Their mission wasn't impossible, but it took eight Latino law school students from around the country a lot of digging, hounding, quizzing and pavement-pounding to profile Highland Park on four days' notice.
As participants in a public policy fellowship run by the nonprofit CORO Foundation, the students were assigned last week to investigate and then report on the economic, social, political and religious underpinnings of the Northeast Los Angeles community.
They were armed with only a map, a few names and common sense. And while their hasty investigation fell short of the detailed statistical reports favored by policy makers, the team unearthed some provocative information.
Among their findings:
Highland Park is a community in transition where Asian shopkeepers and Anglo yuppies may slowly be displacing the Latino majority. The Latinos themselves arrived beginning in the 1950s and displaced a number of Anglo homeowners, although a number of second- and third-generation Anglo residents remain.
Despite a handful of organizations, Highland Park lacks unified leadership in civic, social and business affairs. Politicians are not as responsive as they could be toward community leaders. Residents do not have the "eyes and ears" of their elected officials. But several groups that have sprung up in the past few years to tackle historic preservation and upgrading of the business district could develop into important community organizations, the students felt.
Overcrowding of area schools and a high dropout rate create "a major problem." Latino students lack strong role models.
The Catholic Church plays an important social, as well as religious role, in Highland Park's Latino community.
Health clinics do an adequate job of providing low-cost services. But there are not enough children's day-care centers or shelters for the area's homeless, and no drug rehabilitation clinics, despite the drug abuse that exists in the community's youth community.
Highland Park is home to a large number of undocumented immigrants, and a "real deep confusion" exists regarding the new federal amnesty laws for those seeking U.S. citizenship. Several students also pointed out that the local paper seems geared toward Anglo readers and does not publish a Spanish edition, despite the area's large Latino community.
The group's findings were summarized at a community meeting last Friday at the Highland Park Senior Citizen Center.
Henry J. Gonzalez, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, attended the meeting and said the students did a good job surveying the area. But he disputed some of their findings:
"I think a lot of people have the eyes and ears of elected officials . . . Time over time, the councilman has met with them . . . and set up community meetings," Gonzalez said.
Ed Rosas, president of Franklin High School in Highland Park, concurred with the students about school overcrowding. But he noted that Franklin's dropout rate of 16.3% is lower than the Los Angeles Unified School District average of 18.1%.
CORO, a nonpartisan foundation, was established in 1942 to provide leadership training in government and public affairs. Its graduates include San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Craig Fuller, a former secretary to President Reagan's Cabinet, and U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands). Nearly 100 graduates work in Sacramento in various aspects of state government.
The eight students participating in this summer's 10-week Hispanic Law Students Public Affairs Leadership program sponsored by CORO were selected from scores of applicants nationwide, said program director Carmen Tolivar. Some of their other assignments will include working at City Hall and organizing public service projects.
CORO fellows appeared especially appalled by the lack of role models for Latino youths and the dropout rate among students. This contrasted sharply with their own views that education is important.
"All of us have the fire of the Chicano movement and civil rights," said Armando Galvan of Los Angeles, a law school student at the University of California at Berkeley. "This has been the motivation for us to continue with our education."
Each morning last week, the CORO fellows met in the basement of the old Eagle Rock City Hall to plan their strategy. They then fanned out in groups of twos or threes to conduct interviews and gather information. To start them out, Alatorre's office provided statistics about the average income and ethnic makeup of Highland Park's approximately 43,000 residents.
Carlos Garcia, a second-year law student from West Texas, summed up a recurrent theme during the presentation at last week's meeting when he said of Highland Park, "It seems like there's great potential."
Students agreed, however, that Latinos, Anglos and Asians need to cooperate and work more closely together if Highland Park is to become a more lively and prosperous community.
Community Must Unite
Edward Chavez, a Pico Rivera resident who is attending the University of Michigan, was more critical. "The community and the developers are at battle with each other and the politicians have to choose between them," he said. Chavez also noted that residents seem to lack political clout.
Others were struck by the small-town ambiance of Highland Park, a community that is geographically isolated by the Pasadena Freeway and surrounding foothills.
Some interviews were conducted in Spanish. Some statistics had to be verified with the local council office for accuracy. Some residents didn't want to talk; others wanted to know if the students wanted "the PR answer or the truth."
Did the students feel they did Highland Park justice in the short time they had to research the area?
Lamented Hofstra University student Maria Stannish-Rivera, "There's so much information out there, we're just skimming the surface. There's a lot of substance down in Highland Park."