Death of a neighborhood

With a lack of fanfare that could only be described as typical, the Los Angeles Unified School District last week finally details 50 Echo Park homes that had the bad manners to be standing where LAUSD planners want to build a perhaps-unnecessary elementary school.

Though a judge stayed the execution temporarily, it’s all over but the flattening. The little houses and bungalow courtyards — affordable housing in an area where sales prices have doubled over the last four years — are already empty, with the largely immigrant and elderly population scattered to the wind. Before reading any further, go look at the photos of the abandoned properties here; to see what the well-kept little lots looked like when people still thought they might fend off the heavy hand of the LAUSD’s eminent domain authority, click here. According to 2-year-old information from the Right Site Coalition, the anti-destruction activist group that fought to save the neighborhood, stories of the residents who were eventually displaced included:

Margarita Reyes came to the U.S. in 1949, from Managua, Nicaragua, and saved to buy her home in Echo Park five years later. She was 23 years old.Gilbert Joves’ grandmother came from the Philippines in 1976 and bought two tiny cottages in Echo Park that now house two generations of her family.The Villanuevas have 12 family members, three generations, living in their four-unit house on Mohawk Street, a cherished family home that was purchased with sacrifice and patience.

There’s a reason to linger at some length at this human scale of eminent domain’s effects. As City Council President Eric Garcetti (in whose district the school will sit) once told the L.A. Times’ Editorial Board in another context, eminent domain is like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “ring of power” — awesomely powerful and tempting, indispensable in a pinch but ultimately corrupting and to be avoided when possible. Most of the brouhaha about local eminent domain usage in recent years has centered on fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo vs. New London decision, which expanded government power to seize non-blighted private property merely for the purpose of flipping it to a new private owner who promised to generate more tax revenue. The wave of subsequent anti-Kelo legislation, and surrounding media coverage, has focused on private-to-private transfers.

But as Southern Californians know better than most, the perfectly “legitimate” uses of eminent domain can be frequently outrageous and always painful in their application too, falling disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor. The Century Freeway ripped a gash through southern Los Angeles County that still has largely not healed, and the homeowners displaced by the Chavez Ravine outrage of the 1950s (which, if you recall, was justified by a never-fulfilled promise of new public housing stock) were hardly what you would describe as rich.

What makes Echo Park’s School Site 9A different from the more than 100 other new facilities being built as part of the LAUSD’s $19-billion construction spree (often described as the largest ongoing public works project in the country)? The fact that we’ve heard anything about it. Echo Park and adjacent Silver Lake (where I live) are filled with writers, so they write about their neighbors’ losses. (Especially LAObserved’s Jenny Burman, the Daily News’ Mariel Garza, and the Echo Park Historical Society.)

But take a tour of Bernard Parks’ District 8 in South L.A. and you’ll see a handful of wiped-out neighborhoods you’ve never heard of, as well as some that were spared by timely intervention from the councilman. (Among the many frustrations for civic activists is that the notoriously imperious and non-responsive LAUSD does a poor job of coordination with the relevant council members.) Indeed, when you move up from the scale of individual suffering and take a satellite view, the school district’s property seizures seem to be a sensible pile of bland statistics. As was the case in the April edition of School Planning and Management magazine:

As a public entity, the school district has the power to use eminent domain to seize private property to build the school. Wanting to be good neighbors, the district uses this only as a last resort. Land acquisition means more than the purchase of the site; it also means the relocation of the occupants. So far, more than 1,200 parcels of land have been acquired, and approximately 2,200 households and businesses have been relocated.

I can only look on at such faith in government with envy. It would be odd indeed for a district that in so many other areas is infamous for its miraculous powers of mismanagement to achieve the civic ideal of good neighborliness and a “last resort” ethic in this specific instance. In fact, a look at Echo Park itself tells a different story.

What would you say if I told you there was a site of largely vacant office buildings, many with “for sale” signs, just a couple hundred yards away from the bulldozed neighborhood? See for yourself. More damning still are these free-falling LAUSD enrollment numbers from nearby schools. (As this last detail indicates, there’s a practical as well as a moral argument against eminent domain: By the time megaplans like this one come to fruition, circumstances have often changed to the point where the original plan no longer applies — at which point it’s too late for the evicted homeowners.)

But worst of all is that this is a conversation L.A. just hasn’t had. The most celebrated LAUSD eminent domain controversies involved buildings, not homeowners — the Ambassador Hotel and Hollywood Star Lanes (the fine local East Hollywood bowling alley where The Big Lebowski was shot). It’s almost as if activists are more in tune with architecture and cultural history than with the plight of individuals punished for buying into neighborhoods long before they became fashionable.

This is a conversation the city needs to have, if belatedly. The school building boom continues apace, despite declining enrollment and families fleeing from the public school system. Before we decide to raze another neighborhood in order to educate it, we need to ask whether the ring of power was really necessary this time, or if it’s turning us toward the dark side.

Matt Welch is assistant editorial pages editor.