As Vermont/Manchester Transportation School Moves Forward, Community Reckons with Past, Wrestles with Form Change Should Take
For black stakeholders eager to shed the despised "Death Alley" label and address the damage rooted in segregationist policies, the stakes feel especially high
Just north of Manchester, standing in the sliver of shade cast by the Exodus Recovery Center’s roll-up gate, Tony points southward along Vermont.
A pool hall, a bar, a shoe store, clothing shops, the wig stop, the swap meet that once stood across the street – he ticks off a list of stores and venues that had populated the corridor before 1992. Like many of the area’s older long-time residents, he vividly remembers what it was like to have a bustling district right in his own neighborhood.
And like so many of those same residents, he laments that youth raised after 1992 have no concept of what it was like to have even basic amenities in their own community. The devastation left behind after entire blocks burned (see photos here and here) had helped drag down everything around it.
As if to prove that point, Tony’s son looks up from where he is leaning against the wall and nods wistfully in the direction of the County services building at 83rd. He had grown up doing back flips on mattresses people had dumped there back in the day, he says. That lot – originally supposed to be the northern end of the Vermont Entertainment Village project before being sold off in 2007 – and the debris it accumulated had served as his own personal jungle gym.
When asked if they’ve heard what has been planned for the remaining lots between 84th and Manchester, another man standing outside the Just Your Style barber shop laughs, “A juvenile hall, right?”
In fact, if the people that stop by the shop over the course of three hours have heard anything about the County’s plans, they’ve heard some variation on the same thing – that the aim is to warehouse “the bad kids.” That punishment will find its way into the heart of the project.
Hearing that it would be a specialized school aimed at giving kids the engineering training and supportive services they would need to successfully move into transit-oriented careers only raised more questions. Weren’t there already enough schools in the area, including a fairly large high school two blocks away that just opened its doors this past January?
Standing across the street from the four acres that, for more than twenty-six years, have best testified to the extent to which this corridor was both the hardest hit in 1992 and the least recovered since, their skepticism is more a survival mechanism than a conscious choice.
All the promises.
All the ways the corridor was supposed to be remade.
All the ways office workers’ dollars were expected to bounce in the neighborhood when the County building opened its doors at 83rd.
All the promises developer Eli Sasson made regarding the shiny Grove-like retail center he said would rise from the swap meet’s ashes.
All of it failed to materialize.
Instead, much to the continued dismay and disgust of residents, a 2014 L.A. Times story rechristened the community “Death Alley.”
The label, the story said, was used by a detective to distinguish the area for having one of the highest homicide rates in L.A. County.
To the community, however, it was emblematic of how much license the police have had to both define the area and its people and justify their continued oppression.
It’s a label one of the young men brings up with disdain now while talking about the willful ignorance of outsiders with regard to the potential of black youth.
Like the others lingering on the sidewalk, he wants so much better for the community. And the knowledge that something will finally rise on those lots is welcome news to all of them. But experience has taught them not to get their hopes up.
So for now, they wait.
“Death Alley,” County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas muses with chagrin, wiping the sweat from his brow.
We have taken refuge in the shade of a canopy at the July 7 activation of the Vermont/Manchester lots, but it is still scorching hot.
Even with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, a number of community notables, block club leaders and neighborhood councilmembers, business owners, spiritual leaders, non-profit staff, and long-time activists from around South Central continue to mill around the space.
They have come to learn more about the County’s plans to squeeze a public boarding school, affordable housing, a transit career training center, a transit plaza, and a grocery store onto the site and to offer their thoughts on the form it all should take.
Some of those who are concerned about the project are also on hand.
Members of ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), for example, have come out to ask for assurances that the affordable housing will truly be affordable to area residents. Too often, the challenges inherent in cobbling together funding for projects mean that units are most commonly offered at fifty or sixty percent of the area median income (AMI) – just over $69,000 for a family of four. In communities like this one, where the neighborhood median income is around half that amount, the very residents most in need of stable affordable housing may not earn the minimum income required to access it. [See more in-depth discussions of what that looks like in practice here and here.]
