But School Seeks Closer Ties : USC Growth: Neighbors Fearful of 'Trojan Horse'

Times Education Writer

When people talk about the relationship between the University of Southern California and its surrounding neighborhoods, they often use the phrase "love-hate."

Some community activists complain that the school is an arrogant giant that buffers its mainly middle-class, Anglo students from the poorer Latinos and blacks outside its gates, while allowing fraternity parties to trash the streets. Nevertheless, they say USC provides a good anchor and a positive identity to the diverse area just south of downtown Los Angeles.

USC people, on the other hand, worry about crime on campus and Fraternity Row and derisively compare the neighborhood's social amenities to UCLA's upscale surroundings in Westwood. Yet while USC considered moving to the suburbs 30 years ago, today it proudly stresses its location so close to the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill and the sports facilities made famous by two Olympics.

Now, such long-held ambivalence is about to be tested as USC plans new political and financial initiatives in nearby residential and commercial districts. "We are much more aware that we are not an island," said Cornelius Pings, USC's provost and senior vice president in charge of academic affairs.

The university is leading a movement to create a neighborhood council by March to give a bigger voice and sense of common purpose to the 100,000 people who live in the area around the campus and the many businesses, museums, churches and social agencies there. The proposed council is funded in part by a Ford Foundation national program aimed at helping 18 urban schools and medical centers improve their neighborhoods.

And, USC recently formed a corporation to construct and restore housing for students and faculty and new office buildings for academic and private research near the main campus and the medical school in Lincoln Heights. In what is seen as a measure of the school's seriousness, Gerald Trimble, well-known for guiding the redevelopment of downtown San Diego for the last 10 years, was named president of the new USC Real Estate Development Corp.

Some area residents and businessmen remain angry over USC's past expansions and real estate purchases and suspiciously eye the initiatives as Trojan horses; they fear an army of displacement is concealed within. Others are optimistic that the school, whatever its motivations, really means to help the area. And yet others, uncertain, are watching closely.

'Community Be Damned' Attitude

"SC's attitude was 'the community be damned.' There are lots of words that that has changed now. It remains to be seen. There is a great deal of hope but an extraordinary deal of distrust," said Michael Thomson, a developer of a nearby shopping center and the chairman of the citizen review panel for the city's Hoover Redevelopment Project, which surrounds USC.

Alex Norman, a UCLA professor of social welfare who is a consultant to the neighborhood council, is not surprised about the suspicions. He compared USC to a powerful beast that built its own cage and pretty much stayed inside it: "As long as the animal is caged, you can throw rocks at it. But what happens if it comes out of its cage? People worry 'Will it run amok?' "

USC officials insist the council idea predates the realty firm and is not a public relations front for it; the council might even come to oppose some USC building projects, they say. And the goal of the new corporation is incremental improvement, not overnight gentrification, said Pings, who is also the chairman of its board.

Asked if the school is seeking a Westwood-style setting, Pings replied: "In the sense of a more developed area, with quality offices, services and intellectual activities, yes, we would aspire to that. But we do not see ourselves involved in any mass clearance of land."

Sees 20 Years of Improvement

Norman said he foresees the neighborhood as much improved in 20 years but, unlike Westwood, remaining racially and economically integrated. "I think we are on the verge of something that could be a pattern for not just the state, but the nation," he stated.

Some American urban universities, like UC Berkeley, Harvard and Georgetown, are surrounded by cosmopolitan neighborhoods with some very expensive housing, fancy restaurants and swank shops. Yet many other city schools, like the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Columbia in New York and USC, saw their surroundings decay after World War II as the middle-class moved to the suburbs and poor, minority families moved in. Town-gown antagonism resulted, centered on issues of race, crime and real estate.

"Having any institution that big and that apparently financially sound to be in the middle of a community so financially unsound is like having a rich person living next door to a poor person. The poor person is going to resent the rich person," explained Paul Hudson, vice president of Broadway Federal Savings & Loan in Los Angeles and the chairman of the steering committee for the neighborhood council.

"USC has two choices," he added. "It can develop relationships with the community, which makes political, economic and social sense. Or it can build a big moat and a big wall around the school."

Self-Interest, Moral Obligation

Why is USC looking to leave its gilded cage just now? University leaders and community observers attribute the moves to USC's self-interest and moral obligation, and to those two twin obsessions of Los Angeles life: traffic and real estate.

