Reinvigorating empty lots of South LA


Shawnte Passmore | LA Wave (text)
Gary McCarthy | LA Wave (photo and video)
Kevin Tsukii | Intersections South LA (video)
Deepa Fernandes | KPCC (audio)
Susanica Tam | KPCC (photo)

This article was produced for Watts Revisited, a multimedia project launched by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that explores challenges facing South L.A. as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. Learn more at

Barbara Stanton stands in front of a rendition of the Wattstar Theatre. | Photo by Gary McCarthy for LA Wave.

Barbara Stanton stands in front of a rendition of the Wattstar Theatre. | Photo by Gary McCarthy for LA Wave

For community stakeholders interested in transforming vacant lots, it may seem easier to clean up blighted areas than to change public opinion about the area of South Los Angeles widely known for its infamous riots. Yet, several community-based organizations are determined to do both.

Barbara J. Stanton grew up in a different kind of Watts, a place that had plenty of stores to shop along 103rd Street and a movie theatre before the riots or as locals call it – Watts Rebellion – broke out Aug. 11, 1965.

After the rioters looted and burned 600 buildings in Watts and neighboring communities, business owners were slow to return, if they did at all. The only movie theatre in town did not return.

For over 20 years, Stanton has been trying to bring a theatre back to the area but with a twist: featuring an educational and job training facility for those wishing to work behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. Her nonprofit organization, Watts Cinema and Education Center (WCEC), expects to hold a ground-breaking ceremony before September in a vacant lot on Graham Avenue next to a Metro Blue Line station. [Read more…]

South LA stunt pro sparks opportunity for protégés

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker rolls up her cargo pants and slides on her kneepads. She pulls back the sleeves of her hoodie to secure her protective gloves. Without hesitation, she jumps on the hood of a silver SUV. She grabs the bar stretching across the roof and dangles her torso over the windshield. Her combat boots rest on the hood of the car as it kicks into gear. The car swerves, gently at first but revving up to 15 mph, as Baker thrashes around on the hood for about three minutes in a parking lot, practicing a stunt. When the car finally comes to a stop, she hops down, unfazed. Her gold eye shadow and shimmery lip-gloss show no signs of wear.

This is a typical day for Baker, one of Hollywood’s only Black stuntwomen for more than 25 years. Before Katniss Everdeen was the girl on fire, Baker was bursting into flames, flawlessly executing car stunts and performing fight scenes for movies such as Clueless and Fat Albert.

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Nothing about Baker is timid. Not her job, her path to success, or her sense of style.

Instead of gaining household recognition through acting, her work is part of the Hollywood illusion. While action packed movies are typically associated with masculinity, Baker has filled the arena with girl power. In an industry where the #oscarssowhite, she breaks the mold.

Growing up in South Central, Baker lived on the peripheries of Hollywood’s entertainment business.

Instead of following the aspirational route of television commercials and movie extra roles, Baker performed in her own ways. At Crenshaw High School, she was a competitive gymnast and played basketball and volleyball. At 16, she landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for spinning 58 hula-hoops at one time after watching a group of girls hula-hooping in the park sparked a new hobby.

As she studied recreation administration at California State University, Long Beach, gymnastics became her focus but the cinema was always in the back of her mind. She briefly considered studying film, but instead followed her mother’s advice to pursue what she considered a more practical degree.

Baker took a job as a probation officer after college, even though she hadn’t completely shaken off her dream to work in entertainment.

There, a co-worker who worked part time as a stunt person introduced her to the world of dangling off the top of racing SUVs. Baker began attending training sessions. After working out with the group for a few months, she knew she had the style and ability to excel.

“I got flare,” Baker said. “I know that I can do this stuff.”  Baker became hooked on the excitement of driving fast cars and being lit on fire. With connections from her training group and her natural athletic ability, securing work came easily.

