Vermont Entertainment Village Breaks Ground; Residents Ask That Local Hiring Be Cornerstone

At yesterday's groundbreaking, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild the vacant lots at Manchester and Vermont and the jobs the effort would bring to the area. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Gilbert showed up to ask for the job he was promised 23 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
At yesterday’s groundbreaking at Manchester and Vermont, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild South L.A. using minority contractors. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley standing in the Manchester/Vermont lot. Gilbert showed up to ask for the jobs he and other residents were promised 23 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

If they weren’t going to let us in, said an elderly woman in Spanish, then why did they send us cards inviting us to the ceremony?

She had shown up to the groundbreaking for the Vermont Entertainment Village project at Vermont and Manchester yesterday with her daughters and their young children only to be told that it was a private ceremony. She and the other curious residents would have to stay outside the fencing while a host of dignitaries spoke about how wonderful it was to see such positive change on the 23rd anniversary of the 1992 riots and what a hard-fought victory the project represented for the community.

A man outside the fence recalled having been hired to do clean-up work on the lot several years back. Another man said he rushed down to the site on his bike after seeing mention of the groundbreaking on the news that morning. A woman standing with her daughter — who had been born shortly after the riots — recalled watching the swap meet burn. A young man sporting tattoos marking his affiliation said he knew it was a great day for them to begin the project because it was his birthday. And a man who had been managing the residential hotel across the street for the last 5 years said he couldn’t wait for the project to be finished — it was needed in the community.

They pored over the extra brochures I snagged for them to look at.

The prospective tenant chart on Sassony's project website.
The prospective tenant chart includes a much-needed grocery store on Sassony’s project website.

“Ooh, it’s beautiful,” “We need this,” “We have been waiting so long for this,” “We will be able to walk to the grocery store and won’t have to go to the Ralph’s [on Western and Manchester] anymore…well, you’d have to go into that Ralph’s to understand…” and “Universal City Walk gonna be jealous!” were just some of the many comments in favor of the project I heard.

Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village interior plaza.
Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village interior plaza.

But just as common as the praise for the two-block retail destination center, promenade, and performance space were the questions about jobs and how quickly the residents could have access to them.

No one was more adamant about ensuring jobs went to locals than 53-year-old Dana Gilbert.

Gilbert, who had lived a block away from the site for much of his life, had shown up to the ceremony carrying his resume and a laminated article about the post-riot rebuilding effort from June of 1992 which featured a photo of him with then-Mayor Tom Bradley walking the very lot in which we were standing (see photo at top and below).

Gilbert shows the 1992 article to developer Eli Sasson and asks about jobs for the community. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Gilbert shows the 1992 article to developer Eli Sasson and asks about jobs for the community. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Although he was looking for that job he was promised 23 years ago, when Bradley reassured him the community would be part of the rebuilding effort, he made it clear that, “I don’t care if the job doesn’t go to me.”

Gesturing to the surrounding neighborhood, he said, “It has to go to at least one of these young [gang members] around here. Then they will be able to tell the homies they got a job…” and that may encourage other gang members to think they could get jobs, too, or go back to school.

Making the project feel like it belonged to both black and brown residents, he felt, was important to fostering hope for the area. And hope, he knew, had long been in short supply for the neighborhood youth.

The Vermont corridor stretching south of Manchester was given the unfortunate moniker of “death alley” by an area detective for having one of the highest homicide rates in L.A. County. Much to the community’s dismay, the name then became the blanket label for the community in an L.A. Times report from last January detailing the toll the violence had taken on residents. And while the alarm had been raised, it did little to stem the flow of blood over the last year.

Gilbert himself is no stranger to that reality, having been shot 6 times in two separate incidents back in the day.

“I’m half the man I used to be,” he said, indicating he meant that quite literally.

Still, he managed to stay on track, working as an offset printer until he was laid off in 2007 and then attending Trade Tech to get his plumber’s credentials. But it hadn’t always been easy.

