Barbed wire, barred windows, graffiti - if it signifies urban blight, South Central Los Angeles has it.

But situated among the endless acres of cement and asphalt, sun-bleached stucco apartment complexes, and substandard single-family homes is Broadway Federal Bank, an oasis of sorts.

Dedicated to turning a profit while bettering his poverty-ridden community, Broadway president and chief executive officer Paul C. Hudson has taken on a challenge few bankers would envy.

"There's the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats, but some say that's not the case in South Central," Mr. Hudson said. "Economically, California isn't doing as well as the rest of the country, Southern California isn't doing as well as the rest of the state, Los Angeles isn't doing as well as the rest of Southern California, and South Central L.A. is below even that."

"Unemployment is huge in Los Angeles, but it's double-digit in South Central," he continued. "Drug abuse is bad everywhere, but it's off the charts in South Central. Whatever problems there are elsewhere, they're that much worse in South Central L.A."

Mr. Hudson, 47, grew up in South Central and lives there. He represents the third generation of his family to lead Broadway Federal; his grandfather helped start the thrift in 1946.

The thrift has suffered along with the community. Its original building was burned to the ground in the 1992 riots after the Rodney King verdict. Mr. Hudson and the rest of his staff moved into a smaller branch and kept going.

"The bank represents the best the African-American community has to offer," said Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build Inc., a community development firm. "It really is a beacon here. It's been a consistent thread in this community."

The oldest black-owned thrift west of the Mississippi River, Broadway has been focused on increasing inner-city investment since the end of World War II.

Despite the region's problems, Broadway continues to push ahead. Earlier this year, it completed an initial public offering, raising $8.9 million in a move Mr. Hudson says believes is unprecedented among South Central's black-owned companies.

"We had people who bought stock in Broadway who had never bought stock before and didn't know how to do it," Mr. Hudson said. "But they also knew this was a chance to get in on the ground floor."

The offering was oversubscribed by $5 million.

Broadway's role in the community was secure long before the offering. Mr. Hudson said there have been six other financial institutions owned by blacks that have come and gone over Broadway's lifespan.

With just over $100 million of assets, Broadway focuses on residential lending, primarily originating adjustable-rate mortgages and retaining them in its portfolio.

"I don't think Broadway gets the recognition it deserves for its innovative loan programs because it's small and doesn't toot its own horn," said Martina Guilfoil, executive director of Inglewood Neighborhood Housing Services, a community revitalization program. "They've proven that you can lend to lower-income communities and still be a solvent bank."

Indeed, the institution stresses conservatism but leaves room for flexibility, a necessity in an area where traditional underwriting criteria are often irrelevant.

"We tend to be very flexible with our underwriting guidelines," Mr. Hudson said. "We try to go beyond ratios. We want to make the loans."

"I've had a lot of meetings with Bank of America, First Interstate, First Nationwide, and they listen, but they ultimately end up saying no to us because they don't know how an innovative program such as ours fits into their system," Ms. Guilfoil said. "Broadway understands what we're doing and how it works."

A self-effacing and soft-spoken man who appears uncomfortable with accolades, Mr. Hudson said there is a lot more work ahead if South Central is to ever catch up to the more prosperous parts of the region.

"Just as there are highways in Los Angeles that can take you from one end of the city to the other without stopping in South Central, there is a flow of money that goes from one end of the city to the other without stopping here," he said. "We've got to change that."

Mr. Hudson took an unconventional path to the top of Broadway, even if banking was in his blood. He spent time as a Washington lawyer after graduating from the University of California law school, but tired of working in the nation's capital.

"Banking was not a goal of mine growing up," he said, noting that his family didn't pressure him to get into the business. "But when I found that I didn't really enjoy the business of law, I came back to South Central and got involved with banking and discovered that I enjoyed it."

When Mr. Hudson took over as CEO in 1992, Broadway was thinly capitalized and had a high volume of bad loans. He brought in a new chief financial officer and new loan officers. Two years later, the balance sheet was considerably cleaner.

He said he'd like to get the bank's assets up to $500 million within five years, and that there's plenty of room for growth.

"The void is so huge in South Central Los Angeles that it would be inaccurate to say that Broadway fills it," Mr. Hudson said. "We employ just 45 people out of an area of 250,000 to 300,000, and we represent just $100 million (of assets) out of an area that probably has $2 billion. So we're really doing just a very small share."

Nevertheless, it is a crucial share. Broadway employees, from top to bottom, are South Central residents. The bank strives to use local businesses as subcontractors, and employees are urged to be active in the community.

Mr. Hudson said it's all part of Broadway's effort to set a positive example.

"I had a very fortunate upbringing," he said. "A lot of people who leave places like South Central are running from something. When I was growing up, I didn't have anything to run from, I had things to fall back on. I'd like Broadway Federal to be like that."

But he dismisses the notion he's anything but a businessman doing what's best for his company.

"It's not like I'm trying to be a white knight - this is just what I know. It's what I do best.

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