For nearly 20 years, Erma Thuston and a number of her neighbors have been struggling to maintain a slice of Westside tradition.
When Thuston was growing up, anyone living west of Main Street in central Los Angeles was considered a Westsider. Thuston's parents, a domestic worker and a gardener, built a four-room house on a lot off Normandie Avenue that they bought around the turn of the century for about $400.
"It was a beautiful area to grow up in," recalled Thuston, 74. "The houses had nice, well-kept lawns. It was a working-class area. We never had to lock our doors, and people always looked out for each other. It was like a family. If you were sick, someone would bring you food or cut your lawn. If your house needed painting, you could ask a neighbor for help."
Thuston still lives in the area, but the neighborhood--now considered part of central Los Angeles--has changed. Neighbors are not as trusting of one another. Many of the old-timers have moved elsewhere on the Westside or to other parts of Los Angeles. The area is now plagued by gangs violence. Locked doors and barred windows are common.
About 20 years ago, Thuston and a number of other current and former residents tried to rekindle the spirit of neighborhood by forming an organization called Westsider's of the 30's, a group of people who lived in the area during the years before World War II.
"We decided that something needed to be done, so we put an ad in the local papers and received more than 100 responses," she said.
Today, the group attempts to maintain its roots through an annual picnic, which this year drew more than 150 people to Ladera Park near Slauson and LaBrea avenues. A second event, an annual dinner, was canceled because many members did not want to go out at night, Thuston said. "We are thinking about making it an annual luncheon instead," she said.
For Althea Cooper, 74, the reunions have provided a way to keep in touch with the past.
"To me it is a way to keep in touch with lifelong friends," said Cooper, who still lives in the house her grandparents bought in 1904. "They are people who I've known all my life. And when we get together, it is like one big family, an extended family. It is important to know how everyone is doing."
In addition to sponsoring the reunions, the group produces a newsletter that provides information about events and news about members. Since the beginning of the year, 15 members have died and about 25 have become shut-ins because of illnesses.
Send a Message
Alyse Owens, 75, attended the picnic even though she has been recovering from surgery. "We are trying to give a message to the next generation to preserve sense of family," said Owens, whose daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren were also at the picnic. "We want to hold on to what we started; we want to pass it to the next generation. They are here taking notes."
Owens, Thuston and Cooper have been friends since early childhood, from 37th Street Elementary to Foshay Junior High School to Manual Arts High School. "We have been friends all these years, and we have never had a bawling out," Thuston said.
Children growing up in Los Angeles when the three were young had little opportunity to misbehave because they were under the scrutiny of their neighbors, as well as their parents.
"If you did something wrong, someone (a neighbor) would correct you or even spank you, and when your parents came home, they would do the same thing," Thuston said. "The kids today, you can't put your hands on them, you can't say anything to them."
Many of those who grew up in the neighborhood like to talk about a smart, aggressive young girl named Rachel Isum, who met and married Jackie Robinson, major league baseball's first black player. Architect Paul Williams lived nearby, and heavyweight champion Joe Louis came to visit before he embarked on his boxing career.
"Joe Louis was just a young man. We didn't know that he was going to be a fighter," Thuston said. "His aunt lived in the neighborhood, and she wanted him to meet some of the young people so she held a party for him. Years later when he became famous, we all felt very special because we had met him."
Blanche Fields Jones, 81, who lives in the Crenshaw area, remembered Los Angeles was just a country town when she was growing up. "They were raising cattle on Baldwin Hills, and we would go up there to see the wildflowers," she said. "I've seen the city grow from the time when it was a country town, and you didn't have to worry about crime."
For many, fear has brought about the biggest change. "I don't go out after dark," said one elderly resident. "I don't go to the store, I don't even pump gas after 6 p.m."
Thuston and other Westsiders say the easiest way to overcome the fear is to carry on the tradition of giving, keeping in touch with old friends and visiting with those who are sick and shut in.
"We just want to share the good feelings and love that started when we were young," Thuston said.