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Plane Crash Shattered Not Just a Building, but a Community

Times Staff Writer

No one wanted to move out of the little apartment building on North Spaulding Avenue. The rents were low, the neighborhood lively.

Most days, actor and masseur Johnny Ray strolled up the street with his potbellied pig, Harley. Tibor Reis, 78, tipped his fedora in greeting as he headed, in a suit, to his Orthodox synagogue. Before leaving for work to answer phones, Tami Talebi mapped out macabre movies. Aharon Mushkin, 88, leaned on the shopping cart he parked in the alley next to the building and slowly shuffled his way to Smart & Final.

A month ago today, a small plane crashed through the building’s roof and cut straight through two stories to the garage. When the plane tore through his second-floor apartment, Reis died, along with the plane’s four occupants. Now the building at 601 N. Spaulding Ave. sits battered and empty behind a barricade of plywood.

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Its residents, brought together by chance, say they’ll never re-create their small community.

Scattered and homeless, they sleep on friends’ floors, unhappily scanning the rental ads. Most can’t afford to stay in the Fairfax District, a neighborhood they had come to love. A few have moved to large, anonymous buildings in Hollywood, paying hundreds more in rent.

The eclectic Fairfax District accommodated all of them. Reis could walk one long block north, to just below Melrose, to reach his temple, Young Israel. He kept kosher, and two blocks west on Fairfax Avenue were kosher restaurants and markets aplenty. But just a few yards from Reis’ synagogue on Melrose were the trendy cafes and hip boutiques frequented by many of his younger neighbors.

“Melrose was like the Village in New York,” said Sara Mattison, a comedy writer from Connecticut, who lived directly below Reis but was at a movie when the plane crashed.

The 14-unit building never turned heads. It’s boxy and gray, like thousands of others. When Johnny Ray first saw an ad for an apartment there, he drove a potential roommate by. She frowned and said she wouldn’t live in “the ugliest building on the block.” Ray kept looking. But then he answered an ad for someone else wanting a roommate, and found himself back at the same building. That was five years ago.

“The ugliest building turned out to be the most cherished, I think. It was old people who had lived a lot of lives and young people who were starting out on their own lives and trying to make it as artists,” said Ray, 35, who recently got out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after smashing his right hand and fracturing an ankle and a vertebra leaping out of his second-floor window after the crash. Harley, the 80-pound pet pig, walked out of the building on his own.

Ray, who is from Northern California, was a student at USC when he moved in. He’s trying to make it as an actor. The jobs are only occasional.

But Jeanne Arneberg, who at 74 has been managing the building for nearly a quarter century, said she has seen a lot of young people like him arrive at her front door with big dreams. She helped them follow those dreams.

If money got tight, she let them downsize from one-bedrooms to singles. If they fell in love, they could move with their girlfriends or boyfriends into bigger places. It was musical chairs, said this tough-talking woman in a housecoat, her dyed-blond hair pinned up in a swirl.

She keeps an old Rolodex, with addresses of former tenants, and flipped through it on a recent afternoon as she sat on the bed that fills nearly the entire apartment she moved into next door after the crash. Rock musician Charlie Sexton once lived in the building, she said. So did an actress who “played Fritzy in one of those beach bunny movies.” She said she still gets Christmas cards from former tenants all over the world.

“You have to look at it that they’re only kids. Kids are kids no matter where they come from in the world,” she said. “And if they were your own children, you’d want to give them a hand when you could.”

She didn’t write up leases. Rents started at about $475 a month for a single with off-street parking. In the old days, Arneberg said, most of the tenants were elderly Jews. The building’s owners, Edward and Mae Zipperstein, didn’t want to charge them much. Then the property fell under Los Angeles’ rent stabilization laws and rents stayed low. Most vacancies were filled by word of mouth, Arneberg said.

“It wasn’t a dormitory,” Arneberg said of the building. It wasn’t that people left their doors open and lived communally. But in the halls of 601 N. Spaulding, lives intersected every day.

Arneberg, who watched over Mushkin, cooked him dinner every night. He would knock on the door and end up watching TV for hours in her apartment. On the Sabbath, Reis would often go looking for a neighbor to turn on a light or his stove for him, tasks that strict observance of Jewish law forbade him to do himself.

