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Bush's Compton Roots Raise Thorny Issue : Tribute: Some criticize landmark quest for apartment where President lived in 1949. Complex is now plagued by drugs.

August 03, 1992|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When George and Barbara Bush lived in Santa Fe Gardens, the sprawling apartment complex in Compton provided clean, affordable housing within minutes of downtown Los Angeles and the Long Beach Harbor.

That was 1949, before the apartments became condominiums and before those were purchased by absentee slumlords.

Now Santa Fe Gardens is a dull-brown maze of boarded windows, squatters and fear. Crack cocaine, gunfire and prostitution are all too familiar, residents say.

But Compton Mayor Walter R. Tucker III--the Democratic candidate for the 37th Congressional District seat--wants to proclaim it a city landmark and memorial to President Bush.

The proposal has sparked debate in City Council chambers, where people cannot agree on which apartment building the Bushes lived in, and on the streets, where residents wonder if the memorial is such a good idea.

"I can't believe they want to make a historical landmark out of a crack house," said Lorraine Cervantes, a Santa Fe Gardens resident and community activist.

"I'm not saying the President's old house, exactly, is a crack house, but this whole area is just infested with it."

On the face of it, the request for Santa Fe Gardens' landmark status may seem unusual, Tucker agrees. It would be a memorial to a Republican President in a city dominated by Democrats, who largely blame Bush Administration policies for hastening the decline of inner cities. To some, this dilapidated complex is a shining example of Republican neglect.

But a Santa Fe Gardens landmark is not meant to embarrass the President, Tucker said.

"This is a gesture that goes beyond partisan politics," Tucker said. "I don't think many people know that a president lived in Compton and we should be proud of that.

"Of course, we probably wouldn't put up any kind of a sign until later. Beautification comes first."

In President Bush's autobiography, there is little mention of the six months his family spent in Compton while he worked for Dresser Industries, selling oil-drilling equipment. His eldest daughter, Robin, was born in Compton just before Bush was transferred again, he wrote.

The Bush family had no comment on whether their former residence should be designated a historical landmark. But they confirmed that the address was 624 S. Santa Fe Ave.

Something must be done with the sprawling 144-unit complex, residents and city officials agree. Since the mid-1980s, the city has repeatedly slapped citations on absentee landlords, demanding that the buildings be cleaned and maintained or demolished, said Kofi Sefa-Boakye, Compton redevelopment project manager.

But the citations were ignored for years and the complex--19 buildings running along both sides of South Santa Fe Avenue for a block--sank deeper into squalor.

The city's Building and Safety Department shut down several buildings about two years ago and demolished two more. This slowed some of the overt drug activity, but the empty homes attracted squatters and prostitutes, police said.

"There was shooting again last night, right outside my window," said Rozella Anderson, who lives next door to the former Bush apartment unit. "Seems like there's shots as often as breakfast, lunch and dinner."

When told that Bush used to live next door, Anderson merely laughed.

But some tenants of Bush's former building found nothing amusing in their home's history. One heavily tattooed man stepped past the children swarming around his feet and glared.

"Tell George Bush to come back here now and live," he said. "See how he likes it."

Arnold Parnell--whose Perro Corp. and a church consortium called Solid Front for Unity in America owns about 80% of the complex--says renovation has begun. But the process is slow, due in part to the Santa Fe Gardens' sketchy financial history since it converted to condominiums in the early 1970s, he said.

The renovation will cost about $3.5 million and take at least a year, Parnell said. The few resident condo owners will probably receive some financial aid from the city for asbestos removal and remodeling, officials said. But Parnell does not know if he will get the cooperation of the Housing and Urban Development Department, which owns eight Santa Fe units.

At least half of the remaining buildings are boarded up and "No Trespassing" signs are numerous along the street. But missing boards and people lounging in doorways are clear signs that the buildings are inhabited. Although only about 30 people live legally in the complex, Cervantes said, about twice that number can be seen hanging around on any weekday afternoon.

In Santa Fe 6, where the Bush family lived, only four of 24 units are legally occupied, but most units show some sign of occupancy.

A combination of police crackdowns and the closing of some of the most run-down buildings has slowed down some of the drug sales, said Police Lt. Gary O. Anderson.

"A lot of the drug dealing just moved indoors," he said. "We can't plant people here 12 hours a night."

When asked what he thought of making Santa Fe Gardens a historical landmark, the lieutenant took a long look around the complex.

"It would solve a lot of our problems," Anderson said. "Yep, I say, shut the puppy down and make it a memorial."

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