Buscaino, LAPD officers clean up empty land in South LA

imageCouncilman Joe Buscaino from District 15, joined law enforcement officers and other community activists Saturday to clean up an empty plot of land near 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue in Watts.

The plot was overgrown with weeds and had become a “magnet for trash, vermin and homeless encampments,” according to a release by Buscaino’s office.

“Enough is enough,” Buscaino said in the release. “We need to respond to the community’s concerns here. This is a main thoroughfare for students in the area. For them to see all this trash…completely unacceptable.”

Busciano was approached at the beginning of the month at a meeting of the Watts Gang Task Force and was joined at the cleanup by officers from LAPD’s Southeast Division, members of the Southeast Division Spanish Community Police and Advisory Board, the Watts Gang Task Force, LA Conservation Corps and the Bureau of Street Services.

“A cleanup like this, organized like this, hasn’t been done in years,” said Robert Martinez, Senior Lead Officer for LAPD’s Southeast Division, in the release.

He noted that a cleaner plot of land would bring positive changes to the lives of nearby middle school students who see the plot every day and will no longer have to look at signs of poverty and crime.

Fighting vandalism with murals

imageBy Samantha Katzman

Ten years ago, when Scott Schmerelson arrived as the new principal of the school now called Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School, he knew he was facing a major challenge to turn around the school’s poor academic performance.

He also knew that he wouldn’t get very far until he fixed the school’s abysmal appearance, its exterior defaced by graffiti.

“I like things to look nice,” he said, “and when I came here and saw those awful looking pictures I said ‘we have to do something about this.’”

With test scores improving and kids more engaged in the classroom, there was only one thing missing among students and staff: morale. Enter Raul Baltazar.

imageThe school’s physical “rehabilitation” started with Schmerelson and Baltazar’s initial contact. At first, the concept was for Baltazar and his partner Melly Trochez to simply renovate the school, but with heavy backlash by taggers and vandals, it was decided that they would create entirely new works for and with the students.

With timing and funding on their side, the plan was set in motion for Baltazar to begin work on six murals around the school.

For Baltazar, a master of many mediums, murals have a special significance for him. He was inspired by the murals he describes as “eye candy” he saw every day on his walks to school growing up in El Sereno.

“It was a public practice to teach and exhibit,” he said.

Baltazar, Trochez, and a team of volunteers spent eight months designing and painting the murals. They wanted to depict concepts and ideas that spanned many cultures and ethnicities.

image“You don’t want to leave people isolated,” Baltazar said.

Chinese, Egyptian, Tibetan, Mexican, Mayan, Ndebele, Chumash, and Tonga cultures come together to paint a portrait of the modern urban landscape.

“Not only are we trying to beautify,” he said, “but as much as we have to create a presence, to transform the space.”

Baltazar has kept in contact with the school, and when the economy is more forgiving, would like even to do more work with them. But for now, the goal is to maintain the physical murals as well as maintaining the education for the children in the school.

What started as a desperate attempt to save a floundering school has resulted in a full-bodied makeover, improving more than just the kids’ test scores.

Before these changes, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School (previously Mt. Vernon Middle School) was in a state of decline. Test scores were so low, the school was almost kicked out of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Recruited by the superintendent at the time, during the last decade Schmerelson has been helping dig the school out of a load of troubles.

imageModernization and improvements to materials, class sizes and class structure has resulted in an increase of 200 points in the Academic Performance Index (API), with scores increasing every year. But Schmerelson didn’t stop there.

“Once you get in the swing of making things nice, you know you look around for what else you can make nice.”

Located on the fringe of the Crenshaw neighborhood, many of the students come from lower income, working families.

“They depend a lot on us,” he said.

Senior Lead Officer Pierre Olega of the Southwest LAPD division also knows how important murals can be to the public.

“They want them to represent the community,” he said, “The main focus is one, to beautify the community and two, to create something the community can relate to so they don’t vandalize it.”

Vandalism is still a problem, but a problem Schmerelson and Baltazar planned for. They set aside a large amount of the budget for Tradewinds Graffiti Guard, a coating that allows for graffiti to be removed without repainting.

“You still have kids who are outside of the school, who don’t have that connection to the school who don’t know to respect the murals,” said Schmerelson.

imageBaltazar was passionate about educating the children about the murals and their meaning so vandalism would not become a huge issue, and for the most part it was a success.