In the days following the riots, he recalled, “reality set in.” The lots at Vermont and Manchester, holding the smoldering remains of a swap meet and other shopping centers, reminded him of the music video for “Thriller” — smoky and spooky at night. People trying to pick up their lives and get to jobs (or even to the grocery store to get meat) found themselves immobilized because they couldn’t get gas. Gas stations wouldn’t allow them to fill up their gas cans, fearing the gas would be used for more rioting, and the police were making it nearly impossible for people to move from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Many, Gilbert included, began plundering burned buildings for scrap metal. But given that many of the lot owners had set up security to watch over the remains of buildings, he said, they had had to be smart about it. He and some friends would hire a girl to seduce the security guard — she would walk past him in the day time with the promise to come back at night with dinner — and then cut a hole in the fence, grab the metal they needed, and tie the fence back up while she kept him entertained. Lot owners were so slow to address the mess on their lots, he said, he had been able to make extra income selling scrap metal for almost four years.

Residents hadn’t really had much choice to be anything other than resourceful, he said. They had all hoped for the best — many had gotten haircuts and put on their best clothes to welcome Mayor Bradley into their community that day back in 1992 — but the reconstruction jobs they had been promised had never materialized. So they had had to fend for themselves.

His goal yesterday was to make sure those in power knew that they couldn’t get away with “building [the community] up if you’re just gonna tear them down again.”

Media and local notables document the demolition of the Payless Shoe Store on the corner of Manchester and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Media and local notables document the demolition of the Payless Shoe Store on the corner of Manchester and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The Sassony Group seemed eager to reassure Gilbert and other attendees that their intentions were good. Eli Sasson, the CEO/Founder of the Sassony Group, apparently told at least one onlooker from the community that he would be holding a job fair.

Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Dueñas said, “We are making it mandatory” for their contractors to try to hire local. They can’t guarantee percentages, she said, because their financing is fully private and the contractors will be private, but they will do what they can to see that the community has the opportunity to participate in both the construction and the retail opportunities. To that end, she said, they might open a recruiting office across the street, in one of the buildings Sasson owns on that side of Vermont.

“The project is meant to uplift the community,” she said. And key to that would be ensuring that the community felt ownership of the project, “…because then it will be theirs.”

And there may be more to come.

“Our goal is to make Vermont-Manchester a destination point,” Dueñas said when I asked about rumors Sassony would be tearing down the buildings across the street and putting in a movie theater and more retail.

Sassony is still acquiring some of the buildings (and according to the manager of one of the buildings, some of the owners are not interested in selling yet), but that larger objective seems clear, given the marketing of the project on the website (only 4 miles from downtown!), the touting of free shuttle service between USC and the Entertainment Village on the brochure, and a reference to South Los Angeles as “SOLA.”

The ceremonial shovels rest in front of renderings of the new shopping center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The ceremonial shovels rest in front of renderings of the new shopping center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Speaking with Perry, a building manager, and some of the neighbors from across the street well after the ceremony had concluded, I heard the same kinds of comments I had heard from the onlookers to the festivities. All were impressed with the design and pleased to see that level of investment in their neighborhood — having a safe and protected place for families and youth to walk and shop was important, they felt, given the violence and oppression around them.

Plus, it would be more convenient.

“If I lived within a block of a grocery store, I’d have a smaller refrigerator!” said one man.

But jobs were also important to them. They hoped that Sassony would choose contractors that prioritized local hiring. The young men of the area needed that — too many were being lost. They wanted to be optimistic that the community would benefit, they said, but they had been made many promises before.

Whatever the outcome, there was one thing they knew for certain: “This is for sure going to change the neighborhood.”

* * * *

For background on the $200 million project due to be completed in 2016, see this story. For more renderings, visit the Sassony Group webpage. If you have questions, comments, tips, contact sahra@streetsblog.org or follow me on twitter.

