COLUMN ONE : W. Adams: a Home for Dreamers : Fanciful houses drew some to this once-elite area near USC. The promise of a good life attracted others. Now, old-timers and newcomers join to make their neighborhood work.
Lynne Shifflett can still picture the first visitor to her family’s new house in 1947.
“I remember a marshal ringing our doorbell and handing my parents a notice to move out,” she said, recalling the day her parents became the first black homeowners in Los Angeles’ West Adams district, a few miles west of Downtown.
Shifflett’s mother and father had posed as a white couple’s servants to buy their turn-of-the-century 11-room house, breaking the neighborhood’s whites-only real estate covenant. To stay, they had to fight off a lawsuit from their neighbors, a battle they won in the U.S. Supreme Court.
By the time Suzanne Henderson and her family became the first whites to move to their block in West Adams in 1983, the neighborhood was mostly black. The Hendersons, too, got an immediate taste of what was to come. The family next door invited their 4-year-old daughter over to play with their children. Other neighbors soon followed with gifts of Christmas holiday food.
If 1992’s riots and the highly charged debate over Proposition 187 show how far Southern California has to go to achieve racial harmony, West Adams is an example of how far at least one neighborhood has come.
This area always has been the home of dreamers, from silent film stars to the builders of its fanciful houses to the families that broke racial barriers--or welcomed those who did.
Today, West Adams defies the stereotype of Los Angeles as a decaying, impersonal sprawl torn by racial tensions. Residents say that the difficulties of inner-city life force them to work together to face their neighborhood’s challenges.
“It’s survival,” said Herman L. De Bose, a Cal State Northridge sociology professor who moved to the area from the Westside in 1985. “People need to be there for each other to get things done to make sure our neighborhood functions.”
West Adams is not an oasis. Fear of crime and the recession have taken their toll on this area, which is bordered by USC on the south, Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, Pico Boulevard on the north and Hoover Street on the east.
But people here say simple steps like talking to each other can solve seemingly large problems. In the drawing rooms of their houses, West Adams residents with seemingly little in common--not language, race or class--meet regularly to discuss how they will plant trees on the sidewalks, run an after-school program for their children or get rid of a neighborhood crack house.
During the riots, West Adams residents who were without electricity for nearly a week organized a barbecue to cook their thawing meat and raise their spirits. Residents also swept sidewalks, picked up trash and collected money to help businesses reopen, an effort that earned them a national award for volunteerism.
West Adams has had its share of the problems that have torn other neighborhoods apart, including drug trafficking and the threat of gentrification during the 1980s real estate boom.
The neighborhood’s identity is tied to the houses that inspire almost obsessive devotion from its inhabitants, its activist heritage of more than 40 years, and--ironically--the very urban problems that have discouraged real estate speculators and forced cooperation among neighbors. Take any of these away, residents say, and West Adams would not be West Adams.
“It’s like throwing a great party,” said free-lance writer Mitzi Mogul, 37, a seven-year resident who was raised in West Hollywood. “When all the right things come together, it seems to happen spontaneously, as if you weren’t even trying, but everything has to be just right.”
Although the surrounding area is predominantly Latino, the core of West Adams--the turn-of-the-century homes off West Adams Boulevard--still reflects the area’s history of migration. It is 62% black, 25% Latino, 11% white and 2% Asian, according to the 1990 U.S. census.
West Adams was born with the century. The white settlers of the early 1900s flaunted the freedom of the frontier through their grand houses, boldly mixing Victorian, American Craftsman, Mediterranean and Asian architecture. Their legacy includes Japanese-Swiss Craftsman bungalows and an aqua-blue mansion on 24th Street that historians have labeled “South Seas Edwardian.”
As they built innovative houses, the settlers also helped to create Southland industries in oil and movie production. Theda Bara, the seductress whose love scenes shocked silent film audiences when the words “Kiss me, my fool” flashed across the screen, also took West Adams by storm, filling her mansion with skulls, mummy cases and tiger-skin rugs.
The rogue rich made West Adams at once the city’s most notorious and desirable neighborhood. Silent screen comic Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, whose career was ruined by charges that he raped and killed a woman during a days-long drinking party, lived in West Adams. So did oilman Edward L. Doheny Sr., who was accused of passing a satchel filled with $100,000 to the secretary of Interior in the Teapot Dome scandal of 1921.
West Adams’ prominence was eclipsed by areas such as Hollywood and Beverly Hills in the 1930s. More middle-class residents bought houses, including Japanese Americans, few of whom returned to the area after spending World War II in internment camps. Other prospective homeowners turned to the burgeoning, inexpensive suburbs of the San Fernando Valley.
In the 1950s, African Americans eager to partake of postwar prosperity began to fill the void. Segregation had kept black home buyers from moving to communities west of Downtown, but they were able to move first into West Adams and then, in the early and mid-1960s, further west into the Crenshaw area, View Park and Baldwin Hills.
Whites, in turn, started to leave. “There was a lot of white flight taking place. They moved out very quickly,” recalled Ida Walls Lee, 84, who still lives with her brother, Raymond Walls, 91, in the house they moved into in 1957 with their mother, who was then 99.