Within the last decade or so, the number of students who live on or near the campus has grown from about 3,000 to 10,500. So the school's stake in the neighborhood is higher as are demands for better shopping, entertainment and security. Also, USC still loses some prospective students because of fears about crime and a sense that it is a place to flee on weekends.

"Even if they won't admit it, something in the back of their minds tells them another school must be better because it's in a better neighborhood," said John Peterson, a USC junior from New York who is president of the Interfraternity Council. He said the image of the USC area as a high-crime slum is exaggerated as is some neighbors' stereotyping of students as "all rich, spoiled brats."

Relatively few faculty members are thought to live within walking or bicycle-riding distance of their classrooms. USC planners think that worsening freeway traffic will make more teachers wish they could live nearby. And the university is trying to shed the old cliche of being a party school for a new identity as a major research institution; having what some call a community of scholars nearby would help that effort.

Shuttle Bus Service Provided

Those concerns merged last year in USC's purchase of the Embassy Hotel, at 851 S. Grand Ave. and its conversion into a residential facility where 400 students and faculty members can live and share scholarship. A shuttle bus makes the brief run to and from campus.

An estimated 150 Victorian and Craftsman-style homes in the North University Park area north of the campus have been restored by private owners in recent years from various degrees of dilapidation, their tile and marble fireplaces stripped of paint and their oak panelings gleamingly shined. The architecture of that district has city protection against demolition or unsuitable changes and USC planners think the many charming, old houses may lure young professors, especially if the school offers help in financing.

At the same time, USC expects the downtown business district to extend south toward the campus, one day replacing the fast-food outlets and used car lots on Figueroa with office towers and hotels. The university sees itself as the southern anchor of downtown and as a possible magnet for high-tech firms that want to be in an intellectual atmosphere as well as take advantage of tax breaks available in the recently created state enterprise zone east of Figueroa.

Council Area Described

As defined by the proposed bylaws of the council, the neighborhood around USC extends from Washington Boulevard south to Vernon Avenue, from Central Avenue west to Western Avenue. It is a diverse area, including blocks of well-maintained, owner-occupied homes from the 1920s and '30s, rows of badly run-down apartment houses packed with recent immigrants from Latin America, streets of fraternities and sororities, clusters of new townhouses for students and low-income families, and pockets of gentrification. There are some empty, graffiti-scarred storefronts on Vermont Avenue where unemployed men drink wine, a contrast to the lively shops in the University Village mall across from the school which offer the latest in collegiate fashions.

Expanded Main Campus

Using eminent domain in the late 1960s and early '70s, city redevelopment projects expanded USC's main campus out to Jefferson Boulevard and created student housing and the privately owned mall north of Jefferson and the Hilton Hotel on Figueroa. Residents are thankful for the improved shopping but some bitterness lingers over the demolition of older homes there and what some saw as the city's bending to USC. For example, the 150-unit Trojan Apartments on Jefferson were supposed to be for poor families but were sold in 1978 to USC for dormitories and 300 replacement apartments later were found elsewhere in the neighborhood. That created two groups of USC enemies: displaced families and other property owners who did not want more low-income housing in what was a black ghetto area.

Residents like Lauro Cons now worry they might get squeezed by USC's upcoming plans, the expansion of the Convention Center and the growth of downtown. He grew up just south of Washington Boulevard and recently bought a house there, next door to his parents. "I'm thinking about investing in a major remodeling of the house, but I'm holding off. Why do it if I'm not sure of the future of the neighborhood?" said Cons, a deputy state labor commissioner who, like his wife and one of his brothers, attended USC in the 1970s. As Latinos, they say they sometimes felt uncomfortable at the school where last year blacks and Latinos, combined, comprised only about 11% of the freshman class. (Asians are now about 15%.)

According to census statistics, the neighborhood population has quickly changed. In 1970, 65% of the residents in the defined area were black and 18% Latino. Census experts estimate that in 1986, about 51% were Latino and 41% black, with forecasts for more Latinos and Asians to move in. The neighborhood remains a poor one; the estimated median household income in 1986 was $10,699, less than half that of the county median.