When Talebi made her short movie “Clippers,” about people who collect toenail clippings, she enlisted Ray to play a masseur who builds a collection from his clients. Ray said many people stopped in at his place to watch “Six Feet Under,” because he was one of the few people in the building with HBO. Mattison often sunbathed on the roof with Larry McQuillen, the actor in the apartment next to hers. The building’s actors and directors and writers often showed each other their work or swapped tips about auditions.

Everyone played with 3-year-old Sam DuToit and his brother Genesis, 2, the building’s only children. Their parents, Kevin and Heather, like others in the building, have big Hollywood dreams. An assistant to the head of post-production at DreamWorks, Kevin DuToit is an aspiring filmmaker.

Sandra Chi, whose family moved from South Korea to Los Angeles in 1975, went to Fairfax High School, a block away.

She studied biology at UC Irvine, and tried working at a hospital but hated it. Her father, who once owned an apartment building, is retired. Her mother never learned English and is a part-time seamstress downtown. When Chi decided to look for work at a record company, they weren’t thrilled. Looking to move out on her own from their Hollywood apartment, she gravitated to her high school neighborhood.

“It sounds silly, but I’ve just had a good experience with the Jewish community. I click with them,” the 32-year-old said. “I just feel safe. I feel like they’re watching out for us.”

Eight years ago, Chi said, she saw a sign for a rental at 607 N. Spaulding, which Arneberg also manages for the Zippersteins. Arneberg also took her to see a single at 601, which she moved into, paying $495. A few years later she met her boyfriend, Kyle Stevenson, who was working in a shop on Melrose. They moved into a bigger apartment in the building. Stevenson plays drums in a band, whose name -- Big Collapse -- now seems to sum up the couple’s circumstances.

In April, Chi was laid off from her marketing job at Artist Direct, a record label. But she and Stevenson still could afford their $675 one-bedroom apartment on the money he makes delivering photocopies and her unemployment checks. After the crash, they used a Red Cross voucher to stay for two weeks in a motel. When the voucher ran out, they had nowhere to go, and Chi sat on the steps next door to her old building in tears. A stranger who lives in the neighborhood started talking to her, and ended up inviting her to house-sit for 10 days. As those days run out, the couple search frantically for an affordable apartment.

No one knows yet what will happen to the building, which now has only 12 apartments, all damaged.

Where Reis and Mattison once lived is open space, with a view of blue sky above and garage below.

Holes are punched in walls. Windows are broken. There is a terrible and overpowering smell of mold, smoke, fuel, rotting food in refrigerators and other things no one wants to name. Sodden, burnt furniture and ruined clothing lie in piles.

Here and there, though, are surreal glimpses of what was. The row of mailboxes is intact, the red name labels still neatly affixed. The sign on the DuToits’ front door still asks visitors to take off their shoes because “kids prefer to crawl on clean carpet.” A hole punched in the wall of Casey and Andrea Cunningham’s second-floor apartment offers a glimpse of two blue towels hanging neatly on a bathroom rack. Casey Cunningham, a photographer, was badly burned in the crash. His wife is pregnant.

Since the crash, even residents who barely knew each other have become friends. They often show up at the old building and sit on the steps next door for hours, commiserating. Some of them have joined to plan fund-raising efforts. They’re planning a benefit party on the block on Aug. 9.

Juan Carlos Malpeli, an Argentine-born artist and set designer who lived on the second floor, painted a mural on the plywood outside the building, decorating it with objects retrieved from the rubble. A piece of mail addressed to Reis is pasted below a painted Star of David.

Many of the tenants say they’re sad that they didn’t know more about Reis while he was alive. They had no idea that the plump, courtly gentleman who smiled at them was a Holocaust survivor who endured life in two concentration camps. Mattison said she watched as firefighters brought out from the crash site two of his prayer shawls and his kitel, the fringed white shirt Orthodox men wear on the High Holidays, on Passover, when they marry and as shrouds when they die.

In the chaos of the crash scene, some people got lost in the shuffle. Mushkin, who seemed confused, was taken to Guardian Rehabilitation Hospital, a nursing home, on Fairfax. He’s still there.

On a recent afternoon, he sat on a bed in a room shared with two others and spoke about his life, about how his parents sent him from a small town in Poland to Israel to escape the Germans, how he wound up in Los Angeles and never saw his family again.

“I was thinking this building is forever,” he said. “Nothing can happen. All of a sudden, the plane crash. The fire, the smoke.”


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