  • Stvr

    Enough concern trolling. Labor activism is far outside of Streetsblog’s mission. It’s arguably labor activism that prevents good transit from getting built affordably. Stick to the mission statement.

  • sahra

    So, you’re offended that I reported the concerns of the community or that people want to be able to benefit from the development of two vacant lots whose blight held the community hostage for more than 20 years?

  • Scott

    I love seeing investment in the community, unfortunately neither the Sassony Group nor the specifics of this proposal suggest to me that the residents of this neighborhood are going to get the investment that they deserve.

    200 million dollars for a wannabe Grove replica, complete with rendered shiny happy white people. These people need the grocery store that they are desperate for, they need the jobs that it doesn’t seem like anyone is actually making an effort to make sure they get. There are two really obvious ways that I think this could go very sour. In one scenario, the Sassonys get what they want and Vermont/Manchester becomes a retail destination (I don’t see it, personally). In that case what kind of grocery store ends up here? Gelson’s? Whole Foods? Something none of the current residents can afford? The other scenario is that none of the desired retail leases come to pass and the residents end up with even more blight than the already have.

    As far as I can tell Sassony group has given exactly zero thought to the community this is going in, and about the same amount to the project in general. Even the promo for this project looks like it was made in 1988 and mothballed.

    Honest to God, I hope I’m wrong because $200 million in investment is huge for this community, but only if it’s spent wisely.

    and Stvr, this is one of the densest, most transit-dependent corridors in the entire county. If North-South racism weren’t so deeply embedded in LA’s collective psyche, the Vermont Subway would’ve been built already. There’s your transit connection, enjoy.

  • sahra

    That’s hilarious that you mention 1988– the plans look an awful lot like the ones he had years and years ago. But given that there is nothing of this sort in the area, people are hopeful for something shiny for themselves. It’s not my cup of tea, but the sentiment on that was unanimous… and I talked to a lot of people. And they’ll be thrilled with a regular old Ralphs/Vons/etc just as long as it is clean and reliable and well-priced and fresh. So be it.

    All the white people in the renderings and the kinds of retailers they were looking at also gave me pause, as you mention. I did find it amusing that the rendering I used in my top photo on my previous story on this was blown up for the groundbreaking, but the white people had been replaced with black people. I have the same concerns as you… this project makes me nervous because the promises are so over the top and the community’s expectations are so high. And the unwillingness to disclose where the funding was coming from (beyond the fact that it was fully private) and the fact that, as I understood it, they do not yet have contractors for the construction (which is supposed to be completed in a year and a half), and the fact that they’re aiming for outsiders to come in (free shuttle from USC?) and misstating the median income from the area (w/in a 2-mile radius) as nearly $60,000 on their brochure when that of most of the surrounding neighborhoods doesn’t break $35,000 (potentially as a way to attract retailers?) just all seems a bit questionable. And it hurts my soul to think that, after so many years, someone would gamble with the well being of a community that had struggled so much. But it is clear he has bigger plans, too — taking over the section across the street and making that into an entertainment center (an onlooker said that the loss of the USC village theater had been a blow to the community) could really turn the community around.

    Going big is necessary in a community that has struggled this much for it to be enough of a draw and enough of a gamechanger, so if he is committed to pulling it off, it could be tremendous. And then throw in the Vermont BRT (if that gets built), and suddenly you may just have a really lovely little hub. I don’t know… I go back and forth on it. My fingers are crossed so hard they hurt.

  • Stvr

    Streetsblog is a project run by OpenPlans providing a daily news source connecting people to information about sustainable transportation and livable communities. StreetsBlog started in 2006 and has ‘hundreds of thousands’ of regular readers.[15]”

    That’s from Wikipedia. This article deviates so far from that mission statement as to be unconscionable. Really leaves a bad taste in a long time reader (me). Feels more appropriate for DailyKos. Threatens to limit Streetsblog’s influence. Don’t want to be pigeonholed as a commie rag.

