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Publication Number:      Date:  Sept/Oct 2000
Issue No: Vol. 64 No. 2
Date: Sept/Oct 2000


LANI and The Leimert Park Project

by Kathleen A. Bergeron

How do you rebuild a neighborhood? That simple question has caused hot debate for much of the last century as residents, business owners, planners, and government leaders wrestled with the problems brought on by enormous changes in urban areas worn-out infrastructure, rising crime rates, and spiraling economic indicators in the inner cities and unfettered growth in suburbia.

Fifty years ago, the answer in much of the country was urban renewal. Huge chunks of downtown real estate were leveled to make way for new development, or existing buildings were renovated into stylish townhouses and condominiums.

To be sure, urban renewal was beneficial in several respects, and "renewed" communities point with pride to the rebirth of their central business districts. Too often, however, the complaint was that many of the former residents of renewed neighborhoods could no longer afford to live there. Urban renewal resulted in the relocation of the "have-nots" of an inner city to another locale, leaving their former community for gentrification and ultimately allowing the problems of the old neighborhood to piggyback on its migrating former residents.

Programs such as urban renewal declared that the local community would control how its own neighborhoods would be redeveloped. However, "local control" in large metropolitan cities often meant decision- making from city hall, not from the neighborhoods themselves. Many times, decisions were separated even further from the community by having an outside consultant come up with redevelopment plans with too little input from the people who lived there.

The other, almost unspoken principle of 1950s-type urban renewal was: throw enough money at a situation, and ultimately everything will work out fine. But, for many areas, the inner city riots of the decades that followed proved the folly of that approach.

The good news is that we're learning. Under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), a more inclusive approach was suggested. The "livable communities" concept was introduced, and grant money from the Federal Transit Administration was provided to help make it work. The livable community concept was enlarged by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) to include the Federal Highway Administration.

In mid-March of this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater announced that 84 projects totaling $31.1 million would receive FHWA funding under an innovative initiative called the Transportation and Community System Preservation Pilot Program (TCSP). As the news release announcing the awards stated, "TCSP is an initiative consisting of grants and research that will assist communities as they work to solve interrelated problems involving transportation, land development, environmental protection, public safety, and economic development."

The underlying principle of the livable community concept is inherent in the phrase, "assist communities as they work to solve interrelated problems." Local determination ensures that the improvements brought by the federal funds are practical and needed. And it is the principal embodied in a shining example in California the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI).

Officials visit a construction site in Leimert Park Village.
A team of officials visit a construction site in Leimert Park Village. From left: Carol Dedeaux, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Joyce Perkins, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative; Beverly Cashen, executive director of the Leimert Park Village Community Development Corp. (LPVCDC); Earl Underwood, LPVCDC board member (deceased); Kwame Cooper, LPVCDC board chairman; David Roberts, assistant to 8th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas; Craig Cummings, Community Build Non-Profit Corp.; and Gloria Jeff, former deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

LANI is a non-profit, public benefit corporation that acts on behalf of the city of Los Angeles. LANI dates back to the early part of the 1990s, spanning both the ISTEA and TEA-21 eras.

Los Angeles was just recovering from the riots following the Rodney King trial in April 1992. Those riots caused the death of at least 53 people, the arrest of nearly 2,000 others, and damage to more than 1,100 buildings. Seeing that some people had set fire to their own neighborhoods, Mayor Richard Riordan recognized the need for instilling a sense of pride and ownership among residents.

"When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena asked me how we could humanize transportation, I shared a vision of neighborhood revitalization and empowerment where community stakeholders would take control for themselves," said Riordan.

Riordan's vision was simultaneously as revolutionary as the '60s slogan "Power to the People" and as established as the ancient Chinese proverb that says, "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for the rest of his life."

So, how do you teach a neighborhood "to fish"? First, the LANI staff identifies a neighborhood with a need. A group of local residents, business and property owners, and representatives from community organizations are selected to form a Recognized Community Organization, or RCO. This group is responsible for conducting outreach to the community. But anyone thinking of RCOs as merely advisory boards should look more closely.

In some places, "involvement" might mean simply going to a public hearing and voicing one's preferences, but under LANI, it means much more. RCOs don't just tell bureaucrats what they'd like to see done they do it. When capital improvement funds are provided to a LANI-sponsored neighborhood by the city, it's the neighborhood's own leaders who make things happen.