What was left was a nearly all-minority neighborhood, mostly black, with Asians and Latinos and some remaining whites. By the early 1960s, West Adams was a magnet for the black elite. Actress Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a servant in “Gone With the Wind,” had a mansion of her own.
Upwardly mobile blacks started a neighborhood renaissance. Shifflett, a news anchor for radio station KPFK, recalls school parties at her house in which children were required to bring their report cards. Among the adults who would review the youngsters’ progress was a councilman named Tom Bradley.
About the same time, however, construction of the Santa Monica Freeway split the neighborhood. It destroyed dozens of houses including Berkeley Square, a gated neighborhood that had 20 mansions, including one with 65 rooms that served as an office for a group of black physicians. The freeway also slashed property values and precipitated the neighborhood’s decline.
As the first black residents grew older and began to live on fixed incomes, some could not afford to keep up their large houses. Many houses were split into rental units, further eroding the neighborhood’s stability. And many older residents say that redlining by banks kept younger blacks from buying the houses purchased by their parents’ generation.
But the drop in property values would eventually spur another influx: Young families of all races drawn by low prices, and preservationists interested in restoring old houses arrived in the 1980s.
Many of the new residents, especially the preservationists, shared the activist spirit of the first black residents. Henderson, 43, said coming of age during the civil rights movement of the 1960s made her eager to move beyond prejudice.
Henderson, who remembers white families moving out of her San Fernando Valley neighborhood when a house was listed for sale with a black real estate agent, said she values the diversity of West Adams. However, her decision to move to a largely black neighborhood shocked many of her friends and relatives, who thought it would be dangerous.
“My mother, who now loves the neighborhood, offered me $5,000 and a trip to Hawaii not to move,” she said.
To be white and living in West Adams was to experience discrimination on a new level, Henderson said.
“I learned a whole lot about what it meant to be living here if you were black. Contractors refused to come to my house, and after talking to them for a while, they would ask, ‘Are you white?’ ” she said.
The newcomers, most of whom were younger and used to a high level of services in their old neighborhoods, helped to energize some of the older, retired residents, according to Harold Smith, 55, a West Adams resident since 1957.
“The young people would not stand for some of the things we put up with. The whole area was discriminated against for years, and after that some of us just backed up into a corner and stayed there,” Smith said.
“They were fairly knowledgeable, mostly well-educated professionals who brought a lot of skills to the process of organizing the community,” said Paul Hudson, 46, president of Broadway Federal Savings and Loan Assn., who grew up in West Adams.
But the newcomers’ zeal also caused tension. Many old-timers believed that the preservationists were restoring their houses only to sell them later at a huge profit. They also worried that a steep hike in property values might inflate their tax and insurance payments and keep their children from buying houses in the neighborhood--classic arguments against the kind of gentrification that has swept old inner-city neighborhoods throughout the United States.
Simmering resentment erupted in 1989, when preservationists tried to block an expansion project by Holman United Methodist Church, an established black congregation, that required the demolition of a historic mansion. Both sides believed that they were trying to improve the neighborhood, but longtime residents said the recently arrived preservationists were being heavy-handed.
Eventually the church went ahead with the project despite the objections, and a feeling lingered that the preservationists’ “level of respect wasn’t as it should have been,” said Councilman Nate Holden, one of three council members who represent West Adams. “Now they know how to work more closely with others.”
Today, the hard feelings having cooled, West Adams’ thriving block clubs and neighborhood associations draw residents of all ages and races. Meetings rotate among different houses and newsletters are written in English and Spanish.
Just as newcomers sought to overcome past bigotry, older residents were ready to heal old wounds.
“I might have chuckled at first and said, ‘Oh, you went away and now you’re coming back,’ ” Raymond Walls said of the newly arrived white residents, displaying a wit sharpened over nine decades. “But I don’t allow myself or others to be closed. I’m determined to put people at ease. It’s good for you to be at ease and good for me.”
Most of those who bought houses in the 1980s have stayed to become community fixtures. “The people who came in proved to be here for the long term. They were not flippers or speculators,” banker Hudson said.
Even if they wanted to, it would be hard for many who came to the area in the 1980s to leave. David Raposa, a real estate agent who sells homes in the area, said that houses listed at $150,000 sold for $260,000 five years ago.
Raposa, who has lived in West Adams for 10 years, said that a sort of natural selection might have drawn committed residents to the area. “Those who came are people who liked the architecture and were willing to go to an area even though they were told it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
Indeed, while its architecture sets it apart, West Adams has enough problems to discourage many affluent home buyers. Graffiti, burglaries and car thefts are common. Many residents who can afford it send their children to private schools. Supermarkets, cleaners and coffee shops are hard to find.
But showing the optimism of many of his neighbors, Raposa notes that such drawbacks might also have prevented aggressive development that might have priced lower-income home buyers out of the area or replaced the grand old Victorians with bland new houses.
“The block-by-block targeted development that you’ve seen in some East Coast cities never happened here,” Raposa said. “Moneyed people don’t like it enough to do that.”