  • sahra

    You may be a long-time reader, but it is clear you looked only at the title and didn’t read the piece or the one it is linked to from earlier in the week. It is also clear you are unfamiliar with South LA, or low-income communities of color, in general. Which is your right. But that frees me from having to fret over however sour the commie taste in your mouth may be. The challenge of livability in South LA is that the public spaces are not safe. And sites that impact the feel and health of public spaces are blighted and neglected. So private spaces often become de facto public ones. A project like this, for better or worse, is one that enhances livability in that it will give youth and families a safe and protected space in which to come together as a community, just as parklets and plazas in better-off communities serve those areas. I describe these challenges regularly in pieces on South LA, and addressed some of the challenges in the previous piece from earlier this week. The larger story here is just how destructive blight can be to a community — over the years I’ve chronicled how it harms the self esteem of communities, makes spaces unwalkable, and repels investors and members of other communities from seeing particular neighborhoods as having value and meriting the kinds of interventions and infrastructure better-off communities enjoy. I’m sorry if it strikes you as communist that lower-income communities should aspire to see blight transformed… not because I’m afraid of offending, but because I’m sorry that someone might follow such a truly bizarre train of logic.

  • AlwaysBlossom

    seems like gentrification…too sudden imo and I don’t trust White people

  • sahra

    that’s not fair — generalizations like that never can be. but being concerned about the intentions of wealthy developers that may or may not care about the community and who allow land to hold a community hostage for 20+ years? totally fair.

  • AlwaysBlossom

    no, it’s quite fair.

  • AndreL

    As for employment issues pointed in the article, two critical questions need to be asked:

    1. Are there local people with skills needed to participate in a complex construction project? As the project is relatively short-term (should be done in less than 20 months), there is no time to start training local people for specific jobs. By the time training ends, there wouldn’t much that many jobs available for the fact construction itself would have be approaching its end.

    2. Shouldn’t decent employers automatically stay away from known gang members, for nothing good can come of having people working for you that are proudly (to the point of prominently tattooing that) associated with a crime syndicate that might well try to extort, rob, or shake your business down? I’d have empathy id the conversation was about employer former felons who are rehabilitated and living clean, but not active gang members who didn’t quit their gang.

  • sahra

    Your first question is a good one… it is the same one the construction of the Crenshaw Line has come up against. People are not seeing their community reflected in the worker pool because those folks weren’t able to complete training in advance of the commencement of construction. The second question is one that is more about you — you have assumptions about how the community works that are not quite accurate. It is important to know who you are hiring, this is true, but as you know I’ve written about many, many, many times, youth often get into gangs for survival reasons and don’t get out because there is nowhere for them to go, not because they are criminal masterminds or interested in being part of massive crime syndicates (which the majority of gangs are not even remotely close to being). Many would much rather prefer to have jobs. And the area has a high rate of folks returning from incarceration, so those folks will be looking for jobs as well. They may need help preparing to enter the job market — there have been so few opportunities in the area that many have only informal work experience. And hopefully this is something the developer will take into account.

  • Yvette Benner

    I can’t see this project luring upscale business. I can see this being viable if it is more like Plaza Mexico in Lynwood.

  • Isaiah Z Fortajada

    Is this still happening? I’ve driven by the lot and haven’t seen any development.

  • Manuel Eduardo Hernandez

    Well, we have yet to see that happening. F–k them!

  • Manuel Eduardo Hernandez

    They have yet to find the right group to even build it. .-. I’m pissed that it’s still an empty lot and have yet to even start building it!

  • Manuel Eduardo Hernandez

    UPDATE: It is not going to happen. The project is dead.

  • sahra

    There’s an entirely different project underway. I’ll be posting that story this week. In the meanwhile: https://la.streetsblog.org/2018/04/26/county-wins-control-of-vermontmanchester-lots-in-superior-court-ruling/

  • Manuel Eduardo Hernandez

    I know. Amen to that! Let’s hope that Metro keeps their word and NOT have to deal w/ more lawsuits from… you know, Beverly Hills!

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