Living a Neighborhood Nightmare : Squatters: Living next door to an abandoned house is an eye-opening, soul-wrenching experience.

<i> Paul Gordon is a writer who has lived in his Hollywood neighborhood for more than 10 years. </i>

I have led a sheltered life, and guarded. From this second-story room, up among the trees, images of postcard Hollywood--the boulevard, the famous sign, mansions on the hills--float in the distance.

Directly below is a flat bungalow surrounded by a tall wire fence. The house is boarded up, but not abandoned. The courtyard, hidden back from the street, is laid out like a stage. Its props are a shifting congregation of mattresses, piles of bottles and shoes, two shopping carts, a wheelchair twisted in a heap.

For the past year, from the safety of my room, I have watched this house, once the home of a good friend, become a “squat” for the city’s homeless, a no-man’s-land adrift inside a fence, the edge of civilization as I have known it.

It was a descent of ordered stages. The owner sold the house to a developer; soon after came the tenants’ eviction notice, a truck to move belongings, a few beers, a few goodbys. The doors were locked, the keys were left inside. But that evening I saw the front door hanging, handle smashed, off its hinges. A candle flickered on the mantle; there was a murmur of low, furtive voices. I stopped on the threshold, afraid to go inside.


The police didn’t hesitate. They marched through the rooms with a thorough, weary purpose. A few kids, red-eyed, were dragged out, then scattered into the night. In half an hour, they were back. In a week, the house was destroyed. In daylight, neighbors joined the pillage. Children rode their bicycles through the rooms, the fixtures were pried from the walls and carried off, the courtyard filled up with wire, pipes and broken glass. At night the street kids took over.

Then one day, a truck with Sonora plates pulled up and a Mexican family moved into the house. The father and his two sons had the trespassers out in short order. The family began to fix up the place as best they could. The broken windows were boarded over, the trash in the courtyard was bagged up and carted away.

They were friendly people. Still, there was a hesitation in the greetings we exchanged over the fence. In truth, they were squatters, too. But no one bothered them, and for the week or so they lived there, the house was clean and quiet. Then one morning, early, they were gone.

Within hours the kids were back, but in a few days a new group, tougher and louder, took over. They were in turn replaced by a crew of veteran street people, crazed from years of homelessness. Then came the gangs. It was cave politics: The wild replaced the peaceable, the crazies pushed out the wild until, within a month, only the wildest and craziest remained.

What went on inside the ruined rooms, I could only imagine. From my window, I saw enough: On the roof, gang bangers sunned themselves, their weapons close at hand; down in the courtyard, the house’s dump and common toilet, the losers, too old or sick or spacey to fight their way inside, sprawled on filthy mattresses, drifting in lower limbo.

Still, the shelter and safety of the courtyard was preferable to the street. Every day a steady stream of newcomers camped inside the yard. Men and women, sometimes children, squatted in corners, cooked on fires fed with kindling from the house, or slept in the shade of a small poinsettia bush, still blooming brightly.

Every night the smell of wine wafted across the fence. Shouts and cursing rose from the courtyard in contrast to the eerie stillness which enveloped the house. From the windows, gang members scanned the street with a casual posture that seemed to say we neighbors weren’t worth mugging.

What could be done? The owner, his luxury-apartment project mired in delays, claimed that securing the property was impossible. And from my city councilman I received only a copy of his note to the developer requesting that he clean up the garbage.

The crowd inside the fence grew larger, wilder. Once I counted 25 people rolling around inside the property. Sleep was impossible. At night I lay listening to the howls from the courtyard, so angry, so chaotic--and so close.

When a crisis flared--a fight, or the sound of a gunshot--I dialed 911. I did so with hesitation. Phoning the police was like calling in an air strike; you could never be sure with what force the impact would arrive, or where or when. Sometimes the cruisers would arrive in minutes, sometimes not at all. The cops themselves were often unpredictable. One time I saw an officer patiently help a youth fill his shopping cart and press some money into his hand, and once I stood behind the fence--my fists clenched--as a cop flung a drunken man head-first into a wall. But always, a few minutes after the cruisers had gone, the courtyard and then the house filled up again.

By summer’s end a natural evolution was taking its course. The bungalow was falling apart, its timbers sagging, roof torn away. The gang moved on; in the flatland of Hollywood, newer squats were opening up on every block. Eventually only three tired souls, a woman and two men, remained down in the courtyard. Amid the trash and stench, they slept all day, in dreadful quiet. It was as if the property, a carcass first set upon by wolves, had been abandoned to the worms.

Finally a crew from the Department of Building and Safety arrived one day and boarded up the house--ironically, now destined to be razed for a low-income project. A tall wire fence was strung along the property line. For a few days I found the fence ripped and torn in places, then the house was left alone, inhabited only by pigeons rustling in the eaves.

From my room I still keep watch; I have become the house’s caretaker. There is a hole in the back fence, small enough to crawl through, and when it rains enough to keep the dust down, I slip inside the courtyard to clear up what’s left behind. There is the blackened fire pit, bottles sloshing with wine and cigarette butts, a blanket smeared with waste. I pick it up and place it in a bag, move on down the property line. A drop of rain falls on my wrist, that separates my house from this.