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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Where do you go to find peace and quiet? In South LA, it can be a challenge

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Makadu Labeet is a towering 56-year-old Gardena resident who originally hails from the Virgin Islands.

Every other day, he arrives at Vermont Square Community Garden in South Los Angeles around 7:30 a.m. and begins his work as the land's "unofficial caretaker."

Overall, the garden is in good shape, although some plots could use a little more tending. But for Labeet, this is much more than a garden. He calls it a "sacred ground" – one that offers refuge from the chaos just beyond its gates.

"We don't have problems in here," he said. "It's like, out there in the world, people be cussing and fighting going by, and they don't even know you're here."

That "cussing and fighting" is part of the reason it's so hard to find tranquility in South L.A.: It's loud. The noise of buses leaving their stops, music blaring from cramped storefronts, territorial dogs barking, angry motorists honking – it all comes together to create a headache-inducing cacophony. Those who can't remove themselves from that every once in a while can face serious quality of life issues – which is part of the reason why Labeet so enjoys his time in Vermont Square.

Makadu Labeet

Jose Martinez/KPCC

Makadu Labeet tends the Vermont Square Community Garden.

The garden does tend to hide its occupants from view. Split into two halves – one on either side of Vermont Avenue – it's littered with plots full of chard, mint and zucchini. There's a gazebo, a shed and several benches. It's calm.

"You're going to feel different when you come in here," says Labeet. "You're going to feel like you want something like this. You want to be quiet."

Safer behind the gate

Clyde Holmes, 71, is in the garden nearly as often as Labeet. Early one Wednesday morning, he walks toward the garden, using a grocery cart for support. He's got rheumatoid arthritis and has just started radiation treatment for prostate cancer, but he still makes sure to set aside time to come here.

"I feel much safer behind this gate than I do walking up and down the street here," Holmes said, sitting on one of the garden's benches.

He says it's a way to escape the noise that's pretty constant near his home, which is just a stone's throw away.

Vermont Square Community Garden

Jose Martinez/KPCC

Produce is grown at the Vermont Square Community Garden.

"Motorcycles, go-carts, people not getting along. People drag racing, burning rubber. Sirens. Gunshots," he said. "You know, that's a part of it. But I have a getaway when I want to get away from it all."

Which, for his sake, is a good thing.

The neighborhood in which the garden is located, Vermont Square, has nearly 18,000 residents per square mile, according to census data. That's among the highest population densities in L.A. County. Compare it to Playa Vista on the westside: about 1,900 people per square mile.

Elena Fernandez, the director of behavioral health at South L.A.'s St. John's Well Child and Family Center, says many of her patients live in one-room apartments that house up to a dozen people. Living in a cramped environment can negatively affect the health of people.

The health benefits of getting away from it all

Fernandez says places like Vermont Square Community Garden are few and far between in South Los Angeles.

"You don't find a yoga house here, you don't find a hiking trail in South L.A., there isn't a beach in South L.A.," she said.

Folks who don't have this sort of tranquil space to clear their mind are more prone to anxiety, stress, irritability, anger and depression, said Fernandez. It can also affect people's physical condition – think headaches and high blood pressure.

"We see a lot of patients suffering from hypertension," said Fernandez, "and that comes from the lack of taking care of themselves: not eating well, not exercising, not finding the space to be able to breathe and think quietly."

Fernandez ticked off a list of the stressors people contend with in this part of the city: high unemployment, low rates of health care coverage, surprisingly expensive housing, the complexities of living as an immigrant. Fernandez says people who don't have easy access to a tranquil space should find a way to make one.

"How do you create that space within your home?" she said. "Whether it's in the bathroom, whether it's behind your home, whether it's in your bedroom when everyone's asleep."

And for those who are so inclined, spirituality is one way to do that.

"Nobody has time for anybody"

Reverend Masao Kodani is the head of South L.A.'s Senshin Buddhist Temple. The notion of stillness and quiet is central to him and his congregation's school of Japanese Buddhism.

"In Japanese, the word for mature and quiet are the same," he said. "If you're quiet, you are mature – maturity means a kind of inward quiet."

Senshin Buddhist Temple

Jose Martinez/KPCC

The Senshin Buddhist Temple in South L.A.

Chanting is one way he and his fellow faithful enter silence. So is deep breathing. But Kodani, himself a longtime South Los Angeles resident, knows how hard that is to achieve in his neighborhood these days.

"It's crazy," he said. "It's really fast. And nobody has time for anybody."

Not even themselves.

But even a quick walk through places like the garden where Makadu Labeet and Clyde Holmes find respite, or the temple grounds where Kodani worships, shows that, even in the heart of busy South L.A., one can still find places where the world slows down.

KPCC wants to know where you find peace and quiet in L.A. County. Tell us!

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