Weekend Events Prove South L.A. Can Be an Amazing Destination, While Also Highlighting the Challenges that Remain to be Overcome

A girl at the Watts Day of the Drum festival. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As I walked toward the new garden beds at the West Athens Victory Garden, I felt a little tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see a young boy of 10 or 12 standing there.

He wrapped his skinny arms around me in a big hug.

“Well, thanks for that!” I said, surprised.

I was attending the first of three community events in South L.A. that day, and it was kind of nice to be getting random hugs so early on in the process.

“What was the hug for?”

“You’re leaving,” he said.

Looking at me again, now a little less sure of himself, he pointed to the corner of the garden and said, “You just interviewed me over there…?”

“Hmm. No, that wasn’t me,” I told him. “But, that’s OK because it means I get to interview you now, right?”

It turned out that he was one of the many young kids that had come to celebrate the new garden launched this past Saturday at 105th and Normandie as part of the Little Green Fingers initiative, a collaborative of the L.A. Conservation Corps, the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, the Better World Group, and several consultants, architects, and educators, and funded by First 5 L.A.

As we walked around examining the plants, he explained his family didn’t have a garden bed there but that he liked to come by and hang out. It was a nice, quiet place to play and he didn’t have too many other places he could go.

He wasn’t kidding.

If you live near the 110/105 interchange in South L.A., besides the vacant lots, there is almost nothing in the way of publicly accessible greenspace in the 3 1/2 miles that lie between Jesse Owens and Ted Watkins parks. I’m aware of one other garden, located at 104th and Vermont, that is always locked and isn’t kid-friendly, and that’s about it.

In case you wanted the visual: A is Jesse Owens park, B is the new garden, and C is Ted Watkins park. There is only one other small garden at Vermont and 104th (that is always locked up every time I go by it) that qualifies as publicly accessible greenspace in that entire area south of Century. (Google Maps)

Other residents had said the same thing. A man walking around the beds with his adorable two year-old was so pleased to see such an asset in his neighborhood that he asked if he could sign up to volunteer there. He had grown up in housing projects and had been limited in his mobility as a kid. He was going to school and wanted something better for his son. And a more positive memory of his neighborhood than the large, tagged-up vacant lot that sat just down the street.

Well aware of the multiple purposes the garden would serve, the collaborating organizations had worked to ensure that the space had play equipment for kids so they could be entertained while their caregivers worked the garden.

That turned out to be an especially important component, according to some of the organizers I spoke with, as the garden sits across the street from senior housing. Since many of those seniors are grandparents who have limited mobility but who have also taken on childcare responsibilities to help family members out, the garden offers them a safe environment within reach where kids can both play and learn about health.

A young man takes his two-year old son for one last stroll around the garden beds as the event comes to a close -- more than an hour after its scheduled end time. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

One such woman even took an organizer aside to tell her that the creation of the garden had completely changed her and her family’s life, both because of the health benefits and because it was such a peaceful place for them to be as a family.

That’s not too shabby for a program still in its early stages.

It was so inspiring in fact, I was reluctant to leave. But, I had two more places I needed to be that day.

So, I headed to the Watts Towers to take in some of the drumming and musical acts that were part of the Day of the Drum Festival.

I was hoping to run into folks I knew from the area to get their take on it.

Unfortunately, although the event was wonderfully well-attended by drumming aficionados and arts patrons from around Los Angeles, there weren’t all that many locals to be found.

The festival drew lots of people from all over, but not too many from the community itself. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Part of the reason, it seemed, was that the Watts Towers has struggled for years to make the community feel welcome there. Older artists I’ve interviewed have spoken of how they once protested against the center for not only privileging certain kinds of art, but also actively trying to keep local kids away from it in order to make the space more welcoming to outsiders (see Watts Poet Amde Hamilton’s take here). While attitudes at the Towers have long-since changed, some in the community still seem to question the extent which they are welcome at events there.

The other reason, Andre “L.D.” Christian (a gang intervention specialist who was tabling with the Advancement Project) suggested, might have to do with the recent shootings in and around the housing developments. While the incidents had immediately sparked a lot of behind-the-scenes scrambling on the part of the LAPD and the gang interventionists to calm tensions and prevent further retaliations, it didn’t mean that young men were ready to be back out on the street in public places where they would be vulnerable to attack.

Sometimes it’s easier to build peace when the blood has dried, he told me. Right now, things were still a little too fresh.

“It’s such a shame,” I said, gesturing towards the packed music tent and a joyful elderly Asian man who had been dancing non-stop by himself for hours, “because these are exactly the kinds of events that Watts needs to have more of!”

A joyful elderly man dances to the West African beats of Futa Toro. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

From there, I headed to a place where community-building efforts have been much more successful: Community Coalition‘s (CoCo) Power Festival at Martin Luther King Park (at 39th and Western).

The event, now in its second year, has proven to be a massive success in the community.

The impetus for the event stems from CoCo’s efforts to take community assets back as positive sites of community-building for residents. King Park, in particular, had seen more than its share of problems over the years. Residents reported people used to openly use or sell drugs there and that violence was not uncommon.

Through community-organizing efforts that included getting a problematic liquor store designated as a nuisance, bringing the Summer Night Lights program to the park, and even the occasional deployment of youth leaders to fan out throughout the park and create a positive presence, they have managed to send the message that unlawful or harmful activity is unwelcome there.

There’s still much to do.

Prostitution — once more prevalent half a mile or so south from there — has been a problem in the area around 39th for a while now. And, the girls seem to be getting younger and younger as time goes on. With that kind of activity come all the problems you might imagine. Still, it does feel like things are on the move for the better.

I arrived just as the band was on a break and CoCo volunteers were leading a big group of festival-goers in the Electric Slide up near the stage.

I had managed to miss the Mayor’s appearance and some amazing music, long-time CoCo volunteer George told me, but there were still good things to come.

Residents take in a cooking demonstration. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

One of the most popular attractions was clearly the huge tent set up to help people prepare to navigate the enrollment process for Affordable Care Act.

Bryan Rodriguez, a 16 year-old Fremont High student who works with UMMA clinic, said he had started the day on one side of the table inside the tent and had soon found himself having to move outside the tent to make space for all the people seeking information. He hadn’t expected so many people would need help, but was glad that they were able to offer it.

Other popular attractions included cooking demonstrations that were relevant to the communities from the area, fresh produce from Community Services Unlimited, healthy smoothie concoctions from 3 Worlds Cafe, free bike fixing by the East Side Riders, and a project by L.A. Commons, who deployed youth to gather the stories of residents that they would then use (with their youth artists) to create community-based murals.

One of the murals inspired by stories gathered from South L.A. residents. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Most impressively, CoCo, which has worked to build black-brown unity in an area where tensions can run high, had managed to bring together a diverse and harmonious crowd. I even saw a few of the folks that may have once been targeted by the park clean-up efforts in the past. Except those young men were now there with their young children, teaching them that another, more positive way was possible. Which gets to the heart of what the event was about — harnessing the aspirations of the community for themselves and their families to set a positive, homegrown transformation in motion.

And yet, you weren’t hit over the head with preachy messages telling you what you should or shouldn’t spend your time doing. Instead, it felt like a very chill block party where the community was the guest of honor. The kind of party that you leave saying, “That was so much fun — how long before we get to do it again?”