ones.

“Mr. Barter is a one-of-a-kind principal,” said Xol Isaiah Gonzales, a fourth-grade student who transferred to Oak Street Elementary this year. “I never met any principal who has fun like that.”

Gonzales and his schoolmates were quick to add that Barter frequently makes them laugh, usually by dancing on stage during school events or dressing up for Halloween. They giggled when describing how Barter played basketball with students while dressed up as a cereal box one year.

“He’s just so involved with these kids, ever since I’ve known him,” said Rodtego Roth, a campus plant manager whose children were taught by Barter at Clyde Worthington Elementary. “And that’s the thing: keeping them busy in activities.”

In his 10 years at Oak Street Elementary, Barter has initiated dozens of student activities at the school, which runs from Kindergarten through sixth grade. Some of the activities include soccer, basketball, students vs. faculty athletic competitions, multiple levels of choir, glee club and a special group—the only in Inglewood Unified School District—that practices baile folklórico, a traditional form of Mexican dance.

“We’re always involved with the City of Inglewood through the different programs,” said Norma Rosales, a school clerk whose third-grade son dances in the baile folklórico group. “They’re always calling us to perform.”

School performance groups also regularly appear at city-sponsored events, nursing homes, local churches and parades, including the 2010 Westchester Christmas Parade.

“The more that you have for the children, the less discipline problems that you have,” said Barter, who doles out more certificates of achievement than detention slips.

imageBarter’s office hardly seems the place where students come when they get in trouble. Crayola-brand crayon memorabilia and art fill the shelves and cover the walls. A picture frame decorated with crayons displays the message: “It’s okay to color outside the lines.”

Barter puts creative philosophies to use, such as when he accepted a request to host a polling place for Election Day 2010 in the cafeteria. He simultaneously scheduled student body campaign speeches and elections to occur on stage while Inglewood residents voted on the floor. The student elections were a first for Oak Street Elementary, to his knowledge.

“It was kind of bizarre because they were having the mayor’s election. It was like as if they were there to vote for me,” said Paola Camacho, the sixth-grade student who was elected president. “I think he places an emphasis on having role models for the lower grades because they might not have any older brothers or sisters.”

Barter has implemented several mentoring programs, including pairing older students with younger ones for tutoring sessions during recess and lunch periods. He is currently developing a program that will invite reading tutors from Loyola Marymount University, where he received a master’s degree in educational administration.

“He’s just such a dedicated servant,” said the Rev. Kristian Johnson, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Inglewood. “He’s very relational with everyone and very proactive in making the school the best it can be.”

In 2010, Oak Street Elementary scored an Academic Performance Index score of 826, placing it third in California for an elementary school of that size. Students from economically disadvantaged families make up more than half of the school’s student population, according to the California Department of Education.

Last Thanksgiving, Johnson’s parish received a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to purchase turkeys, and Barter helped place them with school families that had difficulty affording a complete Thanksgiving meal. He has also been known to help parents pay for the school’s regulatory uniforms and laundering services.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes altruism, Barter regularly honors student achievements publicly, whether for academic, athletic or community service-based merits. He has forged partnerships with Inglewood businesses such as LAX Tacos and Shakey’s, which donate certificates and prizes to students.

“The children, I think, for the most part are happy. And when you have happy children, I think they go home with that happy feeling,” said Barter, who added that whenever he needs a pick-me-up, he just visits one of the kindergarten classrooms.

“They really do make me smile from ear to ear.”

Photo Credit: Lisa Rau

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Q&A: Hawthorne officer unites police department and community in fighting crime

imageIt takes a village to stop crime, in the eyes of Lt. Steven Romero of the Hawthorne Police Department.

In 2007, Romero developed CHAT (Citizens of Hawthorne Action Team), a community-based network that combines neighborhood watch programs, citizen safety patrols, emergency preparedness education and philanthropic efforts to reduce crime and build community in Hawthorne. Romero, a Hawthorne native, divides his time between supervising the entire Hawthorne Police Department patrol division, coaching the wrestling team at La Serna High School in Whittier, and completing a master’s degree in public administration at California State University, Fullerton.

Intersections South LA’s Lisa Rau sat down with Romero to talk about his role in the Hawthorne Police Department and the police department’s role in its community.

Lisa Rau: What makes Hawthorne different from other cities, in terms of its relationship with the police department?

Steven Romero: We’ve been able to establish a continual collaboration among both private and public sectors. Over here, we have the private sector being part of the entire wheel. They have say-so. They have input. They collectively work with local government and public safety agencies to make sure that these missions are achieved. Usually in other cities, that’s still bifurcated. You don’t have the two working together as a group.

LR: Have you seen any changes in crime since CHAT began?

SR: Absolutely. In fact, this last holiday season, we saw a drastic reduction in burglaries to autos, purse snatches and theft-related crimes at the shopping centers when the CHAT program was out there doing community patrols because it’s a high-visibility program. It’s a deterrent. We absolutely experienced less of a police response because these groups were out there doing proactive patrolling.

LR: Police departments all have their own styles. How would you describe the Hawthorne Police Department’s law enforcement style?

