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South Los Angeles prepares for new city council member

The historic Dunbar Hotel on Central Ave. is being re-made into senior housing.
The historic Dunbar Hotel on Central Ave. is being re-made into senior housing.

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One of the most competitive campaigns on next Tuesday’s ballot is the crowded race for the Los Angeles City Council’s Ninth District.

Central Avenue is the historical heart and soul of the district, but a lot has changed since its heyday of the 1930s and ‘40s. The Dunbar Hotel at Central and 42nd St. once hosted Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. Now, after years of decay, the Dunbar is being remade into senior housing.

“We pretty much hit rock bottom, I would say, right after the Watts riots," says Vivian Bowers of Bowers and Sons Cleaners, which is located on Central. "And then again in ’92 when we had the Rodney King riots. It was pretty devastating. Drugs and gang violence kind of took over the area,” 

Sitting in a back office, Bowers talks about how she once thought about relocating the business. But she stayed and, a few years ago, Bowers used city redevelopment money to refurbish her building’s façade.

Instead of the bulletproof glass Bowers once considered, the lobby now features photographs of jazz singers, and TVs play classic sports games. Bowers encourages others to take pride in the district through her work with the Central Avenue Business Association.

“Our main focus is really to help businesses sustain themselves and grow,” she says.

Help may come from banks, developers and sometimes City Hall. But last year’s redrawing of political boundaries saw most of downtown L.A. removed from the district. Gone was development money that helped finance affordable housing in the district.

The median household income here dropped to an astoundingly paltry $12,000; the city average is $50,000. Former Ninth District Councilwoman Rita Walters says getting a fair share of resources has always been a challenge here.

“Financial resources, and then the human resources that it takes, such as the assigning of personnel for sweeping the streets, for repairing lights when the street lights go out,” Walters says.

Walters served on the city council from 1991 to 2001 Standing outside City Hall on a recent morning, she recalls having to battle her council colleagues for funds after the 1992 riots, which left her district hard-hit.

“Everybody wants resources for their district and that’s understandable," Walters says. "But it ought to be done on the basis of where the need is greatest ... and bring that part of the city up to par."

An African- American council member has represented CD9 since Gilbert Lindsay was appointed in 1963. But for more than a decade, South L.A. has had a growing Latino population. Today, the district is three-quarters Latino and less than 20 percent African-American. Of the population that's eligible to vote, about half is Latino and 34 percent is African-American.

It's telling that Walters is backing Ana Cubas, the sole Latina among the major candidates vying for the seat currently held by Jan Perry, who is running for mayor. 

Most of the district’s population lives in an area bounded by the Metro Expo Line to the north and Blue Line to the north.

The Blue Line splits a housing project, Pueblo del Rio, which is also next to the Alameda Corridor — a train route that brings loads of products up from the Port of Los Angeles. It’s part of the inconsistent zoning regulations in the area.

“There’s a mix of industry and residential uses just sittin’ next to each other,” said Sandra McNeill, executive director of TRUST South LA.

“Often times there will be a child care center not too far from a car smog check shop, and garment factories throughout the neighborhood.”

McNeill’s organization acquires land in the area and holds it in perpetuity to develop affordable housing. Most residents in the Ninth are renters, and McNeill says those buildings are older and managed by absentee landlords. 

“Families in South L.A. are spending — a high percentage are spending — more than 50 percent of their income on housing,” she says. “It’s unsustainable. It makes for, in many cases, overcrowded living situations as people are piling more people into their homes in order to pay the bills.”

Back at the dry cleaners, Vivian Bowers says the situation will improve once Angelenos see businesses flourish in the Ninth and realize they don’t have to spend a lot to purchase an older home that just needs some TLC.

“The lots are very large and the homes are very beautiful," says Bowers, "so once you dust the cobwebs out and take it over and rehab it, that will bring some of the dollars back into the community. But we’ve got to make it a desirable and safe place to be."

On March 5, voters in the Ninth District will go to the polls to select a new council member. In addition to Cubas, a former city council aide, the other leading candidates are State Senator Curren Price, Assemblyman Mike Davis, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara, and former Redistricting Commissioner David Roberts, who received the L.A. Times endorsement.

The likely result is a runoff, which will take place on May 21st.