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South LA Story: A Garden and a Place Called Home





A few weeks back I stood at the corner of 65th and Normandie, in South Los Angeles, remembering what used to be there. An old church, maybe from the 1930s — Spanish Revival with white-washed plaster and enough curved red tile on the roof to make you think it might be real. The congregation members had long since moved away or died, and now the building itself was gone, replaced by sparkling new apartments with units exclusively designed for emancipated youth. Each year in Los Angeles County 1,500 kids get cut loose from the foster-parent system. They are 18 years old with no family, no job, no place to live, no skills and no support to learn any, which is why a majority will end up on the streets or in jail.

And this is why this building, the Epworth Apartments, means so much. Over the years, it could save the lives of scores of young adults. On the other hand, it’s just a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, it took a dozen years and a dozen partnering non-profits and funders, and $8.5 million to build this 20-unit project. Behind the building, where the church’s parking lot once covered the ground, a community garden with raised beds has been laid out so both residents of the new building and community people can grow vegetables and flowers.

Besides thinking about the cost and the convoluted process of getting so little of the problem met, I was struck by the words of a young woman who had lived across the street. She spoke next to last on the program for Epworth’s grand opening, after several elected officials, and what seemed like an interminable line of speakers representing funders, the church, social services and non-profit developers. Here’s most of what she said in her own words:

“My name is LaNieta Lisbey. I’m the eldest daughter of Leilani Pettiford.

As a single parent, she raised me, my three siblings as well as our cousin (which is not out of the ordinary around here). We lived directly across the street for about 25 years up until April 9th of 2008. I haven’t been here since. But this garden, this center and Mr. Mark Wilson [director of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, managers of the site] sharing with me his three-hour conversation over cookies with my mom, has lured me back in.

Growing up on 65th and Normandie or within close proximity, we’re exposed to so many things that take our innocence away at such an early stage in our lives. Abuse, death, shootings, police and ambulance sirens, prostitution, it’s just normal here. I’d always hear people say, ‘You are where you are because of the choices you make.’ But here, that doesn’t always quite apply. It’s not just about our individual choices (especially when we are young and impressionable); sometimes it’s about the situations we’re forced into on a daily basis by simply living here. Other times like such, it’s about a mentor, a chance, proper guidance and positive influence.

I used to blame this neighborhood for my mom’s death. All the pain and suffering we’re all exposed to on a day-to-day basis can and does take its toll on each of us. Sometimes you beat it…Sometimes you don’t. My mom tried…and today, by way of you, I know she beat it . . .

Thank you for allowing me to speak on behalf of my mom and allowing her to forever be part of the solution towards making our neighborhood a better place to grow up in.

Thank you for giving our community a chance at growth and success.”

The garden will be named the Leilani Pettiford Community Garden. The last speaker that morning was another young woman who will be the first resident of the new building. Sometimes, with enormous efforts, things change – even just a bit – and they get better.

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