Since Baker’s first gig working in Atlanta for The Heat of the Night in 1988, she has worked as a stuntwoman or stunt coordinator in 47 films listed on IMDB. Baker estimates she has worked on more than 120 films total. Her credits include the Nutty Professor, Inspector Gadget and Baker’s personal favorite, What’s Love Got to Do with It, a 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s life and career. Baker has recently shifted her focus from starring in fight scenes to overseeing the process as a stunt coordinator.

Through all this success, she has still maintained her job working as a probation officer at a camp  in L.A. for young men in the juvenile justice system.

But Baker said she doesn’t let Hollywood get to her head. She rarely even watches the films that list her name in the credits. She still remembers hanging out with friends in the South L.A. neighborhood where she grew up and the scant opportunities for her to learn about the entertainment industry. She often drove across town for ice skating, tap dancing or skateboarding lessons.

“Being a minority and doing something that other people wish they could have done, it motivates me to keep moving,” Baker said. “I believe that if anybody else can do it, I can do it too.”

This philosophy propelled Baker into her career, and motivates her to encourage other young women and minorities. In 2005, she founded the nonprofit Diamond in the Raw to empower young women to pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Among other programs, Diamond in the Raw organizes an 8-week summer “boot camp” to expose high school students to non-traditional entertainment industry career paths such as screenwriting, camera work and costume design.

Shammah Tatum expanded her knowledge of the entertainment industry when she participated last year in the program, which costs $150 per person. Tatum, a 19-year-old Compton resident and aspiring actress, learned the ins-and-outs of the entertainment industry by pitching, writing and producing a short film throughout the summer.

“It’s important that young people know that there is way more behinds the scenes work that you can be involved with,” Tatum said, listing editors, producers or stylists as lesser-known positions. “They may find that they have another talent.”

While acting is Tatum’s goal, her experience with Diamond in the Raw gave her a deeper understanding of myriad efforts that create a film. After the camp, she used her new skills interning as a production assistant and then as a casting assistant. Other participants have gone on to work as broadcast news reporters or camera technicians. Tatum credits the program with connecting her with an industry that rarely reaches into Compton, or her previous neighborhoods in Inglewood and Carson.

By working with women like Tatum, Baker aims to bring Hollywood into diverse pockets of greater Los Angeles, pushing more women and minorities to fuel blockbuster success — even from behind the scenes

“There are so many different people with different stories to tell,” Baker said. “Now is the time to open up and be a little more accepting of different viewpoints.”

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A. Email reporter Anna-Cat Brigida at [email protected] and follow her @AnnaCat_Brigida.

Tracing Xinran Ji’s final steps

Street view of the crime scene a week after Xinran Ji's murder. | Alex Zelenty (Neon Tommy)

Street view of the crime scene a week after Xinran Ji’s murder. | Alex Zelenty (Neon Tommy)

By Diana Crandall, Benjamin Dunn and Michelle Toh

The sporadically lit streets just north of campus are unassuming and benign, even after midnight falls. Faint laughter and the pulse of radios from security ambassadors can be heard throughout the spider web of USC housing on Thursday nights, an evening routinely celebrated with cocktails and kegs.

But the yellow jackets on street corners are glittering, clicking heels of co-eds make the security blanket cloaking the campus even more dangerous. The façade allows students to discard the memory of a murder that took place in their own neighborhood just seven months ago, on a night just like this one.

Xinran Ji, 24, walked a friend home after studying on Thursday, July 24, 2014. It was just after midnight when a car carrying five teenagers profiled Ji as a prime robbery victim “because he was Chinese” and therefore “must have money,” they believed. Four of the five individuals got out of the car and proceeded to beat Ji with a metal baseball bat and wrench. Bleeding and delirious, Ji stumbled back to his campus apartment where he later died that same evening from blunt force trauma to his head and neck.

The savage nature of the beating does not match the temperate atmosphere of the block, which Annenberg Digital News returned to on February 26. The team walked Jefferson to Orchard, and back to Ji’s apartment complex at approximately 1 a.m. The walk included two security ambassadors standing in silent surveillance as several students drifted up and down the block, in and out of parties and residence halls.

When we arrived at Ji’s complex, we found a group of about 10 USC students hanging out on the front steps.

