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Diary of a Dying Community : Tenants Scarred by Trauma of Eviction

May 04, 1986|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of people are evicted in Los Angeles each month, often to make way for new developments. But few evictions wipe out an entire community and its intricate relationships. That is what has happened at the Alvern Park Apartments in Westchester, where about 400 people--half of them longtime, elderly residents--have been forced to leave to make way for a new, luxury complex.

But their plight prompted the Los Angeles City Council to adopt an ordinance that guarantees relocation money for tenants evicted to make way for new housing developments.

In the past four months, reporter Michele L. Norris has spent hundreds of hours at Alvern Park, interviewing dozens of residents, neighbors, the developers, and city officials.

This is a diary of a dying community.

Thursday, Jan. 2 The first notice arrives with the afternoon paper and hits Bob Stevenson like a punch in the gut.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 4, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Several paragraphs were erroneously omitted from a story concerning evictions published in today's South Bay suburban section. A summary of the missing information will be printed in the next South Bay section.
Diary of Dying Community: The Trauma of Evictions
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 8, 1986 Home Edition South Bay Part 9 Page 1 Column 1 Zones Desk 70 inches; 2471 words Type of Material: Correction
When the following story ran in Sunday's South Bay section, several important paragraphs were accidentally deleted. This is a condensed version.
Hundreds of people are evicted in Los Angeles each month, often to make way for new developments. But few evictions wipe out an entire community and its intricate relationships. That's what has happened at the Alvern Park Apartments in Westchester, where about 400 people--half of them longtime, elderly residents--have been forced to leave to make way for a new, luxury complex.
In the past four months, reporter Michele L. Norris has spent hundreds of hours at Alvern Park, interviewing dozens of residents, neighbors, the developers, and city officials.
This is a diary of a dying community.
Thursday, Jan. 2 The first notice arrives with the afternoon paper and hits Bob Stevenson like a punch in the gut.
"This letter is to inform you that the owners of the apartment complex in which you reside are going to demolish the building in order to construct a new and modern complex on the site.
"On or around the 15th of January 1986, you will receive formal notice to evict your residence. . . . You must vacate your apartment no later than February 15, 1986."
Before reaching the third paragraph, the 74-year-old man crouches over, his frail body heaving. The stress has triggered his chronic emphysema. Wheezing and hacking, he sounds like a tired engine on a cold winter morning.
By the time he finishes the letter, Stevenson is in his bedroom, the notice in one hand and a suitcase in the other. It takes several neighbors, who hear his gasps and desperate lurching about, to make him realize that he doesn't have to leave yet. They put him in bed, where he stays for four days.
Not all of the 400 Alvern Park residents have lived there for 40 years, as Stevenson has, but for most of them the prospect of eviction is just as alarming.
One of them, a retired mechanic who still prefers his blue work uniform to street clothes, drinks until he gets sick. Then he gets drunk all over again to numb the pain.
A 57-year-old widow with a unique shade of tangerine-colored hair becomes "crazy with anger" at the idea of leaving her home of 22 years, and hurls a cherished wedding gift through her bay window.
Although 33-year-old Sonya Cohen had been evicted before, she is "devastated" just the same. This time, C

"This letter is to inform you that the owners of the apartment complex in which you reside are going to demolish the building in order to construct a new and modern complex on the site."

The words, Stevenson says later, "felt like they jumped off the page."

"On or around the 15th of January, 1986, you will receive formal notice to evict your residence . . . . You must vacate your apartment no later than February 15, 1986."

Before reaching the third paragraph, the 74-year-old man crouches over, his frail body heaving. The stress has triggered his chronic emphysema. Wheezing and hacking, he sounds like a tired engine on a cold winter morning.

By the time he finishes the letter, Stevenson is in his bedroom, the notice in one hand and a suitcase in the other. It takes several neighbors, who hear his gasps and desperate lurching about, to make him realize that he doesn't have to leave yet. They put him in bed, where he stays for four days.

Not all of the 400 Alvern Park residents have lived there for 40 years as Stevenson has, but for most of them the prospect of eviction is just as alarming.

Another resident, a retired mechanic who still prefers his blue work uniform to street clothes, drinks until he gets sick. Then he gets drunk all over again to numb the pain of the eviction.

A 57-year-old widow with a unique shade of tangerine-colored hair becomes "crazy with anger" at the idea of leaving her home of 22 years, and hurls a cherished wedding gift through her bay window.

Although 33-year-old Sonya Cohen had been evicted before, she is "devastated" just the same. This time, Cohen, a credit manager for a medical sales firm, trashes her normally spotless apartment. "I thought it would make it easier to leave," she explains later, "if the place was a pigsty."

Ashtrays overflow, dirty glasses crowd the flat surfaces of her living room furniture and newspapers and junk mail pile up on the floor. "I just didn't want it to look good anymore."

Alvern Park tenants usually keep the complex spotless, both inside and out. It is not unusual to see them up at sunrise shaking out area rugs or washing the wooden siding on their green-and-yellow four-unit buildings. The complex has a small-town ambiance where residents still grow up, and grieved together when some died in the Vietnam War.

And now, having grown old together, they lean on each other to avoid going to rest homes or imposing on their children. For many, moving will destroy a support system when there is little time left to build a new one elsewhere.

"We've spent the best part of history here," says George Jukkala, 81.

For him and his wife Aileen, 85, moving seems almost impossible.

The elderly couple moved into their one-bedroom apartment in 1955 with their youngest daughter, Georgiann (Gee Gee). Fifteen years ago, George, a former foreman for an iron works firm, lost both his legs when the artificial veins used to replace his hardened arteries became infected and gangrene set in. In recent years, Aileen has been losing her eyesight and she is now legally blind. They both are slowly losing their memory and depend on their live-in nurse, C. J., who asked that her name not be used. C. J. sleeps on a cot in the living room.

Neither fully comprehends why they have to leave.

"Those are the people we are most concerned with," says tenant Aaron Schusteff, a tall, bearded graduate student who has taken a hiatus from his studies to help organize RAGE.

"Where are they going to go?" he asks, referring to the Jukkalas. "They'll be lucky if they can afford to move into a studio apartment. Can you imagine the three of them in a one-room apartment with beds and wheelchairs and walkers all over the place?

"Thirty days notice is almost inhumane."

Saturday, Jan. 11 The day starts out bad and will get worse.

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