SR: We went from a law enforcement philosophy to more of a community-oriented philosophy. It’s just understanding and adopting the private sector into law enforcement, sharing the responsibility and working together with community members to solve the problems. Before, we would just throw a bunch of cops at the problem. But now, we actually turn to technology, the private sector and participants who come in and give us recommendations and even help us with developing programs.

LR: You mentioned technology. Do you mean social media? What kind of technology has the department implemented?

SR: We have a Twitter network that we use to get information out to the community. We use Facebook here. The CHAT website is a way to reach out to the community. We try to be innovative in the sense of being ahead of the curve and trying to stay in front of technology.

LR: What kind of things are posted the Twitter account?

SR: We publish real-time situations. If we’re responding to a crime and we don’t want the community to come into that particular environment or area, we’ll throw it on Twitter, and that’ll publish out to anybody who follows us on there. Like, hey, this area is closed for this reason.

On Facebook, they can submit inquiries to us about our policies and procedures, incidents that are taking place, or incidents that have taken place.

LR: I understand you recently went back to school as a graduate student. Can you tell me about that?

SR: My emphasis is in finance with a secondary emphasis in statistics. Basically, the purpose of attending that program with those particular emphases is because in law enforcement, we’re typically taught how to be law enforcers. However, we’re not really taught to manage public assets or how to actually procure assets and be a manager of everything you’re entrusted with.

LR: A lot of police departments are encountering financial strain due to budget cuts. How has this affected your department?

SR: All of our employees are taking furloughs. Mandatory furloughs. We did do some cutbacks in all budget areas, everything from equipment and operating costs to salaries and benefits. The employees have been very flexible, and we’ve all kind of worked together to try to get through these times. And I think we’re doing pretty well compared to some of our local agencies. Just the furloughs, I think, are the biggest strain for the employees.

Day-to-day operations, we’re still providing the same service that we did even before budget cuts, and even before these last two years of financial strains. We’re maintaining. Actually, in the process of restructuring our entire police department, we’re creating new offices, new assignments. So we’re actually ahead of the game, I think.

LR: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the Hawthorne Police Department?

SR: I’ve been very happy with my agency, and I would challenge any other agency to adopt some of our ways. And I think the citizens here are getting probably the best service that they’ll get from any agency across the country. We truly set the bar very high here, and I truly think we deliver a service that other agencies do not.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo Credit: Lisa Rau

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Inglewood pays tribute to legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

imageBelieve. Achieve. Succeed.

This uplifting triad echoed through Inglewood, Calif., Saturday morning as hundreds of community members filled the Tabernacle of Faithful Central Bible Church to honor the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr.

The words composed the 28th Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration theme, which also prompted the city’s annual student speech and art competitions.

“This was about the children and their understanding of assimilation and of Dr. King’s legacy,” said Inglewood Mayor Daniel K. Tabor, who moved to the city in 1966 as a sixth-grade student at Clyde Woodworth Elementary School. “The confidence they have is beyond awe-inspiring. They’re getting it from their instructors at school and from their parents who tell them that they can achieve what they set out to do.”

Monroe Middle School student John Cruz, one of the four speech competition winners who spoke in front of the church audience, displayed his self-assurance both on and off the stage.

“It felt good telling everyone what I feel about the dream of Martin Luther King [Jr.] because I hope one day I can turn it into a reality,” Cruz said. “Someday, I hope there will be a bigger crowd to hear. Really big.”

Student competition winners presented their speeches and art during the two-hour ceremony, which included performances by spoken-word artist Azure Antoinette, the Inglewood-based Parent Elementary School Choir and the Spirit of David Choir, which was a finalist in a national choir competition hosted by Verizon Communications, Inc., at Staples Center in October. KTLA Morning Show host Michaela Pereira served as mistress of ceremonies and actor Gbenga Akinnagbe served as grand marshal.

The annual celebration strikes a personal chord with Inglewood, as the city was one of the first in the nation to declare Martin Luther King Jr. Day a legal holiday, according to the City of Inglewood website. But due to recent budget cuts, an annual march to Hollywood Park following the church ceremony was removed from the agenda. The three-mile crossing symbolized civil rights marches from the 1960s.

“We always want more people here, and we need more advertising,” said Inglewood Unified School District Superintendent Gary McHenry, who noted that last year’s march brought more than 1,000 students from across the 19 public schools in the district. “This is an important event that celebrates how Martin Luther King [Jr.] awoke the consciousness of a nation.”

Families with young children made up most of the audience at the youth-centered celebration, but some attendees stood solo as longtime veterans of Martin Luther King Jr. events.

“There are some people who, no matter what type of event that honors Dr. King, they’ll be there,” noted Sabrina Barnes, director of Inglewood’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

William Brown, retired U.S. Postal Service employee and Inglewood resident, expressed unease at this year’s smaller turnout.

“Normally, it’s packed,” Brown said. “What really bothers me is that Dr. King and his followers paved the way for people to be where they are today. It seems to me that some people have forgotten that.”

After the event, organizers encouraged attendees to continue the celebration beyond the morning’s ceremonies, such as at the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace & Unity Parade Celebration in Long Beach, Calif., at which a festival was held until 5 p.m.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure that the young individuals see Dr. King’s vision,” Barnes added. “We, not just African-Americans, but we as a community and nation. He was speaking for everyone who suffered an injustice.”

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons