BASSETT — It seemed last week that 20-year-old Maggie Arias was one of the few residents who saw some good in the news that Los Angeles County wants to plunk a 350-bed hospital down in her neighborhood.
Finally, she said, residents in the poor unincorporated area would get the local health care they so desperately need.
"People here are either illegal, don't have a stable job or don't have a good handle on the language," said Arias, a premed student at Occidental College. "Kids don't go to the doctor. Mothers don't get prenatal care.
"If (a local county hospital) will benefit the community I'm all for it," Arias said.
The problem is that Arias and her immediate neighbors may have to be uprooted to make way for it.
County officials last week recommended in a report to the Board of Supervisors that 89 homes in Bassett, including Arias' two-story home, be demolished for the planned East Valley Medical Center.
The area is home to a mixture of longtime Latino and Anglo residents, and recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Most are working-class men and women--factory workers earning minimum wage and day laborers. Many have large families. They live in modest stucco houses, some with neatly manicured hedges, others with yards marked by litter and rusted automobile parts.
The hospital, which would serve mainly poor residents in the San Gabriel Valley, is part of an overall plan by the county Department of Health Services to improve health care and shift the capacity of the overburdened County-USC Medical Center to other public hospitals.
Health officials initially favored an industrial park in Irwindale for the hospital, but changed their minds after Irwindale officials opposed the location. However, no potential site--there are 32 in all--has been ruled out. The final decision rests with the Board of Supervisors.
Residents and business owners interviewed last week at the proposed hospital site--just east of the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway and south of Valley Boulevard--were shocked to learn they were at the top of the list. No one in the county had told them their neighborhood had been recommended.
"What?" an incredulous Socorro Santellan, 63, asked Arias, who had knocked on her neighbor's door to spread the word. "We just finished paying off our house. They can't decide that without asking the opinion of residents in the area. That's crazy."
Santellan's husband, Arturo, a retired metal plater, said he paid $5,000 for his house in 1961, and wouldn't mind moving if the county offered him a decent price.
"But it won't be enough," he said.
Margie Aguirre, 39, agreed. She lives in a tiny two-bedroom house on Santa Mariana Avenue with her husband and their five children. She knows how important it is to have a hospital nearby--her 15-year-old son was beat up a month ago, and her other son's friend was shot in the back by a gang member. But Aguirre's husband, a truck driver, only makes $7.60 an hour--hardly enough for them to find another house.
Rent now is reasonable because the small house belongs to Aguirre's father. But if the family has to move, she said Thursday, "there ain't no way I can pay no $800 rent."
Meanwhile, Antonio Roman, 38, owner of Roman's Upholstery on Valley Boulevard, said moving out of Bassett would hurt his business, which he opened five years ago with $4,000 in cash he had saved up since coming to California 20 years ago to pick strawberries and oranges. He vowed to fight the hospital plans.
"I don't know where to find (another) place," Roman said. "I've tried to live the best way, tried to do something decent with my life--nothing illegal."
County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose 1st District includes Bassett, has reservations about building a hospital there because it would disrupt so many poor families.
Molina also was concerned the county hadn't told the residents their area was under consideration. So on Thursday she made a personal visit to the area to talk to homeowners about the hospital, said her spokesman, Robert Alaniz. She also passed through Irwindale for a look at the industrial site, which also is in her district.
"These people (in Bassett) are probably of modest means, and (Molina's) No. 1 priority has been to protect low-income homeowners in low-income areas," Alaniz said. "Any time you uproot a community, it's a major concern to the supervisor."
The residents of the 89 homes will be carefully watching Molina's next move. Arias said: "This is her opportunity if she wants to look good."