Others who have come to protest the project outright question its redundancy (in addition to a new school, there is a 62-unit affordable housing project under construction two blocks away) and lobby for a retail-focused project. Some ask whether a school serving troubled kids will only further stigmatize the area and discourage local students from attending. And some stand just outside the fence holding signs decrying the boarding school as a detention center and “baby jail.” Eager to ensure they are heard, one woman even gestures at me with her sign from behind Ridley-Thomas’ head.
He remains unfazed.
There is too much unfinished business at hand.
It is not a good thing for a community to be defined as “Death Alley,” he says – a rebuke he has reiterated countless times since that story first ran.
His rejection of the term is not a denial of the community’s struggles. It is, instead, a repudiation of the idea that the challenges the community faces are organic to it.
Ridley-Thomas himself had been a key figure calling out injustices perpetrated against the community in the years leading up to 1992. The creation of the Empowerment Congress, his support for incentivizing the construction of laundromats where liquor stores had burned, his lobbying for both a rail line along Crenshaw and a stop at Leimert Park, and the championing of the construction of a new hospital at the site where King/Drew – the hospital built to right some of the wrongs that had triggered the unrest of 1965 – had been shut down after failing so many were all part of a larger effort to address the harms done by segregation and disinvestment and to lay the foundation for a more resilient future.
His rejection of the term is also a refusal to accept the characterization of the community as the sum of the pain it has endured.
“We don’t design to that,” he says of the “Death Alley” label. “We respond in a way that is life-affirming” and “uplifting.”
To that end, the County recently entered into an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement with non-profit developer Bridge Housing Corporation (and partners Coalition for Responsible Community Development and Primestor Development, Inc.) to build 180 units serving lower-income and homeless residents on the lots. Fifty-five of the units will provide permanent supportive housing for tenants who have struggled with homelessness; on-site services will potentially include job training and assistance with mental health and substance abuse. The other 125 units will be aimed at those earning between forty and sixty percent AMI. The apartments will range from studios to three-bedroom units to accommodate everyone from individuals to multigenerational and larger families.
The focus on supportive housing for the homeless is, as Ridley-Thomas has said, part of the larger effort to “reinforc[e] the safety net for the Vermont/Manchester community.“ And thanks to the voters having approved Measure HHH (the $1.2 billion bond funded by property taxes to help the city acquire land for housing for the homeless), there is money available to make it easier for the project to get off the ground.
The true “catalytic” cornerstone of the project planned for the site, however, is the 400-student public boarding school.
The first of its kind in the city, it represents both an investment in the community’s greatest asset – its youth – and, via the unique partnership with Metro, the creation of some of the infrastructure necessary to make that investment pay off for the wider community over the long haul.
The school will be managed by the SEED Foundation, an organization that specializes in supportive boarding schools, and serve Young Opportunity Youth – youth who are currently receiving services from, or are at risk of entering, the County’s child welfare system, probation department/juvenile justice system, or homeless services. In offering round-the-clock supportive services to youth who tend to bounce from school to school, the program will provide both academic and social stability to the kids most at risk of falling through the cracks as they move into adulthood.
For its part, the feasibility report on the school states, “Metro will provide real-world learning opportunities for students, curriculum supports, mentorships, hands-on learning opportunities, teacher professional development, and other programming that helps to expose, educate, and employ youth in the Transportation Industry.”
With a STEAM-focused curriculum modeled after New York’s Transit Tech, Metro CEO Phil Washington has argued, the program can also give students the transferable skills needed to make them competitive in any environment, including planning, architecture, or engineering. Testifying before the Board of Supervisors this past June he had declared, “We’re talking about the ports. We’re talking about aviation. We’re talking about transportation in the global sense and getting young people in the county ready for careers in the global transportation industry.” [See Metro’s full school feasibility report.]
Still, Washington, Ridley-Thomas, and 8th District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson hope the school and the separate on-site transit career training center for adults will help channel students and area residents into Metro’s own workforce. With as many as 40 percent of the workforce set to retire just as the push to build out L.A.’s transit system begins generating the nearly 800,000 jobs it is expected to create in the coming years, Metro needs a local pool of talent to draw from. And the community itself is crying out for those well-paying career options. Unemployment and underemployment in the area, particularly among black men and youth, remains high.