"We call them super advisory groups," said LANI Executive Director Joyce Perkins. "These people participate in every aspect of project planning and implementation from developing projects to hiring designers and contractors." LANI provides training to RCO members so that they can deal intelligently with the problems they face as community leaders and residents.

Billy Higgins, owner of the World Stage Jazz Club, stands outside his business.
Billy Higgins, owner of the World Stage Jazz Club, stands outside his business.
Brian Breye, owner of the Museum in Black.
Brian Breye, owner of the Museum in Black, shows former Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Gloria Jeff around his museum.

Perkins noted that, initially, local neighborhood citizens are often wary.

"When we first start this and we tell them we want them to be involved, they're cynical. But after they see that they're going to do the selection of the contractor, then they understand that we're serious," she said. Now, several neighborhoods want to be included in LANI.

"LANI was the wheel that started everything turning not only at the beginning, but on an ongoing basis," said Leimert Park Village resident Beverly Cashen.

And the effort goes beyond individual grants.

"When we get grant money for transportation and pedestrian improvements, we make sure it's used for those improvements and the public works infrastructure and spillover on adjacent businesses," said Perkins.

Transportation is the first and most basic aspect of development, but that's just a starting point. A project that paid for an improved bus stop, for example, was designed in such a way as to encourage riders to shop at surrounding businesses. Decorative crosswalks, which were part of the project, attract attention, generally slowing pedestrians and traffic and encouraging people to take a look around. Adjacent to that bus stop, a small park was developed.

RCOs also align themselves with non-profit organizations, thereby attracting even more dollars to benefit the community. And they don't install any improvements without a maintenance plan to keep them viable.

"When we do bus shelters, a part of that project is always a 10-year maintenance agreement," said Perkins.

So, unlike so many other communities, when a LANI-sponsored community approves funding for a new bus stop, you won't come back a few years later and see a site overgrown with weeds or see paint chipped off the shelter.

Museum in Black.
Carol Dedeaux of LACMTA and Joyce Perkins, LANI executive director, look around the Museum in Black.

Leimert Park Village is one of the shining stars of the LANI program. Originally built in the 1920s as a planned community, the village began to deteriorate during the 1980s. Recognizing the potential of the community, LANI selected Leimert Park Village as one of its initial demonstration projects. The community planted trees and flowers; installed banners and decorative trash receptacles throughout the village; added three bus shelters with matching benches; established a transit information center; received a $250,000 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for facade restoration; also received $285,000 from the CRA for street-scape improvements, including a "Jazz Walk of Fame"; enacted an assessment of property owners to pay for additional street lighting throughout the village; and worked with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks on a $600,000 restoration of Leimert Park.

The Leimert Park Village Community Development Corp. a permanent, non-profit organization that evolved out of the original LANI group is now spearheading continuing revitalization efforts.

Leimert Park Village is emerging as one of Los Angeles' premier African-American cultural centers and commercial districts. More festivals are held in the park at the center of the village than in any other community in Los Angeles, and the village is home to more than 125 businesses.

LANI's success with Leimert Park Village has been repeated in other neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles 12 others, in fact. Thus, LANI has had a dramatic impact on Los Angeles as a whole, and one can understand why LANI has attracted some attention. The schools of planning in both the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles have studied the LANI program exhaustively. Other professional organizations, recognizing the effectiveness of LANI's approach, have asked for presentations at their annual conferences.

President Bill Clinton also recognized LANI's success. "LANI is reducing crime. It is creating jobs. It is building businesses and making transportation more accessible to older citizens and [to] people with disabilities. ... It not only renews [its] own community, but also serves as a model for other neighborhoods and cities across the nation," the president said.

So, LANI's answer to the initial question How do you rebuild a neighborhood? is: Provide tools and the training to the people who live there, and then, you let them do it. That's the only true way to have a neighborhood that reflects the culture and the personal pride of its residents.

Kathleen A. Bergeron is the marketing specialist in FHWA's Western Resource Center in San Francisco. She has 26 years of experience in all aspects of marketing, including market research, public relations, and advertising. She is accredited in public relations by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Her experience includes working for major consumer-products corporations, a market research company, consulting engineering firms, and state and federal transportation agencies. She has taught classes on marketing at community colleges and major universities, and she has received awards from PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Texas Public Relations Association, the WorldFest Charleston International Film and Video Festival, the National Association of Government Communicators, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. She is a member of PRSA and the American Marketing Association.



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