The Talk at Crenshaw Cafe: The Effort Starts From Within

In the wake of the April 29 violence, some residents look ahead - a letter from Los Angeles

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHILE the sun tries to burn through a smoggy morning haze, Jamil Shabazz, owner of the Crenshaw Cafe on Crenshaw Boulevard, is minutes away from opening for breakfast. "Grits or biscuits come with any order," he says, moving around tables in a white apron.

For seven years the little cafe has provided trust, stability, and good food for this part of South Central Los Angeles. "No one torched the Crenshaw," says a man waiting for breakfast. The walls of the cafe are covered with signatures of the known and unknown who have stopped by: Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, Danny Glover, and others.

Across the street a small bulldozer crashes through the smoke-blackened entrance of a printing shop gutted by fire on the harrowing night of April 29th. Three men in hard hats with shovels wait to clear away the debris. At many burned-out buildings in the city, little bulldozers of hope and trust are at work. The aim for most is to rebuild quickly and move from shock and anger to the stability of daily business.

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A few miles away on Slauson Avenue, Connie Watson arrives at an old warehouse now known as the People Who Care Youth Center, a city-funded project to help kids. Many of the 13- and 14-year-olds on probation she counsels daily don't think that they will live past age 16; homicides among gang members are common. "These kids have never known any other life," she says. They come to her and find an oasis of trust, but they are still afraid of what they know and see.

Later that morning, in downtown Los Angeles, a spokesman for Southern California Edison announces a $35-million job-training and economic-development plan for two sites in the South Central area. Some of the money will go to the new Rebuild L.A. campaign gathering force under the direction of Peter Ueberroth.

"If L.A. is going to going to be rebuilt," says Mr. Shabazz, putting down a plate of grilled chicken, eggs, and grits for a customer, "the major part of the effort has got to come from within the community.

"We waited for all those government programs 27 years ago after the first riots here. You notice any change? We all got to come together - Korean, Asian, Hispanic - and change our hearts first."

At a front table, Zaafir Saiful Lah Saafir, owner of a small grocery store, joins two other regulars. Again the talk hinges on trust and distrust. "I look at any proposed program, government or otherwise, with skepticism," he says. "I wonder if this is another wave of tricks, another wave of manipulation to neutralize the intellectual fervor for truth here and lasting change."

It was 27 years ago that these same Los Angeles streets roared and burned in deadly urban rebellion for six days. In the aftermath there was new hope, resolve, government programs, and promises. But the ensuing years offer a record of little real political and economic change.

"You see this building?" asks Connie Watson, seated in her sparse office. She points sideways to indicate the tired building as Exhibit A for the prosecution. "It looked the same way in 1965, and a lot of other buildings haven't changed, either. There are a lot more vacant stores and buildings now. I hate to say it, but I would be surprised if there is much of a change in this neighborhood seven or eight years from now."

Then why does she keep going? "Because the need is so great," she says. Officially, she is mandated to counsel 10 new children a week. But the numbers build up rapidly while the center continually seeks funding to stay in business.

"I know I can have an impact on each child," she says, despite the enormity of the problems facing families in neighborhoods where gangs rule and money from drugs is often the main currency. "When a little girl comes to me who has been beaten by her mother, at least she knows I'm a person she can trust. I want to be that person for whomever needs that."

As a result of the riots, Watson says the center's priorities have shifted a little.

"We're trying to be a little more aggressive in intervention," she says, "in helping kids redirect their energies in positive ways such as job training, staying in school, and ways to give them some hope. Their anger prevents them from being as productive as they could be."

Meanwhile, back at the Crenshaw Cafe, Shabazz says in seven years he wants to see 10 Crenshaw cafes throughout the city.

"I pray that we can all come together, even the gangs. There's nothing wrong with coming together and talking," he says of reports that some Los Angeles gangs have established a truce. "We've got to raise our children better," he says, "and help them to have hope."

One of his workers goes out and attaches a small banner to the awning by the front door. It reads, "Recycling Black Dollars," and signals to passersby that the Crenshaw flourishes when the community succeeds.

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