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Westchester: Suburb Where LAX Is King : Despite dominance of airport, community's institutions thrive and the air is cool.

July 02, 1989|JOE APPLEGATE | Applegate is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Westchester calls itself the home of Los Angeles International Airport. It is an apt description, for in this community of 50,000 the airport is king.

One-third of the land in the original Westchester community is now occupied by LAX and its parking lots and buffer zones. The schools and shopping district have not yet recovered from the airport's expansion in the 1970s, which removed about 3,500 houses and displaced 10,000 residents.

Since then, hotels and office buildings have sprung up around the airport, creating business opportunities for local residents, but little in the way of shopping or other amenities.

The once-thriving retail center along Sepulveda Boulevard with its landmark Loyola Theatre has been superseded by Fox Hills Mall in neighboring Culver City.

And out of doors in Westchester, the whine and rumble of jet aircraft is distant but almost always discernable. Yet Westchester's location and history present advantages, too, mainly in its weather and community institutions.

Neighborhoods Isolated

Situated on a mesa half a mile from the ocean, Westchester receives mists and cooling breezes. And for all the traffic around the airport, the tracts of single-family houses enjoy a surprising degree of peace.

Westchester's neighborhoods are isolated from other communities by the airport on the south, the bluffs above Ballona Creek to the north and the San Diego Freeway (405) to the east. Many of the neighborhood streets, traveling over the gentle hills, curve slightly, giving greater intimacy to the housing tracts.

"I moved here to get away from the traffic and noise," said Jack Sivak, who sold his house after six months in Manhattan Beach and bought another house two years ago on Toland Avenue, a quiet, curving street lined with mature liquidambar trees, not far from Loyola Marymount University.

A typical homeowner in Westchester, Sivak works in aviation--he is an aerospace consultant--and has grown children who live elsewhere. He does not mind that Osage Elementary School, around the corner, is closed for lack of children. (It serves as a conference center for teachers.)

For him, Westchester is convenient to work and gives him "the advantages of a beach community without the crowds."

Nor is he troubled by airport noise. "They were here before I was," he says of the jets.

Mary Ann Holmes Schwarz, 55, moved to Westchester in 1953 when her father, an airlines service manager, had wearied of the commute from Burbank. "He swore that he would move to a place where if he had to walk to work, he could," she said.

Westchester then was a raw suburb. Created willy-nilly in the 1940s to accommodate aircraft workers, the community grew in population from 353 to about 30,000 without a police or fire station, an emergency hospital or even a direct telephone line to the rest of Los Angeles.

As late as 1949, it still had no barber shop, according to the late California historian Carey McWilliams, who wrote about Westchester that same year for Harper's Magazine.

"Never formally planned," he wrote, "the streets of Westchester are a jumble of unrelated numberings and sharp, crisscrossing turns; only the oldest inhabitants can find their way about with ease.

First Community Group

"Yet despite these omissions, inconveniences and limitations, Westchester is going ahead, raising money to build a town hall, seeking by a variety of devices to improve community services."

A town hall was needed because the Westport Heights Civic Assn., the first community group in Westchester, had been meeting in a Quonset hut on Truxton Avenue.

McWilliams believed the cooperative spirit owed much to the fact that the residents were all about the same: skilled workers and World War II veterans who were ready to buy a house with GI financing and start a family.

The houses they could afford were likewise the same, and in fact were built by just three developers: Silas Nowell, Frank Ayres and the team of Fritz B. Burns and Fred W. Marlow.

Marlow had recently resigned as director of the Federal Housing Authority in California, and his houses were aimed so exactly at the GI market that realtors nicknamed them "Jeeps." Most of the houses sold originally for under $6,000.

Today, prices in the neighborhoods most distant from the airport range around $390,000, said Mary Jo Bergstrom, a realtor in the area for 10 years. A fixer-upper in Kentwood, closer to the airport, was recently reduced from $344,000 to $324,000, she said.

The priciest area is along the bluffs west of Lincoln Boulevard, bordering Playa del Rey. She said a view property on Riggs Place has been listed at $1 million.

Willis Marcom came to Westchester during World War II and got out of the dry-cleaning business to sell real estate. And he soon had another calling as well.

At Christmas, 1949, his wife was asked to stage a play for Kentwood Elementary School, where she was PTA president. She did, and he played Santa Claus "skinny as I was," he said.

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