LOS ANGELES — Time is quickly running out for Camp De Lellis, that community of men who work on the railroad and live far from their families in trailers and vans along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River.
The Southern Pacific Transportation Co., the men's employer and reluctant host, has given them until Dec. 31 to clear out of the parking lot just south of the Glendale Freeway in the railroad's huge but now mostly idle Taylor Yard. Any vehicles left behind will be towed away, the company warned.
"It's really sad. It's almost like another part of Americana is dying," says George De Lellis, 60, the retired yard superintendent who originally allowed squatters to stay there, starting eight years ago. In appreciation, the railroad "boomers"--workers who go on the road to avoid unemployment--nicknamed the camp after him.
The camp was born out of unpleasant circumstances and is dying that way, too.
Railroad layoffs in the Southland and in other parts of the West caused workers with transferable seniority to move to Los Angeles, where they, in turn, bumped other people out of work. Many of the workers came from Oregon and Northern California, where the railroads suffered after the collapse of the lumber industry.
The boomers knew they might be rehired in their home towns and were reluctant to move their families with them. So, while still paying mortgages or rents back home, they began to squat for free at Taylor Yard in their trucks and recreational vehicles.
"You gotta work where you can find it," said a 42-year-old brakeman who has a family in Oakland. The brakeman, who asked not to be identified, said he stayed at the campground for nearly a year in 1981 and has been back for a couple of months, sleeping in his camper and preparing simple meals on a gas stove.
His plans now that the camp seems doomed? "I wish I knew. Maybe I'll try to get an apartment. But it's so expensive. This has been great while it lasted."
Another brakeman, a 39-year-old man who also has a family in Oakland, said: "I think I'll be trying out the parking lot of K mart or Tiny Naylor's. I'll probably just roam." He has been sleeping in the tiny camper shell on his 7-year-old pickup truck for the past month.
At its peak, more than 100 people lived in the parking lot, creating a self-contained little town complete with its own sense of camaraderie amid hardship. No electricity or plumbing hookups were provided, but showers and sinks were available at nearby locker rooms. And it certainly was close to work.
Now, only about 15 men still live there, although about 50 vehicles, some apparently abandoned, occupy the grounds. The remaining tenants say they can understand why the company would want the unused vans and trailers moved out. But the tenants point out that the 15 men provide an ad hoc security force for the yard and a convenient and eager source of labor.
"I won't miss this place because living around concrete can get to you," said electrician Bruce Heidick, 35, who is from the Los Angeles area but has lived at the camp on and off so, he said, he can make his child support payments. Yet, he added, "Southern Pacific should provide some room for us somewhere."
The company appears to be adamant on the eviction notices, sent out two months ago.
Because of declining business and a shift of trains to a more modern yard near San Bernardino, all of Taylor Yard was closed this fall except for a diesel engine repair shop and a few offices. Most of its 500 miles of tracks are now empty from the yard's eastern boundary on San Fernando Road in Glassell Park west to the river. There is still some work originating at the yard for brakemen and electricians, but company officials say they fear liability arising from the campground now that everybody else is gone.
"If we have one of those fellows get hit in the head by some intruder, no one might be there to find them. And the liability would be on Southern Pacific," said John J. Tierney, a company spokesman.
Tierney stressed that there is nothing in any union contract guaranteeing boomers a free place to live. "It was only out of the goodness of George De Lellis' heart that they got the authority to stay there while they couldn't work in their home district," he said. "I think we were very gracious that it lasted this long."
He conceded that the evictions might cause hardships, but said that some people took advantage of the situation by using the lot as a free storage area for their campers, sometimes for years.
Union officials suspect that Southern Pacific is pushing the eviction as part of its proposed, and controversial, merger with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. They claim the company wants to sell off the land if the merger is approved by the federal government and to squeeze some boomers into accepting early retirement. A decision on the merger is expected sometime next year.
Tierney says the eviction has nothing to do with the proposed merger and denies there is any plan to sell the land.
Union leaders also say that De Lellis, who took early retirement in August, was the only company official who protected the squatters.
De Lellis himself stressed that the boomers were never rowdy or destructive. When he was in charge, he insisted that no families move in and forbade alcohol and drugs, he recalled, adding that those rules still seem to be obeyed.
"It's kind of heart-rending to see this happen because, when you save a guy eight bucks a day by not charging him rent, that's eight bucks more he can send back to his wife and kids," said De Lellis, who comes from a clan of railroading men. "Railroads used to be like a family institution and cared about the employee's family. Now they have a cold, strictly business atmosphere."