Los Angeles park lights send gang activity into the shadows

Steve Lopez

Los Angeles Times

July 9, 2008

History is not on his side.

The odds are his mortal enemy.

And summer weather is sure to bedevil him, stirring rage and heating the ammo.

But the Rev. Jeff Carr is cruising L.A. in his Honda hybrid on a Saturday night, firm in the belief that he is chipping away at the seemingly intractable urban travesty of flying bullets and falling bodies.

"It's not undoable," he says of the challenge he took on nearly one year ago, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looked up at the blond, 6-foot-3 preacher and asked him to be his gang czar.

"I hate being called the gang czar," Carr says.

Why's that?

"This is not a war on kids."

In fact, the official title is director of gang reduction and youth development, and Carr is showing me one of his latest attempts at both. In the Summer Night Lights program, eight parks in high-crime areas around the city are being kept open several hours later than normal, until midnight in some locations, from Wednesday through Saturday.

"Four to midnight is the most violent time in our city, from Fourth of July to Labor Day," Carr says.

He knows parks can be gang-banger clubhouses, so there's a risk in keeping the lights on and throwing open the gates. But there's a greater risk when kids have nowhere to go. Five summers ago, he points out, when one city park was kept open late, the crime rate around the park fell.

That's why Carr, ordained in the Church of the Nazarene and devoted for years to youth services in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., hooked up with the school district, the Recreation and Parks Department and other agencies to organize activities at the parks.

It wasn't easy in an era of budget shortages. He had to pass the basket at several nonprofits -- Ahmanson, Annenberg, Eisner, Hauptman, Weingart, Wells Fargo, California Endowment, LA84, Wellness Foundation -- raising nearly $1 million to pay for the whole thing. And he had to get the LAPD to step up patrols around the parks.

But the genius of the plan was to recruit 10 youngsters between the ages of 17 and 20 to work at each park this summer for a stipend of about $2,600.

"They're kids who could be either victims or perpetrators," he says as we arrive at Cypress Park.

All 10 of the hires are wearing gray Youth Squad T-Shirts, and so is Carr, who shakes hands and asks how it's going.

From what I could see, not badly.

On this Saturday night, the local Neighborhood Council has lent a giant-screen TV, and in a lovely old-world tableau, several neighborhood families are gathered for an outdoor movie. In the distance, teens are surfing concrete waves in the skate park while still more ricochet around the ballpark.

I grab one of the Youth Squad kids, 17-year-old Yovani, and ask what he makes of the scene.

It's a lot better than the alternative, he said. "In five minutes," he says of the neighborhood he lives in, "you could be in a gang."

He was a graffiti artist, he tells me, and he knew where that could take him. So he jumped when Carr's recruiters came around.

"I joined because I was always going to get drawn into that," he says of the criminal forces. "Nobody fights now. Everybody shoots."

Earlier, on this very night, Yovani says, he saw a banger come by, take a look at all the lawful activity and walk away.

"Thank you," Carr tells the Youth Squad when we leave for another park. "You guys are doing good work for our city."

As we tour three parks, Carr and I chat about the death of middle-income jobs, the failures of the schools, the perils of the culture, the armies of absent dads and all the other nightmares that make his mission so difficult.

"I just love kids," he says, telling me he's well aware that he's in a job in which he's more likely to be damned every time a gun is fired than he is to be praised when there's silence.

In the toughest neighborhoods of the city, Carr likes to say with optimism, 85% of the kids never join a gang. The mayor's office has just taken full control of the city's formerly fragmented and often inept gang-reduction programs, and Carr says that will mean tighter controls and more accountability for outside agencies.

When we head down to Mount Carmel Park, at the intersection of two warring South-Central gangs, Carr tells me there have been two shootings in the neighborhood in the last 24 hours. Inside the gym a basketball game is underway as midnight approaches, with Youth Squad employees and neighborhood kids squaring off.

"All these kids are at-risk," gang interventionist Pee Cavitt says.

He watches from the sidelines as Carr joins the game and uses bulk, an aging athlete's only advantage, to rattle in a couple of baskets. The kids razz him with whoops of surprise.

Cavitt tells me he can't remember seeing anyone from City Hall spend so much time in the neighborhood.

Carr shows up not just to brainstorm and to deputize good citizens, but he tries to visit the scene of every gang-related murder so he can sort out the dispute and help prevent endless rounds of retaliation.

When a kid lies dying in the street, Carr tells me, no matter who he is, he "was created in the image of God" and "should be treated with respect. Someone should be there to represent the mayor's office."

When five youths and three adults were shot near a South-Central bus stop in February, Carr raced around trying to catch up with victims.

At County-USC he bumped into a father who told him his daughter had just been shot, and then he came upon the 12-year-old girl.

"I saw her on a gurney, sitting up. A 12-year-old girl. She gave me a blank stare. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she wasn't crying.

"I said, 'I'm sorry, but it's going to be OK.' "

"What do you tell a 12-year-old girl who just got shot in the arm? I asked her name and told her I work for the mayor's office, but I'm a minister too. I said, 'Do you mind if I pray?'

"Whenever I'm up against the bureaucracy, I remember the face of that 12-year-old, and I push more. Whether it's keeping parks open at night or anything else, don't tell why we can't do it.

"Tell me why we can."