Considered a bad apple, Ernesto Perez, shuffled to his classes, if he went at all, preferring instead to hang out with family, gang members and friends.
Cockroaches, pigeons and neglect infested the 28th Street YMCA that served young African Americans from the 1920s through 1960s. Now a building and Perez have a new life–together.
“Before, I changed my attitude I was a mischievous little kid running the streets getting into trouble,” said Perez. “I was in the graffiti-removal program. I like art, but I can see the damage scribbling on buildings causes.”
At 19, Perez was arrested for drug possession and spent a week in jail. “I was told, if I’m prosecuted and convicted I was going to spend that time being told what to do, not just by my mother, but by strangers, too. During that time, I learned I can do better. Som-eone once said, ‘if you want to change the world, change yourself,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Now, I plan and think ahead. I want to live my life in a way that proves to my old high school that they were wrong about me. I use them as my motivation. I love school, now. I’ve got my high school diploma, attend Los Angeles Trade Technical College and plan to transfer to Humboldt State University in 2014.”
Twenty-year-old Perez, who helped work on the building’s plumbing, spoke at the opening of the $24-million 28th Street Apartments and Youth Source Center at the historic Paul Williams YMCA ceremony near Central Avenue on Dec. 3. The 49-unit project will provide permanent supportive housing to accommodate formerly homeless, low-income individuals and youth transitioning from the foster care system.
“I’m thankful for all the young people here today who will benefit from this project. It was a hard project. And it took a long time to get it done. It was a sad day when the YMCA left the community.
This building was in disrepair, but Paul Revere Williams had built it with good strong bones. It just needed to be brought back to life,” said mayoral candidate, Councilwoman Jan Perry. “Co-developer Jim Bonar was the right person at the right time to renovate this project. He respected Williams’ work.”
“I know Williams would be most proud that his building has once again become a center of hope and inspiration for youth. This building should really be called Miracle on 28th street,” said Paul Hudson, Paul Revere Williams’ grandson.
Vernon-Central Workforce Development Network youth center will house supportive employment and educational services for residents and the surrounding community. A Los Angeles Unified School District counselor will assist former students in completing their education.
“Soon, I hope to finish high school and help other kids as a correctional officer. Now that I have a stable place to live and think,” said 22 year-old Kajohenae Cannon, a 28th Street Apartment resident. “I joined the young and restless homeless in L.A., when my mom quit putting up with my stupidity.”
Williams once spoke of the power of example to spur on others to better themselves. In 1923, he did what was then thought to be impossible. He became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. And then, went on to forge a career that spanned 50 years and included more than 2,500 projects. One of the most recognizable being the futuristic 1960s theme building at LAX. His work, legacy and heritage show that the impossible can become possible and lead to a new life and a second chance.
“I think, I chose a child development career so I can help kids better express themselves,” said Perez.