Yet, the neighborhood also has a sense of permanence because of the many institutions located there, in addition to USC: the Shrine auditorium, the Automobile Club of Southern California, many large churches, Hebrew Union College, Mt. Saint Mary's College, Orthopaedic Hospital, the Coliseum, Sports Arena and the museums in Exposition Park.

sh Possibilities Listed

Trimble, the head of the USC Real Estate Development Corp., said any new office or high-rise residential development should be kept on the main thoroughfares. On the side streets, the school may build small condominium projects for faculty and restore some of the old houses while trying to improve area amenities. Especially important will be improving neighborhood public schools and trying to add a high school to the 32nd Street-USC magnet school, he and other USC officials said.

"If there is any watchword, it is to be as sensitive as we can to the community," said Trimble, a USC alumnus who is to phase out his activities as executive vice president of the Centre City Development Corp. in San Diego by next month. He stressed that it is too early to discuss in detail any of his USC plans.

The new corporation is a for-profit, wholly owned subsidiary of the university which is to give it $6 million in cash and property over the next four years. Trimble comes to USC with the reputation of aggressively working on a larger scale. He was a leader in about $1.4 billion worth of redevelopment projects in San Diego, including the highly successful Horton Plaza shopping center. Before that, he headed Pasadena's redevelopment agency and was on the staff of the Los Angeles redevelopment effort.

'Significant, Lasting Things'

"I feel fairly certain he didn't come here to tend the rose gardens. He is here to do some hopefully significant, lasting things," said Jasper Williams, the city official who is manager of the Central City Enterprise Zone adjacent to the USC campus.

Community activists also assume Trimble wants to work on big projects. That worries some and pleases others.

"I see them coming in with their agenda which is counter to the agenda of the people who live in the community," said Sister Diane Donoghue, community organizer of St. Vincent de Paul R. C. Church and a leader of the South-Central Organizing Committee, a grass-roots coalition of neighborhood and church groups.

Kristin Belko, an attorney who is active in the North University Park Community Assn., said she welcomes Trimble's involvement because USC, with its 30,000 students and its real estate holdings, is the only institution with the clout to improve the area. "Ten or 20 or 200 preservationists are not going to undo the racism and economic deprivation this neighborhood has suffered since World War II," said Belko, who lives in the area and owns several properties there.

Trimble said he realizes there is a lot of suspicion about his plans. "There are always going to be cynics," he said. "But if you just waited for things to go forward, nothing would happen."

Proposal Stirs Debate

Raising similar debate is the neighborhood council, which is supposed to give a sense of identity to a fractured area some activists say lacks political power. It also may sponsor improvements such as day-care centers and housing projects with government and foundation grants.

"In a very profound sense, we are trying to create a new world around here. We are empowering community people and campus people," the Rev. Alvin Rudisill, USC's chaplain and associate vice president for civic and community relations, said of the council, which he is helping to form.

In April, 1986, USC began what it called its community initiatives. First came interviews about local issues with residents and business people. Then the council idea emerged from a long, continuing series of meetings. Last January, the Ford Foundation, through the urban affairs SEEDCO organization in New York, pledged $50,000 to the effort, $10,000 of which has been appropriated so far, and Norman of UCLA was hired as a consultant.

An election for a board of directors is scheduled for March 12, with all adult residents in the area eligible to vote. The council is being designed, its supporters say, so that USC can not dominate it. In a complicated procedure, 25 of the 40 board members will represent area residents and 15 will represent, in various categories, institutions, businesses, churches and community groups. People are so sensitive about the issue of USC control that a proposal to call the organization the University Park Neighborhood Council appears dead and other names, such as Olympic Park or Exposition Park, seem more likely, participants say.

'Benefits Outweigh Risks'

"For a major institution to help set up an entity that could come up with recommendations it may not agree with is a big risk. USC knows that but feels the benefits far outweigh the risks," said Irene Hirano, executive director of a women's health clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a USC alumna and one of the leaders in early planning for the council.

Emma Ruiz, the director of the city's Hoover Recreation Center at Hoover and Adams, said she decided not to participate in the council because she believes it masks less altruistic goals. "The university has been taking from the community with both hands for a long time and now they are trying to give the impression the university is changing. Most of the people in this community are so busy earning a living that they are not aware when the rug is being pulled out from under them."

To such sentiments, USC's Rudisill responded: "We are big and most of the other folks are smaller. So, be suspicious but work with us. I know I couldn't be doing this if it was just a con job."

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