Facing Squarely the Need To Rebuild Communities

AS bulldozers clear the debris from some of the burned-out buildings here in the South-Central part of the city, the burgeoning effort to rebuild Los Angeles has a long shadow thrown across it.

It is the distrust and profound skepticism of people who live in the South-Central area. They have lived within troubled political, emotional, and racial dynamics that have sapped the spirit of communities here for decades.

Overcoming these conditions, and in fact helping to provide new jobs, training, venture capital, and other new opportunities are the challenges facing the private and public sectors in rebuilding L.A.

"We've been here before," says James McDonald, selling T-shirts printed with positive black images along busy Vernon Boulevard. "I was a teenager in 1965 when the first riots happened," he says, "and afterward I remember everybody saying L.A. was going to become the promised land."

Most of the private and government efforts to rebuild the community after the 1965 riots failed. The memory of this is forcing officials, politicians, and citizens here to take a deeper look at what constitutes communities that work.

The ability of communities to succeed on their own terms, whatever the odds against them, is an integral part of the American dream. For the dozens of racially mixed, low-income communities in the greater L.A. area, their hopes are often sparked by underfunded, understaffed community organizations working valiantly on their behalf. This is true of inner cities across the United States.

The rebuilding process involves personal and community initiative as well as government and private agencies to restore that which was broken.

"To my mind there is no mystery to how it's done," says Connie Watson, a counselor for the city-funded People Who Care Youth Center in South-Central L.A. "It takes dedicated people with funding support and clear objectives."

According to a black businessman in L.A., "Lack of even the most basic education has doomed a generation of young men in the inner cities. Now, we must turn full attention to improving schools and family cohesion if we want to save our nation. It is not a black or minority problem, or a city problem. It is an American problem of great gravity."

State-encouraged enterprise zones in the inner cities of 37 states are already bolstering the efforts of small businesses. Tax benefits, low-interest loans and grants from the states are the features of the zone programs. In the months ahead, Congress may approve a federal version of enterprise zones. California has funded enterprise zones since 1986. South Central has two zones with several thousand businesses.

In New Jersey, the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development reports that more than 20,000 jobs have been created since 1985 because of enterprise zones. In Newark alone, more than $800 million in investment has led to a business and cultural renaissance and an estimated 3,000 new jobs.

Staggering social problems still take their toll in American cities every day; drug selling and addiction, gang warfare, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence, and crime.

There is little disagreement, particularly in L.A., that whatever programs are launched to address the critical issues, the effects must be to empower people to make their own decisions.

"We need some kind of forum where the people can see themselves with professional people they can trust from their own community, not through the eyes of people outside the communities," says Zaafir Saiful Lah Saafir, who owns a small grocery store here.

In the aftermath of the riots of 1965, there was minimum public discussion about the need for new programs at the community level. Now business organizations, educators, and community leaders are vocal and visible, particularly when it comes to children.

At the Greenmeadows Recreation Park, not far from the Harbor Freeway in central L.A., Georgia Joseph, a recreation assistant in charge of a small day-care center, says, "The children here need so much love and encouragement. They see terrible things at such a young age. Many have so little hope in their eyes. These are kids four and five years old who might have seen a relative shot or their mother taken away by the police." There were more than 700 gang-related homicides in L.A. last year.

"Everybody went to sleep after the 1965 riots," says Maxine Ranson Von Phul, chairwoman of the Black Business Association of Los Angeles, "and now we have to have a concerted and coordinated effort by the public and private sector. All the organizations of color have to see how we can do business with each other. It's all about economics; that's the bottom line, economics."

Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the Rebuild L.A. task force created by Mayor Tom Bradley and Gov. Pete Wilson, agrees that long-term economic opportunities are the key. On a recent radio program, he said the rebuilding effort could serve as a prototype for other inner cities.

"This is an incredible opportunity to do something very right," he said. "We need to be doing something effective in July, August, September, and in 1993. It cannot stop. We've got to do it right."

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