Don’t destroy my neighborhood, LAUSD

Novelist and poet Marcos M. Villatoro is a professor of English at Mount St. Mary's College and a columnist for Tu Ciudad Los Angeles magazine. (

RULE NO. 1: Always, always open your junk mail.

I almost didn’t. I saw “LAUSD” and thought: “Probably a public awareness flier.” But there was that subtitle, “Real Estate Office.” Then all three phones rang: two cells and our land line. All of our neighbors in this corner of Van Nuys opened their junk mail that day.

Nowhere does the letter say “eminent domain,” but there it is, in all its overstuffed, half-apologetic rhetoric: the legal taking, if necessary without consent, of private property.

“We plan to build a new elementary school in your community…. The property(s) you own and/or occupy … is located within one of the sites being considered for this school.”

So our little neighborhood is part of a grand scheme. The district has already spent billions of dollars to put up 65 schools since 2000. It plans to build 80 more. So far, the district says it has “successfully relocated” 2,200 businesses and households.

At a public meeting on Wednesday, with 300-plus enraged homeowners in the audience, Al Grazioli, the Los Angeles Unified School District development manager, shared the vision: The district wants Elementary School No. 14 to be built on one of two contiguous full blocks north of Vanowen Street, between Tobias and Willis, Hart and Bassett. The new school, he said, would relieve the populations of five other schools in our area and help put schools back on the traditional calendar.

Earlier, Grazioli’s real estate manager told me over the phone that my neighborhood needs to look at the greater good. And fear not: The LAUSD will hire an appraiser and buy our homes at market prices.

We will sell “voluntarily” to the district or get involuntarily “condemned,” unless the plan changes.

My interpretation: Not only can the government take my land without my permission, it can also set the price . And here, between the little streets of Tobias and Willis, Hart and Bassett, it can bulldoze a community that’s taken decades to build.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be mistrustful. I don’t take much to the phrase “the greater good.” Especially when it comes out of the mouths of powerful monoliths like the LAUSD.

The school district’s ability to use eminent domain may blind it to what its power does to the folks on the ground. Our neighborhood anecdotes may come off as subjective, one-sided and irrelevant measured against the need for more schools. But perhaps the LAUSD could humor me for a moment.

After the letter arrived, my wife, Michelle, walked the blocks, house to house.

Half of our neighbors are Spanish speakers. Though the letter also came in Spanish, Michelle explained the situation to them: No matter which of the two blocks is chosen, 22 houses will have to go. All afternoon she heard, “I had no idea what this was about,” usually followed by, “Oh no. Not here in America!”

“Where will we go?” asked Mona, who’s lived here over 35 years. “We have nothing, nothing but our house.” Next to her, Rejo, who just moved in his young family three weeks ago, is too stunned to speak in either English or Indonesian.

Neighbors across our street received no letters. Yet they’re as upset as those of us waiting to be condemned. We meet on the sidewalk, something we’ve done for a dozen years. Because this is that type of neighborhood. We throw block parties a couple of times a year — potato salad and pupusas in my driveway, two barbecues filled with four meats on Ron’s patio. We hand over our house keys to one another while on vacation. We’re the Latino-Jewish-white-Armenian Wilmas and Bettys, gossiping at the fence.

People outside our neighborhood don’t see this. They don’t see Chi, who ran an electric line from his house to next door so his neighbor could finish his bathroom renovations. Nor do they see Constance and Dwayne, who’ve lived here almost 50 years and have made their home and gardens into a gorgeous Japanese-motif setting.

We live in one of those hidden places you pass while driving down Victory Boulevard or Sherman Way. The place of potholes (we’ve asked the city for 17 years to repave our street), the place where all those brown people aren’t raking the yards, but instead walk through their own front doors after work.

We have our hell-raisers. Norma lives across the street. Whenever something smells of injustice, Norma always gets that Cesar Chavez look in her eyes.

Norma is the president of our community organization, the Cedros Associated Neighborhood, made up of the residents of the two targeted blocks. She’s studied the letter and has done her own homework. The letter states that “there is simply no vacant, safe land in the location where the school is needed.” Yes, there is. There’s a huge, fallow field one block north of us, owned by a church. Six blocks east of us stands a plot that the LAUSD bought up over a year ago. The houses are still there, behind barricades. There are overgrown fields, an abandoned Ralphs, an empty Red Cross building.

At the public meeting, I couldn’t tell whether Grazioli and his district compadres were absorbing the outrage or wearing Teflon suits. Did he hear us when we said to cheers, applause and outcries that we do not want to leave our homes? If the meeting was meant to “educate” — I read that as “pacify” — the locals, it didn’t work. We were already mad as hell; after the meeting, we were madder. More schools — that’s important, but isn’t there another way?

Something that was once so safe, the place you ran to when afraid or tired, can be taken away. Just like that — with a form letter, dressed up as junk mail. But the people on these two city blocks in Van Nuys have more to lose: One another. Community. A word the district doesn’t use on its site-selection-criteria form.

The LAUSD, with its clumsy, ham-fisted, photocopied letter and the fear it delivered, has ironically made our strong community stronger. The district would blindly tear apart a lively, close-knit, vintage community. Here on the ground, those who crouch under the bulldozing shadow of eminent domain ask only one thing from it: Don’t.