What I did last week

A Walk To Remember
by Chris Coates

Don Garza is among those frustrated with the state of Central City East. "I'm fed up," said Garza, a resident of a single room occupancy hotel and a vocal supporter of the effort to make his neighborhood a safe place to live. "You just need people that will take initiative."

Last Wednesday, Garza was one of about 60 people taking that initiative. At 6 p.m., the group gathered on Sixth Street in front of the Midnight Mission for the second Central City East Neighborhood Watch walk. Organized by the Central City East Association (CCEA) and the Midnight Mission, the march attracted an eclectic mix of Skid Row social service providers, police officers, real estate brokers, security guards, City Hall staffers and Downtown dwellers.

The goal was to let the thousands of men, women and children living on Skid Row know the community is willing to help, and to warn drug dealers and other criminals that crime won't be tolerated. For a downtrodden area, the walk represented a neighborhood slowly beginning to take back its streets.

"We're getting support from all of Downtown," said CCEA Executive Director Estela Lopez. "Folks who are just getting off the streets are saying 'these streets should be safe.'"

Last week's nearly mile-long walk, which lasted about an hour, took the group around six blocks of Skid Row. Marchers, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes in the middle of the street, handed out pamphlets touting available shelters, drug and alcohol recovery programs and other social services.

The walk offered an opportunity for some Downtown professionals to get beyond the news reports and see the conditions for themselves.

"The good thing about walking the streets is you get to see this," said Ninth District City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has long been active in efforts to better the district.

LAPD Capt. Andy Smith, whose Central Division patrols Skid Row, said the walks send a message of available support to those living on the streets. He said he hoped the neighborhood and police presence would deliver a different kind of message to drug dealers preying on recovering addicts living on the streets. "People are just fed up with all the dope down here," he said.

Long, Complex Process

The walks are scheduled to take place the first Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. in front of the Midnight Mission. While it's not immediately clear what kind of impact the first two walks have had, organizers said they represent another step in the long, complex process of community-building in Central City East.

For decades the area has grappled with homelessness, drug abuse and crime, and has been impacted by practices such as the sheriff's department dumping newly released inmates in the area. The neighborhood has been largely unaffected by Downtown Los Angeles' recent construction boom.

Yet there have been significant improvements in the community. In April the Midnight Mission opened a modern, $17 million headquarters, and the formerly rundown Yankee Hotel reopened last month following a $7 million renovation. Last November another service provider, the Frank Rice Safehaven, completed a $1.2 million renovation.

There have been other, community-centered efforts. In November, People Assisting the Homeless and the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles organized the first Downtown Scrub Down, a daylong effort to clean up Central City East streets. The police department has also been active, cracking down on drug dealers, illegal food vendors and merchants hawking stolen goods. The department holds two community police advisory board meetings every month on Skid Row.

Some participants said the most important aspect of the march was that it attracted people ready to help make a difference in the area. One of them was Joel Bloom, an Arts District fixture and store owner who helped start a neighborhood walk in that community. Bloom said the key to keeping a neighborhood walk going, and have an impact, is to make it a regular part of peoples' lives.

"You make it like a community event," said Bloom. "You have to keep doing it."

For residents like Garza, it represented a chance to be proactive. "It's nice to do something collaborative," he said. "It's just the beginning."

Contact Chris Coates at chris@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 8/8/2005
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