Buy-in from a potential employer like Metro that is already building the public and private partnerships necessary to establish a supportive job pipeline is what makes Ridley-Thomas confident that this project will, as he said at the mid-June kickoff ceremony for the transit school, “disrupt the cycle that tends to make things less than what they ought to be.” And it allows for a more comprehensive approach to public investment that “is consistently grounded in that which is healthy, grounded in that which is caring, grounded in that which is going to nurture this environment.”
“And this environment needs nurturing.”
Segregation, Disinvestment, and How a Mall Became a Symbol of Hope…
Few would disagree the environment could use a little nurturing.
But the County’s plans do not necessarily coincide with the kind of nurturing everyone is looking for.
When, in 2015, developer Eli Sasson broke ceremonial ground on the mall project he had had in the works for over a decade, many were hopeful that it finally signaled tangible change. Gaudy and outdated as the design was, it offered something the area had never really had: a major destination that both promised jobs and showed respect for black dollars.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the Vermont-Manchester corridor had been a vital hub in white life. Desirable housing in the Knolls, department stores, theaters and entertainment options, banks, jewelry stores, drug stores, hardware stores, clothing stores, transit access, and Pepperdine University just up the street at 79th – the neighborhood had had it all.
By the time of the unrest in Watts in 1965, however, a major shift had already begun.
Wealthier African Americans had started moving out of redlined areas after 1948, when the Supreme Court struck down the racial covenants restricting their ability to live in and own property in white neighborhoods. And even though black folks fleeing the Jim Crow South boosted the community’s numbers from 75,000 to 650,000 between 1940 and 1960, census data suggests that African Americans were only just beginning to move west of the 110 freeway in 1960.
White Californians, alarmed at both the population boom and its implications for their own communities, pushed back. They reconsidered their definition of “whiteness” to shore up their own numbers, warily welcoming Jews and other European immigrants into their neighborhoods under the now more forgiving label. They also took concrete action against California’s Fair Housing law with Proposition 14 in 1964 – a ballot measure aimed at re-legalizing discrimination by privileging an owner’s discretion in determining how to dispense of their private property. The measure was approved with overwhelming support, resulting in the cutting off of federal housing funds and, in L.A., adding resentment over deteriorating living conditions and rampant overcrowding to the already simmering tensions stoked by police brutality.
When Watts finally erupted in August of 1965, the white-owned businesses clustered along Central, Broadway, Florence, 103rd, and Vermont were some of the first targets to fall. The shifts in the industrial job market and the influx of a much poorer population had created a significant gap between the businesses and the customer base they now served. Over time, the tendency of some of those business owners to treat black clientele poorly, deny them credit or job opportunities, and/or charge higher prices for inferior products transformed that gap into a yawning gulf.
Most of the white-owned shops that were damaged in 1965 never returned; those that were not soon left of their own accord.
Pepperdine followed as quickly as it could.
By the time officials had found themselves in tense negotiations with community members in 1969 (after a white campus cop shot fifteen-year-old Lawrence Donnell Kimmons point-blank in the chest as he left campus with friends), the search for a new site was already well underway. The campus had grown quickly over the previous years and even served a relatively large African American population – twenty percent of the student body was black in 1970. But neither the university nor its funders were willing to invest in expanding the campus in a community they viewed as being in decay, and where black voices clamoring for rights both on and off campus were gaining traction.
With the white-owned businesses and institutions went the majority of basic services communities rely on, like grocery stores (Watts would not get a grocery store until nineteen years after the unrest of ‘65) and banks (the number of branches available to serve 600,000 people fluctuated between six and nineteen in the early ‘90s). Schools that had once been majority white fell into disrepair. Other services that the community had never had, like urgent and trauma care, did not arrive until too late for too many.
