In his January State of the Union address, President Obama announced that Los Angeles was one of five designated U.S. "promise zones" that would receive federal funding to address intense poverty and joblessness. The areas chosen to receive these funds were high-poverty neighborhoods in East Hollywood, Pico-Union, Westlake and Koreatown. The hope was that these funds would give these areas a jump start to break through bureaucracy, and provide opportunities for more funding and support.
According to an article in the LA Times, "needs are high for the 165,000 residents of the Promise Zone. The poverty rate in the zone is 35%, and in certain census block groups, 100% of youth are living in poverty. The zone encompasses some of the nation's most densely populated areas, including the four most densely populated of Los Angeles' 272 neighborhoods."
What jumped out at me, though, was the neighborhoods that were conspicuously absent from the Promise Zone: Watts, Wilmington and, in fact, any neighborhood in South Los Angeles where poverty, joblessness, high density and hopelessness have been rampant for decades. Rep. Janice Hahn, who represents South LA in Washington, boycotted Obama's announcement ceremony in Washington when she learned that those neighborhoods of need were excluded.
Then, a few months later I read about another disappointment: a 100-acre redevelopment plan that was to include renovation of the crumbling Jordan Downs Housing Project, and new development including retail and mixed-use housing, had been denied a federal grant of $300,000 that the residents and the LA Housing Authority had been counting on.
I decided to head down to the 70-year-old Jordan Downs to see how the residents were handling this disappointment, and to check in on the Watts neighborhood I had not visited in a while. During my years at the Los Angeles Times, I spent a lot of time at Jordan Downs, on assignment and personal projects, documenting the lives of the residents. I wanted to see what, if anything, had changed over the years.
What I found was a mixed bag of hopeful changes amid deteriorating buildings. The Housing Authority, intent on plowing ahead with their big project, has recognized the most important resource they have: the people who live at Jordan Downs. Their community liaison, John King, told me that the loss of the federal funding was a blip that was not a dealbreaker and that the project will be completed. He said that the Housing Authority recognized that unless the community has the self-esteem and pride in their neighborhood necessary to maintain their new homes, any renovation project will fail. So they have invested heavily in classes and programs to address issues that have brought the community down in the past: unemployment, vandalism, gangs, and broken families. They have trained some men in construction so they can get certification and ultimately be hired to work on the $700 million project. They are joined in these efforts by some ad hoc community organizations intent on raising up — and saving — the young people of Jordan Downs.
Last week I attended a weekly meeting of Project Fatherhood and came away moved and impressed by this group of men concerned enough about young teens that they are willing to donate their time in the hopes that they can prevent the young men of Jordan Downs from repeating the mistakes they themselves have made--getting involved with gangs, drugs and violence, thereby disrespecting themselves and others. They stressed the importance of education.
Willie Freeman, one of the fathers at the meeting, said "we see young African Americans filling up the graveyard. We're trying to see what we can do to keep that from happening. We talk to the youth, try to keep them on the right path."
In addition to their weekly meeting, Project Fatherhood meets once a month with Jordan Downs' teenage boys and young men. Each monthly meeting starts with a free meal, and ends with gift cards given to all. The men realize that some incentives need to be in place to get the teens to stay. What started four years ago as weekly barbeques to just get people together, has finally become a weekly meeting where issues are discussed and solutions proposed. "We are finally seeing the fruit of our labor," says Michael Cummings, one of the founders of the group. The teenage boys, who used to just come for the free food and cards, now are staying for the meetings. And serious issues are addressed.
At the meeting, the boys were divided into groups, each with a theme and an adult leader, and today's themes were weighty: "Surviving—Not to Be a Statistic," "Being a Father--are you prepared?" "How Do You Handle When Your Parents Separate?" "Peer Pressure—Be a Leader, Not a Follower" and "Morals and Principles." The groups rotate around the room, so all the issues are discussed with different leaders. "Once they start to speak, they've got some good things to say," said Cummings. And so do the men:
"Fatherhood is a lifelong journey."
"A closed mouth never gets fed. Speak up for yourself."
"How can you make money without committing a crime? Get a job!"
"Get an education. Have a dream, but always have a plan B."
They distributed cards to the young men to keep in their backpacks with instructions on what to do if they are stopped by the police (Stay calm, ask for a lawyer, say no to a search, don't run, keep your hands out of your pockets, ask to call your parents.)
With the help of the Housing Authority, Cummings and Andre Christian applied to Children's Institute and received a 4-year grant to keep the group going. Soon they will have to apply for another.
Ben Henry, who grew up in Jordan Downs but no longer lives there, comes back every week even though his 6 children are all grown up. "I'm here for the kids I see, to let them know you can be anything--it doesn't matter where you grow up. That doesn't mean anything. I'm trying to do something positive. And they keep coming back."