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How the Looters Stole a Dream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing in front of his splendid Victorian above Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, Jeff Stvrtecky speaks of his years spent in the middle of Los Angeles as if recalling a long-ago, passionate relationship that just couldn’t last.

“There was a time when I loved L.A. so much . . . the culture, the fun, the sun. . . . I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” he said as the midmorning sun burned away the Puget Sound fog. “But you go through stages in life, and other things become more important.”

Stvrtecky still loved Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, and still believed in its potential. But after seeing his neighbors loot stores as a gun battle raged in front of his house just off Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard, he no longer wanted to live with its mood swings. “Los Angeles had come back before, and I felt the city would come back [again after the riots]. I just didn’t want to wait.”

He and his companion, Jon Rake, moved in August 1993. Their home lingered on a depressed market until Stephen Wallis and Eileen Ehmann bought it and continued the journey.

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Patience ran out for a lot of Angelenos in the 1990s. Even before the riots, Los Angeles residents were leaving the city by the thousands. Many moved to neighboring counties, lured by lower housing prices or the perceived safety of newer suburbs. Many others left the state entirely, adding to population booms in other parts of the West.

The number of Californians who left the state had begun exceeding those who moved in from other states by 1991. The largest number of California transplants moved to Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado. The net outflow of Californians, measured by the Department of Motor Vehicles, lasted until 1997.

Because so many moved away, with so many individual reasons, the migration cannot be pegged to a single event or motive. Los Angeles took a series of hard blows in the space of just a few years: a faltering economy and real estate market, racial tensions highlighted by the riots and natural disasters such as the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Stvrtecky, a music conductor, and Rake, a choreographer, had already been thinking of moving to Tacoma, Wash., before the riots. They owned a house there that they rented out, and had dreams of starting a musical theater company. A bed-and-breakfast inn they had run out of their house in L.A.'s historic West Adams district had gone out of business. They were gradually scaling back their commitments to L.A., but figured they could stay years longer.

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A Bullet Pierces Feeling of Security

They had moved to West Adams in 1985, part of a wave of younger couples and families. The newcomers often bought the homes of departing seniors or neglected houses that had been occupied by renters. They lovingly restored the early 20th century houses, which they often bought at low prices, and bonded through neighborhood beautification work. They prided themselves as multiracial urban pioneers just two miles from downtown.

The riots reached them with a warning on April 29, 1992. They had been watching television news in their living room, and knew rioters were headed north, toward them. Then someone ran down their street and announced the appliance store at their corner would be looted.

The shooting started moments later. The appliance store’s owner and a group of young men Stvrtecky and Rake knew to be local gang members were firing at each other. The gang members positioned themselves in front of Stvrtecky’s house, some of them firing from the porch.

Rake was on the living room floor calling 911 when a bullet hit him.

The shot passed through the house’s siding, a stud and an overstuffed chair before ricocheting in the living room, retaining only enough energy to bounce off Rake’s chest. The bullet didn’t even break his skin. “I actually thought it would be kind of a fun thing to talk about.”

More than the gunshots and fires, what horrified the pair was what they began to see out of their living room window: their neighbors returning from looting.

“The devil took over that day,” Rake said. “Even those we took to be good people were swept up in it.” The sight of people they knew running home with shoes and televisions taken from nearby stores terrified them. Good people had gone bad. Where were the police? Where would it stop?

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Seeing Neighbors in a Different Light

“The most fearful moment of my life,” Stvrtecky said--including living through last Sept. 11 while visiting Manhattan. Those villains were strangers. These were people they knew and trusted, in some cases using trucks or dollies to move their loot.

“The appliance store was empty in 15 or 20 minutes. They were so well organized,” Stvrtecky said. “People lost their businesses to our own neighbors.”

Stvrtecky became hysterical, saying “We’re going to die!” over and over. “I had to slap him,” Rake recalled.

The arrival of the National Guard restored order, Rake said. Feeling safe again he was able to focus on what to do with no electricity and a kitchen full of perishable food. He and others on the block faced their plight the best way they knew how. They threw a party.

Grills were fired up in frontyards, the barbecue smoke blending with the smoke from the smoldering stores on Western. As they grilled the contents of their refrigerators, the neighbors gazed up the street at the armed Guard troops standing watch and took stock of their community.

“Sitting on the porch, having a drink, talking through our fear,” Rake said. “It was disheartening. It was as if all of our hard work could go up in smoke in a matter of hours.”

In past years, Rake had organized a neighborhood planting project that lined the sidewalks with 200 magnolias, jacarandas and other trees. A group had gathered on Saturday mornings with paint buckets, brushes and rollers, walking through the neighborhood to paint over graffiti.

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Now, there was little talk of moving away but much discouragement. “The fighter in me said to stay and fix it again,” Rake said. “Another part just felt defeated.”

In the days after the riot, he organized a massive neighborhood cleanup. The White House got word of his work, and Rake was flown to Washington in 1993 to accept an award from President Clinton. But even as he continued his community work, Rake and Stvrtecky were tying up loose ends to prepare for their move.

“Enough was enough,” said Stvrtecky, now 44. “We realized quality of life was just too important to us.”

It wasn’t the desire to escape traffic or crime. Tacoma’s slice of Interstate 5 during rush hour is as choked as an L.A. freeway.

Stvrtecky and Rake live in a peaceful neighborhood, but on the day a reporter visited them, the top story in the city’s newspaper was of a mass-murder trial involving members of a mostly Cambodian gang called the Loc’d Out Crips. The cover story in the alternative weekly paper was a piece on local white supremacists.