Local entrepreneurs had tried to fill in some of the retail and service gaps whites left when they fled, but limited access to resources and capital made that difficult. Instead, it would be Koreans – welcomed when quotas tied to country of origin were eliminated in 1965, but denied entry to mainstream job markets once they were here – who moved into the garment and wig industries and opened the mini-markets, liquor stores, and swap meets that would become ubiquitous across South Central. Now not only were residents’ needs not being met, but the sheer number of liquor stores felt predatory, as did the extent to which residents reported being made to feel unwelcome in those establishments. It was one more reminder that they would never have ownership over their own neighborhoods. [See the L.A. Times’ mapping of the nearly 200 mostly Korean-owned liquor stores that burned in 1992.]
The mall Sasson promised was to be an antidote to the decades of abandonment and disrespect.
And it – or a retail project of similar scope – had the potential to act as the kind of catalyst for economic growth that affordable housing or a charter school never could, argues Elle Perrault, the protester who had gestured to me from behind Mark Ridley-Thomas’ head back in July.
We are reviewing the concerns Perrault, a choir director and Vermont Knolls stakeholder, has regarding the County’s plans while seated in a quiet alcove in her beautiful home.
From the vantage point of this picturesque middle-class neighborhood just a few blocks west of the lots, the protesters’ opposition is not that hard to understand.
One of the legacies of segregation is the great economic diversity found within the area’s black community – some of the community’s wealthier members live within a few blocks of some of its poorest – and across South L.A., more generally.
Yet, redevelopment efforts have never engaged that reality particularly well.
For obvious reasons, projects that have come into the community have targeted those on the lower-income end of the spectrum. But that orientation, coupled with the ongoing challenge of convincing retailers to invest in black communities, has limited the impacts of efforts to spur economic development.
Even as the mall project was debated over the years, many – Congressmember Maxine Waters included – continued to argue that it offered the best possibility of meeting the needs of a range of stakeholders while also generating spillover benefits. Namely, while catering to the middle-class residents and providing jobs to those who needed them most, it would also draw patrons from outside the immediate area. The influx of visitors, in turn, would (in theory) spur growth and help create a healthier environment around the mall. Assuming, that is, that Sasson would have ever followed through on the project (highly unlikely, per both his history and a bizarre conversation I had with him) and that retailers would have been willing to finally take a chance on the community – something even the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has unfortunately continued to struggle with. [As recently as 1995, stakeholders held a parade to convince Macy’s that there was a strong customer base ready to welcome it, while major grocers like Vons and Trader Joe’s continue to shun the area].
…and a Proxy for Community Control
In the end, whether or not the mall option was a realistic one may be of less consequence than all the things for which the mall acted as a proxy.
Given the role of public agencies in the area’s disenfranchisement, for example, many find it hard to trust the word of those same agencies now. And when they feel those agencies have shirked transparency, experience has taught them that not only is something likely to be afoot, but that lower-income residents of color, and black people in particular, are likely to get the short end of the stick.
Perrault falls into this camp.
Not only does she lack faith in the sincerity of the County, Metro, and the Councilmember’s office, she is not convinced they have the capacity to make good on their promises.
Neither she nor her fellow protesters have forgotten the resources wasted on Rebuild L.A. – the misguided and mismanaged effort to inject investment into the area after 1992 – or the extent to which it excluded residents from having a voice in the rebuilding process. Nor have they forgotten how vigilant the larger community had had to remain to ensure that new development was conscious of residents’ aspirations. Or how much time stakeholders like Dr. Betty Price and others at the Crenshaw Christian Center had spent engaging Sasson so the project would conform to local needs.
The relative speed with which the County appeared to have pushed its plans through only set off more alarm bells. Within a week of last November’s announcement that it was launching an eminent domain process, the Board of Supervisors had already approved the Resolution of Necessity condemning the vacant lots. By late April, 2018, the County had won its bid, a school operator had been named, and Metro had begun convening working groups to gather input on the direction the school should take (see p. 36).
How could the County have taken such a drastic step without consulting the community ahead of time?
Unsatisfying an explanation as it may be for those with such concerns, the fact that the long-term costs of segregation and of being held hostage to blight remain of little import to the courts are a key reason things unfolded as they did.