Daniel Lee and James Lee are USC sophomores and plan to live in Ji’s apartment complex next school year. They say knowing of Ji’s killing doesn’t deter them from moving into the building – in fact, both agreed that USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) makes them “feel safe,” and they aren’t worried for their safety.

It’s impossible to tell if Ji was concerned for his safety before he was attacked. It is true that DPS slashed the number of stationed security ambassadors in half for last summer semester. Following Ji’s death in July, Deputy Chief David Carlisle proclaimed that “nothing is off the table when it comes to student safety.” For a full list of safety upgrades, click here.

For more insight into the retracing of Ji’s last steps, please check out of video below.


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Mexicano restaurant opens in South LA

Chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (from left to right) | Photo courtesy of Mexicano restaurant.

Chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (from left to right) | Photo courtesy of Mexicano restaurant.

With the opening of their new restaurant, Mexicano, located in Baldwin Hills, chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu hope to immerse customers in Mexican culture, one burst of flavor at a time. The eatery has been in its soft opening since Feb. 27.

Colorful Mexican floor tiles lead patrons to the restaurant’s focal point: the kitchen. There is no partition between the kitchen and the dining room, so diners can observe the preparation of authentic dishes while surrounded by décor from the Mexican state of Jalisco.

“With the kitchen open, you are in contact with customers and they become a part of the preparation experience,” Arvizu said. “We try to get their five senses going. The smell, the sight of the ingredients, the touch and hearing. All of these are incorporated and bring you closer to the meal.”

[Read more…]

South LA homeless youth need homes, not shelter

Demonque Williams at Sanctuary of Hope. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Demonque Williams at Sanctuary of Hope. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Demonque Williams exited the foster care system at age 18 in 2010 with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Now 22, he still does not have a stable home. On a good day, he sleeps in a shelter or uses a hotel voucher. Most nights he sleeps on the street.

“I need emotional help,” Williams said sitting on the couch at Sanctuary of Hope, a program for homeless youth in South L.A. “I need somebody to talk to. I need to keep mentally strong out there. I need encouragement.”

Williams has found some support through Sanctuary of Hope, a South L.A. organization that provides transitional housing and assistance to homeless youth. As part of the South L.A. Transition Age Youth and Foster Care Collaborative, it aims to serve young adults among South L.A.’s homeless population.

South L.A has the largest homeless population in the city with more than 11,000 recorded according to an estimate by the 2013 L.A. Homeless Count. More than 2,000 of these individuals are under the age of 24.

[Read more…]

USC students and South LA residents unite with art


Wanting to satisfy artistic thirst and consume more of the local area’s taste, Michael Chang, a fine arts student, and Aaron Ashby, a cinema student, created Jukebox, a student-run art collective at USC that uses South L.A. for inspiration and presentation of their work.

“We came to USC as immigrants to this area,” said Chang. “We were transplanted here for college, and I think it’s important for students to understand the context of where we live.”

[Read more…]

District 10 candidate Grace Yoo eyes an upset

Photo provided by Grace Yoo

Photo provided by Grace Yoo

The residents of District 10, a portion of which spans South Los Angeles, will vote for a new councilmember on March 3. Intersections interviewed the candidates ahead of the elections. 

It’s been a long day for Los Angeles City Council candidate Grace Yoo. Just hours after The Los Angeles Times endorsed Herb Wesson, the incumbent in Council District 10, Yoo walks into her campaign office frustrated about a neighborhood council meeting gone awry. It’s 8 p.m. and she still has hours left on her schedule; her campaign staff works to the soothing hum of laptops inside a small, narrow storefront near Western Avenue and Sixth Street.

But as quickly as the frustration mounts, it is easily dismissed. Yoo takes a seat and flashes a smile as she peels a clementine. Everything about her campaign, from Yoo’s fuchsia jacket to the hand-drawn pictures adorning the office walls is cheerful. She’s still hung up on the fact that the L.A. Times referred to her as ‘plucky,’ which she regards as a backhanded compliment (“Of all the words to choose?”), but even that fades quickly during conversation.

