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Around the Foothills

It's hard to say if the community or the college made the first move.

February 08, 1990|DOUG SMITH

Occidental College and the community of Eagle Rock, two long-estranged neighbors, took a symbolic step toward rapprochement this week.

For at least the last two decades, the college and the community around it have had little to share. Oxy was Ivy League, looking to the East for its image. Eagle Rock was blue collar and inward in viewpoint. Its business district absorbed layers of immigrants, Latino in the 1970s, Filipino in the '80s and most recently Armenian.

Except for an occasional holdover reference, such as the sign of Oxy Blinds on York Boulevard, nothing on the streets of Eagle Rock suggests that a major academic institution is hiding just a block away.

It would be hard to say whether the community or the college made the first move. More likely, it was merely a simultaneous recognition of mutual interests.

The college signaled its readiness two years ago when the search for its first new president in 20 years led to a black chancellor at a large, Eastern university. Upon accepting the job, John B. Slaughter said he intended to lead Occidental out of its isolation from urban Los Angeles.

The words held promise for a young, rambunctious neighborhood group called The Eagle Rock Assn., or TERA. Its members may not have envisioned a Westwood Village at the foot of the San Rafael Hills, but they hoped that some of the college development plans could be aimed toward the community. TERA broke the ice this week by taking Slaughter, his wife, Bernice, and several Oxy administrators on a progressive lunch and tour.

A blue van pulled up for the group in front of campus Tuesday morning. Driving was Jeff Samudio, a young architect who grew up in Eagle Rock and came back to live there after realizing he preferred it to the trendier communities chosen by most of his USC classmates.

Samudio recited history, beginning with Ralph Rogers, the land developer who donated the land in Highland Park for the first Oxy campus.

"And then when land values went up so high, he threw you out and pushed you over here to Eagle Rock to increase the value of this new subdivision," Samudio said.

He said Midwesterners were drawn to the tracts of small Craftsman homes built before World War I, and the Tudor, Spanish and Victorian revivals added soon after it.

"For a time they represented a style of living for the common man, basically, anyone from the Midwest could come out here and retire and still live in dignity in a place of quality," Samudio said.

"Why don't you encounter black citizens living in Eagle Rock?" Slaughter inquired almost nonchalantly at one point.

Samudio recalled the difficulties his own family had--as Latinos--obtaining housing in Glendale a generation ago.

"But I think a lot of that has changed now," he said.

He summed up old battles to keep the Ventura Freeway from cutting the community in two and newer ones to control the spread of schlock developments.

Crossing Colorado Boulevard, into "uptown Eagle Rock," he pointed out dozens of old mansions, including an 1880s Queen Anne built by the family that cultivated poinsettias.

The first stop was the traditionally decorated Spanish Colonial home of Kathleen Aberman, president of TERA. While she served pumpkin curry soup, her husband, Dean, entertained the Slaughters, discovering mutual interests in the house and his many pets.

Like him, their son is a veterinarian.

"Once he left home, we got rid of all the animals," Bernice Slaughter confessed.

The second course was waiting a few blocks away in a Craftsman house that has made a gallant setting for the quirky modern tastes of Chris and Joanne Turner. Their most prominent decoration is a nude mannequin wearing a civil defense helmet and a gas mask.

Over sandwiches and sparkling cider, Joanne Turner told why she chose Eagle Rock as home.

"It has a small town feel," she said. "That it's in the northeast section of one of the largest cities in the world is a real plus. Occidental College is there. Plus, we have our own Trader Joe's."

The only drawback, she said, is that Colorado Boulevard does not offer the kind of shops and restaurants she and her husband would enjoy walking to.

For dessert, Samudio drove the group to a Craftsman mansion standing alone on top of a hill south of Colorado. Owner Mohamed El-Tawansy, a professor at Trade Technical College, led the group up a stairway entwined with ancient vines.

As his wife, Ursula, cut Italian rum cake, El-Tawansy addressed the guests with Egyptian-accented formality.

"This house has some history, but today your visit really adds an unmatchable dimension to the history of this house," he told the Slaughters. "Occidental is proud to be your neighbor," Slaughter replied.

The encounter ended in an embrace.

"As they say in Spanish, ' Mi casa es su casa ,' " El-Tawansy said, moist-eyed.

" Esta usted muy agradable ," the president murmured in warm, if suspect, Spanish.

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