Even to launch a process condemning the lots, the site had to be shown to be integral to the success of a public-oriented project, not to righting past wrongs, as the community might have preferred. The County therefore had had to go into the process with a fully formed set of plans already in hand. And there was no viable way to hold an inclusive community process around a piece of land the County had no legal right to prior to the court ruling.
Within those constraints, a partnership with Metro that, in theory, will help the County house area residents, provide some of the most vulnerable members of the community with a world-class education, plug trainees into jobs outside their front doors (as the Vermont Bus Rapid Transit Line project gets underway), and offer residents the grocery store they have long clamored for is a relatively creative solution.
And the community had certainly waited long enough for something – anything – to happen there. As Harris-Dawson had noted in his remarks to the Board of Supervisors last year, children had been born, grown up, and gone on to begin their own families all while the lots had continued to limit the potential of everyone around them.
But it does make efforts to be transparent now – including dubbing the site the “People’s Lots,” a one-off town hall, cursory online surveys, door-knockers sent to engage residents, and the events held on the lots (including Community Coalition’s Annual Power Fest) – ring somewhat hollow. With so many of the major elements of the project essentially fixed, there are not a lot of points of entry for the community to exercise much, if any, control.
Which makes it all the more important that the public agencies revisit their understanding of what it means to be transparent, argues resident and open house attendee Ron Hayes.
Even if the project itself can’t be adjusted, he says, the way it gets built certainly can.
And the more effort the agencies put into including local residents and entrepreneurs in building it from the ground up, the more likely it is to act as an economic stimulus, convince skeptics that the agencies’ commitment to uplifting the community is genuine, and convey a sense of real community ownership. One only need revisit the extent to which the minimal presence of black workers in the early days of construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line – a project that had, in great part, been sold to the community as a job generator – to be reminded of how easily doubts about who a project is ultimately for can add up.
“I don’t just want to be informed,” Perrault concurs. “I want to have a say.”
A say in how resources are to be spent, for example.
And a say in how children are to be uplifted.
Because not only is such a busy corner an inappropriate environment for a school, she argues, but the project as a whole overlooks the arts.
With no mechanism by which residents’ stories can be gathered, honored, and incorporated into the foundation of the project, she continues, there is no catalyst for creative innovation. No outlet for cultural expression. And no space for an intra-community conversation about how to redefine the area in a way that speaks to its true spirit.
Together, it amounts to a “slap in the face,” she declares. “And it sends the message that we are not worth it.”
Back out on the lots, Pastor Anthony Williams and I are eyeing the clean-up crew.
It is not yet 4 o’clock – the time the July 7 open house is scheduled to end – but shade structures and tables are being folded up all around us.
We need the canopy we’ve taken refuge under for a bit longer. Williams has dedicated thirty-plus years to ministering to a wide cross-section of stakeholders in the Vermont/Manchester area and he has a lot to get across regarding both the spirit of the community and where a mall does or does not fit in.
His grandfather, Bishop Bennie Roberts Benbow, the founder of the 88th Street Temple of God in Christ, had moved the church from its Santa Monica location to the Vermont/Manchester area in 1984, just as the crack epidemic was beginning to sink its clutches into the area’s more vulnerable residents.
Benbow was 77 years old at the time he got the call to move to South Central, says Williams. But answer it he did.
They learned how much the community appreciated the church’s willingness to minister to, feed, clothe, and counsel all those who needed it in 1992, when Williams says gang members stood outside the church with rifles, protecting it from being burned.
Much has changed since then, including the demographics of the neighborhood – the once majority-black corridor is now about half Latino.
But the work remains the same.
Since taking over the ministry full time in 2008, Williams (with the help of his mother) has continued the work of feeding and counseling area residents, hosting community clean-ups and conversations, and remaining welcoming to all. He even opens his doors to gang funerals, trusting that the bonds he has built with young men in the area will do the work of keeping the peace in the moment and, hopefully, help move the community toward a more sustainable peace over the long haul.
Being that deep in the trenches means he has no illusions about what a stand-alone transit school or housing project can or cannot do for the community. It was only a few years ago that a thirty-six-year-old man was murdered in the church’s own parking lot when he stopped to chat with the security guard.
Such incidents take a deep and cumulative toll on the psyche of black and Latino residents alike.