The former executive director of the Korean American Coalition is driven by a combination of faith and facts, her guiding compass to a seat on the City Council. Yoo, 43, a Los Angeles Unified School District alum, has been a strong advocate for both juveniles and the Koreatown community for many years. If she wins, she would be the second Asian American to ever win a seat on the City Council. [Read more…]

South LA seniors face poor conditions, unfair evictions

CES HUD tenants meet with CES Tenant Organizer Valerie Lizárraga at an apartment complex near USC to discuss maintenance problems such as cracked-deteriorating bathroom flooring, missing bathroom vents, broken appliances and a cockroach infestation. | CES Facebook

HUD tenants meet with CES Tenant Organizer Valerie Lizárraga at an apartment complex near USC in 2013 to discuss maintenance problems such as cracked-deteriorating bathroom flooring, missing bathroom vents, broken appliances and a cockroach infestation. | CES Facebook

By Lauren Day

Juana Vasquez has lived in her West Adams apartment for 20 years, and despite making regular requests for her refrigerator to be replaced, the appliance has been leaking water since the day she moved in.

“They never replaced nothing,” said Vasquez’s son, Carlos Rezabala, who helps his mother translate from Spanish. “It’s still the same… We’ve been asking for a long time.”

Vasquez and her son have had to settle for unhurried maintenance, making her living conditions “filthy,” said Rezabala.

He described his 82-year-old mother’s carpet as “disgusting.” He said the windows of the apartment, part of a senior housing complex subsidized by the city, have broken from age. But the property managers “don’t want to change, they don’t want to replace nothing,” he said.

Carlos Aguilar, from the Coalition for Economic Survival, said property managers of rent-controlled or affordable housing often take advantage of their tenants. Senior citizens are among the most vulnerable, he said, “because of their age and lack of knowledge and awareness of what their rights are.” So are people from “marginalized or ignored communities,” such as South L.A.

Aguilar said he saw one woman forced out by “constructive eviction” – a legal term meaning the tenant was obligated to leave because her residence did not meet basic standards.

“Owners refused to do the repairs and maintenance,” said Aguilar. “The property got to such bad condition that the place was deemed uninhabitable.”

His coalition organizes Los Angeles tenants in rent-controlled and subsidized housing that face harassment, illegal evictions, illegal rent increases and slum housing conditions. CES also helps to educate tenants about their rights and encourages them to make sure those rights are honored by their landlords. The organization is also working on programs to preserve affordable housing units in the City of Los Angeles.

The looming threat for seniors, if these battles are not fought, is homelessness, advocates said.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted a total of 2,300 homeless people in District 8 – nearly 775 people above the L.A. City average. South L.A. as a whole had the highest number of homeless senior citizens – roughly 950 people. In contrast, East Los Angeles had the least number of homeless seniors, totaling about 185. The organization does not keep data on the number of seniors who became homeless as a result of evictions.

Vasquez, the tenant with the leaky refrigerator, lives in HUD-subsidized senior housing in District 8. But that’s no reason for the property to be substandard, Aguilar said, adding: “It has everything to do with who manages and who owns that property.”

Vasquez made little headway with the latest property manager of her apartment complex. Her kitchen light was out for more than a year before the building’s management fixed it, said her son.

Affordable housing is crucial in areas like Vasquez’s where the average annual salary is $33,360, according to the city’s 2013 Economic Report – nearly $24,000 below the city average. The median rent where Vasquez lives was $1,086 in 2014, whereas the average rent in Los Angeles was $1,463, according to the RED Capital Group, a lending institutions specializing in housing.

Most buildings built before 1978 in Los Angeles are rent-controlled properties, including many South L.A. neighborhoods.

Current tenants of rent control properties are only subject to limited annual rent increases, monitored by the city. But illegal rent increases still occur “because if a tenant doesn’t know,” the person is “never going to challenge it,” said Aguilar.

