Westchester: Suburb Where LAX Is King : Despite dominance of airport, community's institutions thrive and the air is cool.

Applegate is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Westchester calls itself the home of Los Angeles International Airport. It is an apt description, for in this community of 50,000 the airport is king.

One-third of the land in the original Westchester community is now occupied by LAX and its parking lots and buffer zones. The schools and shopping district have not yet recovered from the airport's expansion in the 1970s, which removed about 3,500 houses and displaced 10,000 residents.

Since then, hotels and office buildings have sprung up around the airport, creating business opportunities for local residents, but little in the way of shopping or other amenities.

The once-thriving retail center along Sepulveda Boulevard with its landmark Loyola Theatre has been superseded by Fox Hills Mall in neighboring Culver City.

And out of doors in Westchester, the whine and rumble of jet aircraft is distant but almost always discernable. Yet Westchester's location and history present advantages, too, mainly in its weather and community institutions.

Neighborhoods Isolated

Situated on a mesa half a mile from the ocean, Westchester receives mists and cooling breezes. And for all the traffic around the airport, the tracts of single-family houses enjoy a surprising degree of peace.

Westchester's neighborhoods are isolated from other communities by the airport on the south, the bluffs above Ballona Creek to the north and the San Diego Freeway (405) to the east. Many of the neighborhood streets, traveling over the gentle hills, curve slightly, giving greater intimacy to the housing tracts.

"I moved here to get away from the traffic and noise," said Jack Sivak, who sold his house after six months in Manhattan Beach and bought another house two years ago on Toland Avenue, a quiet, curving street lined with mature liquidambar trees, not far from Loyola Marymount University.

A typical homeowner in Westchester, Sivak works in aviation--he is an aerospace consultant--and has grown children who live elsewhere. He does not mind that Osage Elementary School, around the corner, is closed for lack of children. (It serves as a conference center for teachers.)

For him, Westchester is convenient to work and gives him "the advantages of a beach community without the crowds."

Nor is he troubled by airport noise. "They were here before I was," he says of the jets.

Mary Ann Holmes Schwarz, 55, moved to Westchester in 1953 when her father, an airlines service manager, had wearied of the commute from Burbank. "He swore that he would move to a place where if he had to walk to work, he could," she said.

Westchester then was a raw suburb. Created willy-nilly in the 1940s to accommodate aircraft workers, the community grew in population from 353 to about 30,000 without a police or fire station, an emergency hospital or even a direct telephone line to the rest of Los Angeles.

As late as 1949, it still had no barber shop, according to the late California historian Carey McWilliams, who wrote about Westchester that same year for Harper's Magazine.

"Never formally planned," he wrote, "the streets of Westchester are a jumble of unrelated numberings and sharp, crisscrossing turns; only the oldest inhabitants can find their way about with ease.

First Community Group

"Yet despite these omissions, inconveniences and limitations, Westchester is going ahead, raising money to build a town hall, seeking by a variety of devices to improve community services."

A town hall was needed because the Westport Heights Civic Assn., the first community group in Westchester, had been meeting in a Quonset hut on Truxton Avenue.

McWilliams believed the cooperative spirit owed much to the fact that the residents were all about the same: skilled workers and World War II veterans who were ready to buy a house with GI financing and start a family.

The houses they could afford were likewise the same, and in fact were built by just three developers: Silas Nowell, Frank Ayres and the team of Fritz B. Burns and Fred W. Marlow.

Marlow had recently resigned as director of the Federal Housing Authority in California, and his houses were aimed so exactly at the GI market that realtors nicknamed them "Jeeps." Most of the houses sold originally for under $6,000.

Today, prices in the neighborhoods most distant from the airport range around $390,000, said Mary Jo Bergstrom, a realtor in the area for 10 years. A fixer-upper in Kentwood, closer to the airport, was recently reduced from $344,000 to $324,000, she said.

The priciest area is along the bluffs west of Lincoln Boulevard, bordering Playa del Rey. She said a view property on Riggs Place has been listed at $1 million.

Willis Marcom came to Westchester during World War II and got out of the dry-cleaning business to sell real estate. And he soon had another calling as well.

At Christmas, 1949, his wife was asked to stage a play for Kentwood Elementary School, where she was PTA president. She did, and he played Santa Claus "skinny as I was," he said.

"After the show was over, we had a party," Marcom said. It was such a good party that in order to have more, Marcom and others formed an amateur stage company called the Kentwood Players.

Marcom has been performing and directing with them ever since, six shows a year, including a musical. The nonprofit company owns the Westchester Playhouse free and clear, has a subscription list of 2,000 and guaranteed sellouts through 1990.

Charles Reynolds would have lost his attachment to Westchester had it not been for the Kent- wood group, which he joined in 1960.

He had come to Westchester to work for Hughes Aircraft, but moved to Redondo Beach when his house was taken in the airport expansion. He now lives in Santa Monica, but returns to Westchester almost every day to direct the players' next production. "This is my family," he said the other day in the playhouse lobby.

Other community groups--a symphony, women's and civic clubs--have thrived in spite of, or perhaps because of, the proximity of the airport.

"I think the airport today has helped to give us an identity," says Shirley Pheil, whose business is to welcome new residents and introduce them to local merchants.

Apartment Buildings

"I think the community as we knew it is phasing out," Marcom said. "But now, you know, people say that Westchester is the airport. Maybe it is. Maybe that's the future."

Confined by the airport, new housing is almost entirely in apartments. Parkwest, a complex of 444 units, nears completion on Lincoln Boulevard just a few hundred yards from the airport's northernmost runway, where houses used to stand.

"Now they're building apartments in places they said weren't fit for houses," Schwarz said. "I wouldn't live there."

She added that she has never considered leaving Westchester.

"I have everything I want here," she said. "We have the best weather, and downtown Los Angeles is there when you want it--we had tickets to the Music Center for years--but the rest of the time we're off here in our little corner, and nobody even knows where we are."

Then she said, "Well, of course, we're next to the airport."

AT A GLANCE Population 1989 estimate: 50,000 Median age: 35 years Racial/ethnic mix White (non-Latino): 74.1% Latino: 15.7% Black: 2.9% Other: 7.3% Annual income Per capita: $18,675 Median household: $43,438 Household distribution Less than $15,000: 14.2% $15,000 - $30,000: 19.3% $30,000 - $50,000: 25.1% $50,000 - $75,000: 23.5% $75,000 + 17.9%

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°