South Seas House finds new life serving South LA community

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West Adams is filled with grand, old Victorian homes, but near the freeway off of Arlington Street, one of these houses sticks out like a sore “blue” thumb. It features Polynesian-style gables that seem to slope forever and pillars made with the same stone that line the streets. It was known for years as the South Seas or the Tahitian house.

imageIt is a landmark and a piece of history, but these days, it’s something else entirely: a recreation center.

“When I was told that I was coming here, I had no idea what this place was, so I said give me the address let me find out what this is so I driven up here and I said ‘it’s an actual house!’” said Carlton Stubbs, Recreation Coordinator at the South Seas House.

Stubbs’ job was to create unique programs for the unique house. The most popular include summer camp and computer classes. It’s a tight-nit group of kids, many of whom Stubbs hires back as counselors. Todd Hightower has been working there for six years. He says the South Seas House feels like home to all of the people who visit it.

“I grew up in the neighborhood so it kinda feels good to still be working in the neighborhood and it’s kinda good to be giving back,” said Hightower.

imageJoseph Depuy built the home in 1902 and it stayed in his family until the 1970s. The city bought it for a street-widening project that would never happen. When plans took shape to demolish the house in the mid-90s, the community stepped in. Laura Meyers formed the South Seas House Action Committee with many other members of the community. She says saving the house became something more during a turbulent time in Los Angeles history.

“It became a symbol if you could rebirth the house you can rebirth the community,” said Meyers.

After a $1.5 million dollar restoration, the South Seas House reopened as a recreation center in 2003. With the house revitalized, the surrounding area followed. The park next door became a place for families instead of gang members. Stubbs says in all his time working at different centers in the city, he’s never seen so much commitment from a community.

“A lot of what went into this house was community driven. A lot of love was put into it by the community so they have a stake in it, which is how all communities should be,“ said Stubbs.

Today, the South Seas House looks exactly the same as it did in 1902, but with a fresh coat of blue paint and yellow trim and with a few more kids running around.

Garden offers unique escape in South L.A.

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Heat waves, smoggy days, and traffic jams. South L.A. is used to those things. But in the heart of the city is a place where everything slows down and you can take a second to breathe.

“A little peace of heaven in Los Angeles,” said Carol Jones, and she would know, she lives there.

There, is the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens. The Adams Boulevard house is home to a church called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.

“It’s all about knowing ourselves as one with God and becoming more aware of our soul energy,” said Jones.

The church moved into the West Adams house in 1974 to use as the headquarters for its 5,000 members worldwide. Secundo Guasti, an Italian immigrant who built one of the largest vineyards in the world to prohibition, had built it the house. It passed down many hands including that of famous Hollywood choreographer and director Busby Berkeley. At one point, it was a home for young girls aspiring to be actresses. In 2002, the church decided to turn the old, rundown orchards into a three-level meditation garden.

“The administration here said, ‘well let’s let LA in on this,’” said Jones.

With open hours almost everyday, anyone can come and enjoy the house, the gardens, or walk the labyrinth. One woman who didn’t want to give her name, found comfort in the gardens during a separation with her husband.

“During the summer, I was in quite a bad state. I was having anxiety attacks. So I’d come here at noon and talk to nobody and make a beeline for the back of the meditation gardens and just sit there for four hours. Within 5 minutes of being here my blood pressure would drop so it was palpable that it was having some effect. And I just came here all summer long,” the woman said.

The woman now volunteers at peace awareness to pass on everything it gave to her.

“And just having that open to me, I’m so grateful because it was such a calming influence for me and wasn’t the only thing that helped, but it was profound, it was profound for me,” said the woman.

The gardens include citrus tress, a koi pond, an avocado tree, water features, roses, lilies, and so much more. Jones calls herself the “mother hen” because she watches over every petal and every leaf. She says one thing that makes the gardens so peaceful is that there’s barely any street noise.

“The only interruption I remember is the ice cream truck,” said Jones.

Although the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens is home to a church, Jones says they don’t like to preach to visitors. They just want to share their treasure and give the public a welcome break from the chaos of the city.

Jury selection begins in trial of slain South LA teen

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Pedro Espinoza sat silently in court wearing a brown suit, glasses, and sporting a fresh crew-cut. He kept his eyes focused on his lawyers, asking them questions periodically. Directly behind him in the first row, sat the Shaw family. While the defense questioned potential jurors, Jamiel Shaw Sr. watched Espinoza, the man he believes gunned down his son. 17-year-old Jamiel Shaw Jr. was shot March 2, 2008 while he was just three doors away from home.

image“He was a good kid, never been in any trouble, never been arrested, never been suspended from school,” said Shaw.

Espinoza is a member of the 18th Street gang and an undocumented immigrant. He had been released from county jail on gun charges just one day before Shaw was shot. Twenty-three year-old Espinoza now faces the death penalty.