Landlords must comply with the 14 eviction requirements of the L.A. Rent Stabilization Ordinance. However, some conduct constructive evictions, which are not legal, but rather “sheer harassment, intimidation or lack of repairs and maintenance,” Aguilar said. Tenants in these circumstances are often “so frustrated that they just move out.”

Rezabala said he is not willing to give up the fight for his mother, adding: “They’re abusing us, that’s what they’re doing.”

Some housing rights attorneys believe their clients are targeted just because they are easy to evict. According to Nick Levenhagen, an attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, tenants in Section 8 housing that is subsidized by the city typically “hate to complain” because they fear losing their housing.

For Section 8, landlords generally have the legal right to decide whether they want to accept Section 8 vouchers for the following year. However, in rent-controlled properties, landlords must comply with the “just cause” eviction requirements of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance when terminating a Section 8 tenancy.

But landlords often try to work around that regulation. The daughter of an elderly couple with a Section 8 subsidy, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the building owners told her parents they did not want to accept Section 8 vouchers any more, aiming to remodel and eventually increase the rent. The move was illegal, according to Levenhagen, the family’s attorney.

The couple eventually agreed to a settlement: They would move after 17 years of living at the apartment in exchange for a payout from the landlord.

Wrongful evictions put low-income seniors at risk of homelessness, according to Levenhagen.

“Unless you have an advocate who represents you, then you’re just going to go,” he said.

Such was the case for Rezabala and his mother, who are grateful for Carlos Aguilar’s help. “There was nobody… until we found Carlos,” said Rezabala.

Los Angeles does not posses enough affordable housing to accommodate all elderly residents on fixed incomes, according to Aguilar. It’s impossible for seniors whose sole income is social security or disability checks to make market price rent. “You end up having elderly homeless people,” he said. “That’s a side of the story that doesn’t get discussed.”

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Kizomba, a seductive Afro-Caribbean dance, arrives in South LA

Instructor Rome David dances Kizomba with a student during class. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Instructor Rome David dances Kizomba with a student during class. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

The sound of pulsing music and Portuguese lyrics blares out to the sidewalk outside Vanessa’s Positive Dance Studio on Monday nights in South L.A. Couples press close together, attempting to move as one unit, as they review new steps, with leaders signaling their partners to move forward or backward with just the slightest movement of the chest.

The students are learning Kizomba, a partner dance that originated in Angola, spread to Europe and has now taken hold in Los Angeles. The dance combines African rhythms with the sensual passion of Semba, a dance that originated in Angola and gave birth to Argentine Tango and Brazilian Samba.

“It’s a very sensual dance and really allows you to connect with your partner,” said Felicia Mello, who started learning Kizomba about a year ago. “It has an elegance to it that is different than some of the faster dances. That’s the beauty of it.”

[Read more…]

Volunteers tally South LA’s homeless, counting one by one

homeless count feature image

Homeless Count volunteers show their certificates of completion. | Stephanie Monte

Instead of the usual dinner and birthday cake, Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker spent her birthday in a more altruistic way: She gathered a group of family and friends to volunteer for the biennial Homeless Count on Thursday night. The “Happy Birthday Jackie” group joined nearly 100 volunteers at Holman United Methodist Church, one of South L.A.’s deployment sites for the count. This South L.A. contingent represented a fraction of the 6,000 volunteers who gathered data on the city’s homeless population over three days under the supervision of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“We want to be a part of the 2015 revived mission to eliminate homelessness,” Dupont-Walker said. “We think this is a part of it.”

L.A.’s Homeless Count is the nation’s largest program taking a headcount of people living on the streets. L.A.’s homeless population is second in size only to the homeless population of New York City.

Homelessness in South L.A. is more common than any other part of the county. The 2013 Homeless Count tallied more than 11,000 homeless people in South L.A. Six of the seven other districts counted a significantly smaller homeless population, with estimates ranging from 2,500 homeless to 8,000. Service Planning Area 4, Metro Los Angeles including Skid Row, with about 10,500 homeless individuals was the only area with an estimate similar to South L.A.’s Area 6. [Read more…]