“Anything that the community embraces and takes as their own, they won’t vandalize,” said Officer Olega.

Schmerelson, passionate about the appearance and morale of the school, often does the work himself.

“Oh yeah he’ll be out there cleaning it,” said Sandra Belton, a Cochran Middle School faculty member.

“To me it’s a personal insult,” Schmerelson, “so when you see things like that when you come into work in the morning and see that graffiti it kind of turns your stomach.”

Judge in West Adams cleans graffiti every night for safety

Listen to the audio story from Annenberg Radio News:

image“Wait a second, there was an urban legend that there was a judge that was painting out graffiti,” Totten said.

Judge Robert Totten’s not a stranger to someone calling him an urban legend. Every night, he walks the streets of West Adams with his three big great danes and cleans off the graffiti in his neighborhood.

Totten isn’t hired to do this. He does it purely to make it look better and safer for his family and neighbors. He summed up his beliefs by quoting former LAPD Police Chief Bill Bratton.

“It’s a broken window. If you allow the broken windows to remain, and the graffiti to remain up, then it attracts more,” Totten said.

He doesn’t need much. Only a couple of wash cloths, paint thinner and spray paint. If the graffiti is on a gray or white surface, he’ll just spray paint over it. Otherwise, he’ll scrub until it’s gone.

“So this will just take me two seconds and he’s gone,” Totten said.

Totten says the graffiti is gang related and he has caught people in the act.

“I remember stepping over and saying come on guys enough’s enough, and they go, white boy you’re next,” Totten said.

These types of vandals doing the graffiti end up in his courtroom. During the day, he is a commissioner for juvenile, ruling on cases like murder, robbery and vandalism.

One tagger I spoke with that wishes to not be identified says that him tagging an area illustrates his loyalty to his gang, their brotherhood and their territory.

There are some nights when Totten will clean an area, and the next day, there’s graffiti again. But, that doesn’t bother him. He just goes back and cleans it off again.

“I get satisfaction knowing they’re not getting anything out of it, except putting themselves at risk,” Totten said.

Totten has tried to bring the issue to police, but says police have to weigh what’s more important at the time: catching taggers or solving robberies and murders?

In 1990, LAPD created PACE, Police Assisted Community Enhancement Program. The program is designed to battle graffiti through different city agencies. When graffiti is seen, LAPD fills out a form and forwards it to the proper city agency to alleviate the problem. LAPD was unavailable for comment.

Totten hopes giving back to his community will slowly remove all the bad tensions in the area.

“Positive energy’s going to win out,” Totten said.

Until authorities can do more, Totten says he doesn’t mind people thinking he’s an urban legend.

Community cleans up South Los Angeles neighborhood

By: Travis Cochran


Listen to an audio story from Annenberg Radio News:


Members of the community speak about the clean up:

“It’s beneficial for young people to get out and be a part of maintaining and cleaning and sprucing up their own community,” one woman said. “That in and of itself is a great impact.”

Another person involved in the clean up added, “Overall, it’s pretty good. We’ve been cleaning up. It feels good to clean up a community with all of this dirt and trash everywhere.”

“When we have some graffiti on, it just keeps happening,” a man at the event said. “It’s a cycle. Everybody wants to represent something, so when we have some graffiti in the area, it affects our corridor. It affects our small businesses.”

One man says he’s a believer in programs that helps the community, especially when it comes to inner city youth.

“They may have parents who work two, maybe even three, jobs or long shifts,” he said. “It gives them programs to be in while their parents are away at work, instead of just being at home or being on the streets with nothing to do.”

“A lot of them tell me they don’t litter no more,” another event-goer said. “They used to litter before, but working here, they know how hard it is to pick up the trash, so they stopped littering.”

“It shows that this community is not being left behind,” a man said. “The community does care about it. The Coalition for Responsible Community Development is very proud to assist with the clean up.”

Another woman in the community praised the coalition’s efforts to keep the city street clean.

“That’s one of the reasons I moved into this area because when I was looking for places, I noticed how clean and well-kept the neighborhood is,” she said. “That’s directly due to CRCD that has a youth program and a street cleaning program.”

City Council approves ambitious anti-graffiti ordinance

The Los Angeles City Council tries again to cut down on graffiti. This time by passing an ordinance to foil taggers. Listen to an audio report by Timothy Beck Werth of Annenberg Radio News.