Stvrtecky and Rake appreciate the fact that their new city’s urban problems are not right out their front door, but insist that was never the point of their move.

What they sought, and found, in Tacoma was a chance to fulfill their musical ambitions. Los Angeles hardly needed another theater company or choral group. Tacoma, which in the early 1990s was in the early stages of a local arts renaissance, was eager for both.

Quickly Finding Roles in New City’s Culture

Within months of their arrival, Rake and Stvrtecky founded the Tacoma Musical Playhouse, headed by Rake, and the Tacoma Master Chorale, run by Stvrtecky. After first performing in church basements and school auditoriums, Rake and Stvrtecky were able to convert an old movie theater into a permanent venue for the groups.

As a result, their lives became even more hectic than their fast-paced life in Los Angeles. They usually don’t wrap up their day at the theater until rehearsals end about 10 at night.

The work is so exhilarating they hardly miss the performances, night life and restaurants they enjoyed so much in L.A. What they miss about the city surprised them: In Tacoma, they don’t feel as close to their neighbors.

“We hardly talk to anyone now,” said Rake, 43. Part of it is due to their round-the-clock work hours, and part of it is weather that often precludes gathering outside, he said.

Tacoma has made them believe that one thing that pushed neighbors to work together in West Adams was the sheer difficulty of living in urban Los Angeles, tribulations too big to face alone.

“We don’t have the gunshots, the helicopters and the graffiti,” Stvrtecky said. “One reason we’re not as friendly with the neighbors here is there aren’t the issues here that draw people together” in West Adams.

In the torpid real estate market after the riots, it took Rake and Stvrtecky four years to sell their house, which they eventually let go for about $100,000 less than they owed on it.

Those who followed Rake and Stvrtecky’s lead--swallowing hard, cutting their losses and moving on from Los Angeles in the ‘90s--opened a door for people such as Stephen Wallis and Eileen Ehmann.

In 1997, Wallis, then 34, and Ehmann, 37, were ready to leave their suburbs of Long Beach and Santa Monica to buy a house together.

What they could afford in West Adams astounded them. If they were to give life in the middle of the city a shot, they’d get an elegant five-bedroom house for less than $200,000--about half the median price in Santa Monica at the time. “We just couldn’t believe we could get a house like that,” Wallis said.

Five years after the riots, Wallis and Ehmann found conditions in West Adams a bit like they were when Rake and Stvrtecky moved there. Property values had plummeted, crime was among their neighbors’ top concerns.

The house had been damaged by careless tenants in the years it was rented, spoiling some of Rake and Stvrtecky’s restoration.

But many of those who had labored to keep the neighborhood up were still there, and other new residents were eager to join the area’s tradition of neighborhood activism.

Newcomers Help Make It ‘Truly a Neighborhood’

“We came at the right time. There were about five other young couples who came in when we did. We had a lot of energy. We were all going to protect our investment,” Wallis said.

Wallis, director of operations at the Grove shopping mall in the Fairfax district, and Ehmann, a senior secretary at the Getty Center, immersed themselves in community activities.

Wallis and neighbors planted 26 new magnolias on their street, replacing trees that had been damaged or died. He later found out the original trees had been planted in the earlier effort led by Rake.

“I picked up his crusade without knowing it,” Wallis said.

With their neighbors, they conducted a cleanup day, picking up trash on the sidewalks between Pico and Washington boulevards and Normandie and Western avenues.

The projects led to friendships, and made them feel a little like they lived in a small town in the midst of a metropolis.

“I can literally walk from block to block, house to house, and know everyone. It’s truly a neighborhood,” Wallis said. “It’s full of great, great people. We all watch out for each other--whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, straights, gays,” he said.

Wallis thinks race relations have continued to improve since the riots, a perception confirmed by public opinion polls.

What worries him more about the city’s future is not so much racial tensions, but the feeling that even when people get along and work together, it’s not enough. He and his neighbors win battles against blight every week, but the war never stops.

Recalling the neighborhood trash pickup, Wallis describes the triumphant feeling in the community when they saw the clean sidewalks and the small mountain of stuffed trash bags they had gathered.

“Then within a week it was back. Tires, building debris” were again dumped on the sidewalks, he said.

So Ehmann, feeling fed up, got neighbors together and arranged for 66 waste baskets to be put up in front of neighborhood businesses. They worked beautifully for a few months, until they stopped being emptied. Then within a year most of them were stolen.

Old Couch Hauled Off and Another Appears

It is still common for Ehmann and Wallis to wake up and find an abandoned couch in front of their house. More couches, mattresses and other garbage dumped at midnight always appear shortly after the previous load is removed, as does the graffiti.

Wallis faults the perpetrators for their disregard of others, but also wonders why the city can’t manage to keep neighborhoods clean. “Can you imagine what it would be like if the city just functioned like a municipality should? If we as individuals don’t take it upon ourselves to do something, it just doesn’t get done here.”

For now, Ehmann said, she is willing to put in the time with her neighbors to see that their area is kept up. She still enjoys the camaraderie.

But she’s wearying. She feels like her community is “trying to hold back the tide, and sometimes it’s a thing that’s getting too big for us to take on” without more support. “It’s really tiring.”

She has never met Jeff Stvrtecky or Jon Rake, but she occasionally sounds like them.

“After living here a while I can really understand how people can say ‘I’ve had it.’ I’m not there yet, but I can really understand.”


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