VITA Centers offer free tax preparation in South LA

By Samantha Hermann

Two-hundred dollars. That is the base rate Liberty Tax’s Watts branch said it charges to prepare a simple tax return. According to 2000 census data the median household income in South Los Angeles is $25,303. This means that most South Los Angeles residents could have their taxes prepared for free.

IRS Spokeswoman Anabel Marquez said anyone who made less than $49,000 last year qualifies for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), a free tax preparation service offered by the IRS.

So why do people still pay to have their taxes prepared at Liberty, or H&R Block (whose base rate in Los Angeles is $99), or Jackson Hewitt (whose base rate in Los Angeles is $39)?

Kathy Jun, a volunteer tax preparer at the USC VITA center, has found that some people simply aren’t aware that VITA exists. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who qualify and just don’t know what their options are,” she said.

Some of the promotional offers from tax preparer chains may also be luring in South Los Angeles residents with lower incomes who likely qualify for VITA services.

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Photo courtesy of VITA Volunteers

In Leimert Park, binding tradition with the new

By Elizabeth Warden

imageA stuffed animal or toy train may seem like the perfect pastime for a child here in Los Angeles. But in the Diouf household, playtime is anything but ordinary.

Two-year-old Ousmane Diouf’s daily amusement comes from a mini, beige, traditional Senegalese drum with his name painted across it. But even if he has a personalized drum, it doesn’t stop him from standing on his tippy-toes and trying to tap his father’s drum that is the same height as him. He’s attached to the drums that surround him like many other children need their blanket or pacifier.

It’s Tuesday afternoon after school and the Diouf’s gather to play. The child uses a stick and his tiny hand to keep a rhythm going; the rhythm is strong enough to make you tap your feet to the beat. He looks to his mother for approval.

“No, you’re doing it right,” his mother, Fatou Diouf, said to him. She smiled and watched her two youngest daughters, Arame, 5, and Mame Diara, 4, dance in-sync to the music. One-year-old Youssouf picks up a baby-sized drum, tries to bite it, then puts it back down.

The Dioufs named Ousmane after his uncle, who was also a talented left-handed drummer. Children are supposed to have similar attributes to the family member they are named after. This is just one of many Senegalese traditions that are practiced in the Diouf household, which is also a drum shop.

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In down economy, Leimert Park urges residents to ‘Buy Black’

By Laura J. Nelson

imageObinne Onyeador remembers when the streets of Leimert Park were jumping all night.

Until 4 a.m. and later, the gallery owner would hear saxophones wail from inside Fifth Street Dick’s, where men and women from all over the world played chess, drank coffee and soaked in the culture of one of Los Angeles’s most dynamic arts neighborhoods.

Leimert Park Village still seems a black bohemia, where shopkeepers vend batik earrings, photos of the Obama family and books by black authors, where residents linger over rich coffee and sweet potato pie at the local jazz club. But business has changed.

Red, green, yellow and black, often associated with Africa, adorn the streets of Leimert Park, including this streetlight pole on Degnan Boulevard.

In the last 10 years, rents have skyrocketed from $700 to $2,000 and above a month, Onyeador said. Many businesses have left. And in 2000, when Fifth Street Dick’s owner Richard Fulton died of throat cancer, much of the area’s culture died with him.

The strip of small, specialty businesses on Degnan Boulevard that vend to a limited clientele is now struggling in the wake of an economy that was particularly hard on African-American disposable income.

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Face lift intended to do more than refurbish Baldwin Hills mall

By Samantha Hermann

When Vince St. Thomas showed up at the food court of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall to do a crossword puzzle he was taken aback by what he found. The center of the food court had been blocked off leaving only the seats around the perimeter available for patrons.

“I have no idea what they are doing.” said St. Thomas, who shopped at the mall on a recent Sunday. “I see all this stuff going on and every time I come by for the last two or three months or so I have been surprised.”

What they are doing is completing an extensive renovation of the mall, which first opened as the Broadway-Crenshaw Center in 1947, and is among the oldest regional shopping centers in the country. The mall saw its last major overhaul in the late 1980’s and has long been considered an economic and cultural hub in South Los Angeles.

But, without any significant renovation in more than 20 years, it was sorely in need of a facelift.

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Can a transit line transform South Los Angeles?

imageBy Anita Little

In the opening scene of the film Crash, one of the characters laments on how there is “no sense of touch” in Los Angeles. “In L.A. nobody touches you, we’re always behind this metal and this glass.”

The prevalence of driving in Los Angeles is one of its most identifying characteristics. Everyone here drives and in order to survive in the City of Angels, you need wheels to be your wings.

However, some low-income and minority segments of Los Angeles do not own cars. For decades, this has denied them access to goods and employment in other parts of the city. City planners and urban advocates have pushed for the development of more viable mass transit in Los Angeles and with the building of the Crenshaw Light Rail, disenfranchised communities are now on the verge of greater mobility and, perhaps, an enhanced quality of life.

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Upward Bound: A 20th century school program that resonates today

By Anita Little, for Watt Way

Upward Bound, a USC partnership with South Los Angeles schools founded in 1977, has been making college a reality for low-income high school students and giving disadvantaged youth the skills they need to survive college. Upward Bound has always committed itself to the higher education of underprivileged students and since its founding has expanded from just three local high schools to nine high schools including Crenshaw High School, Dorsey High School, Manual Arts High School, Washington Preparatory and Jordan High School.

Over 90 percent of the graduating seniors in the program enrolled in college this year, according to Michael Santos, Upward Bound program manager. Upward Bound started with just 60 youths participating and now has more than 150 youths, with a budget of more than $1 million.

The partnership may never be more important than it is today.

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Photo courtesy of the University of Southern California