That was seen yet again just a few months ago, when word of a shooting at the corner liquor store that left two people dead and four others injured set social media ablaze. Area neighbors, friends, and relatives quickly spread the news, updating their posts with each new detail gleaned and urging each other to “Check on your peoples!”
As they speculated about who had been hit and what had motivated the incident, they mourned the loss of life, lamented the extent to which such events continued to govern their willingness to linger anywhere too long, and wondered if that corner at 88th – one that has seen so much carnage over the years – would ever truly change.
This resilience – the ability of residents to maintain their humanity and persevere while pejorative labels like “Death Alley” normalize the loss of the community’s children – it’s something you never hear about, muses Williams.
It’s also the reason he’s pleased a specialized school and job training center will rise where we are seated instead of a mall.
“We need a symbol of opportunity,” he says. A chance to channel residents’ strength, talent, and resourcefulness in ways that help them take control of their own futures. Not more ways to be consumers in a community that has been denied ownership of space and place in every conceivable way.
He is echoing an argument South Central youth themselves made several years back at the “Youth-Led Town Hall” the mayor held after Trayvon Martin was killed. Instead of talking about gun control, as the mayor had intended, student after student rose to ask that they be educated to be the next generation of thought leaders and innovators the way their better-off white counterparts were.
If there was any hope of things changing for the community, they declared, the city needed to invest fully in the students and make it possible for them to believe that the sky truly was the limit.
Actors like himself, says Williams, will be key to helping local youth take that leap of faith.
Too often, everything around youth in precarious circumstances conspires to communicate to them that there is no point in forging ahead. Even when opportunities do come along, they may be too discouraged to embrace them.
So, as important as it is for public agencies to do the “work from the outside in,” as Williams describes it, he feels that simply laying the foundation for a pipeline between the community and the school may not be enough.
People like himself who work from the spirit on out have an important role to play in preparing youth to move along that pipeline. Already trusted to minister to their hearts and souls, Williams says, he could also guide eligible youth to reconsider what their futures might hold, were the County and Metro to work with him on reorienting his youth programs towards those opportunities.
There’s time for Metro and the County to make that happen and seek out similar non-traditional partnerships with other community members. Metro’s timeline (above) suggests that student recruitment is still a year away, at least, and that the school won’t open until mid-2020.*
Williams, for one, is ready.
“I’m ‘hands on.’ I’m gonna walk with you,” he says with a smile of the commitment he offers.
“[This] is going to be ‘Life Alley.'”
*Construction of the school will begin in January, 2019, and doors will open in the summer of 2020 to the first 125 students. Funding for the school is not completely settled. About half of the necessary funds will come via state education-related programs. The other half – ranging from $3 to $7 million over the course of five years – will need to be covered through grants or industry donors. The feasibility report outlines potential funding strategies; see p. 76 for a detailed budget. The total costs of the construction of the school are estimated to run between $50 and $150 million and will likely be financed with tax credits. The timeline for the construction of the affordable housing is also not yet settled. At present, a six-month ENA will allow Bridge Housing to conduct community outreach and begin an environmental study of the site.
Past coverage of the Vermont/Manchester lots:
- April 26, 2018, County Wins Control of Vermont/Manchester Lots in Superior Court Ruling
- February 7, 2018, New Renderings for Housing, School, Transit Plaza Planned for Vermont/Manchester Posted Ahead of Saturday Forum
- December 5, 2017: County Board of Supervisors Approves Condemnation of Vermont/Manchester Lots, Moves Forward on Eminent Domain
- November 30, 2017: County Looks to Eminent Domain to Rewrite Future of Vacant Lots at Vermont/Manchester
- April 6, 2017: South Central Youth Assess Stasis and Change 25 years after the 1992 Unrest
- June 1, 2016: A Year after Breaking Ground at Vermont and Manchester, Major Shopping Center Project Appears to Have Stalled
- April 30, 2015: Vermont Entertainment Village Breaks Ground; Residents Ask That Local Hiring Be Cornerstone
- April 28, 2015: Long-Blighted South L.A. Lots to See Groundbreaking on Massive Development Wednesday