“Even though in California, what’s the odds of having the death penalty?”said Shaw.

The Shaw family has spent the four years between the arrest and the trial trying to get “Jamiel’s Law” on the city ballot. The law would allow police to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants if they have been identified as known gang members. Shaw Sr. says that if this had been in place four years ago, his son might still be alive.

“These are the ones that they need to protect us from. Criminals, killers, murderers, rapists. And they’re not doing it, because if they did, they would have had him because he’s three gun charges in a row, and you didn’t know he was in the country illegally?” said Shaw.

Opponents of Jamiel’s Law argue it could lead to racial profiling. The Jamiel’s Law petition failed to get the signatures needed in 2008 to be placed on the ballot. Shaw Sr. says they will continue to try to make Jamiel’s Law a reality as a way to honor the son who was taken from them too soon.

“MVP three years in a row, all city, getting recruited from Stanford, Rutgers, and a lot of small schools. The kind of kid you’d think would make it. You think he would have made it, but he didn’t of course,” said Shaw.

The juror pool will be cut down to 12 jurors and 6 alternates in the next few days. The trial is expected to take between two and half and four weeks.

Harold & Belle’s stays in the family and takes you back to the glory days

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imageIn 1969, New Orleans transplants Harold and Belle Legaux opened a new hot spot in the Jefferson Park area of Los Angeles. Creole food, atmosphere, jazz music, and good drinks were served every night at Harold & Belles. It became in institution.

“It is the local watering hole for most people in the community who are what you would consider movers and shakers in our community.”

That was Rev. Eric Lee, one of the many business and political leaders in the area who visit Harold & Belle’s two or three times a week. It’s like an extended family, and one that’s very protective of one another.

Inside, Harold & Belle’s is like a time capsule, transporting you back to the restaurant’s glory days in 1969. It’s the same beige wallpaper, same tables, same bar stools, even some of the same people. The only thing that’s changed is the addition of more and more family photos on the wall.

Ryan Legaux, General Manager of the restaurant and grandson of the original Harold and Belle, is featured in many of those photos. But times have been tough and sales are down 30% from just a few years ago. When Ryan’s father, Harold Jr., passed away last year, his mother and her business partners considered closing it all down.

“I told them ‘no, ya know, stick it out if you can I’d like to take it over and create more business for it, kind of keep it going.”

They agreed, but Legaux would not be getting a family discount. To finance his dream, he applied for a $2.6 million loan from the federal government. Though he has been approved by the city council, Legaux hasn’t yet received federal approval. He remains optimistic.

“Our intentions are good and we’re straightforward as to what we’re trying to do.”

Legaux says he’ll keep the doors open with or without the loan. He owes it to his family.

“It also is a family legacy. It’s my grandparents name on the building, on the business. It’s my parent’s hard work for 30 plus years. It’s my career for the past 10 plus years. When I want to have kids and when I want to have a family of my own it’s going to be a part of their legacy too.”

The world has changed outside in 42 years. But inside Harold & Belle’s is still serving the same food, drinks, and the same family.

Miramonte teacher pleads not guilty

Mark Berndt sat silently, staring straight ahead in a packed courtroom. Five sheriff’s deputies surrounded him. The former teacher appeared unkempt and unshaven in an orange jumpsuit.

Berndt is being held at the Twin Towers jail. His public defender, Victor Acevedo, accused the sheriff’s deputies of refusing to give Berndt a razor to shave. He also told the judge the deputies are broadcasting Berndt’s location on a loudspeaker to other inmates and calling him a “child molester.” Outside the courthouse, Acevedo told reporters about his concerns.

“The concern is for his personal safety. We cannot have the sheriff’s department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a ‘bulls eye’ on his head, so to speak. So that is my concern,” said Acevedo.

imageSheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore says the department hadn’t heard of the allegations until today’s arraignment. He says the department will investigate the claims.

High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, representing one of the alleged victims, worried about the allegations, as well as the media surrounding the case.

“I think we all have a stake in making sure that the defendant has a fair trial. That’s very important, I’m sure, to the defense, to the prosecution, and most of all to the alleged victims,” said Allred. “And hopefully nothing will interfere with that so that he would not have then grounds for an appeal if, as, and when he were convicted.”

Berndt is facing twenty-three counts of lewd acts. He is alleged to have photographed students being bound and gagged, and with a white liquid believed to be his semen. Berndt’s attorney requested today that the prosecution turn over every photo it has in evidence, something the District Attorney is reluctant to do. Spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons says the defense will get all the photos involving victims already identified in the case. The judge will look at the other photos in private to determine if the defense has a right to view them.

“The judge has agreed to look in a camera at other photographs that the defense says they want but at this point in time, it is either unidentified children or children that have been identified late,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons declined to say whether there will be any new charges as other children are identified. The preliminary hearing is scheduled to take place on March 28.