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Hard Knocks Reunion : For 'Temple Street Kids,' Lessons of Hardship and Friendship

October 30, 1994|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They could have been talking about today.

But those telling of immigrant parents, childhood poverty and growing up among struggling storefronts at the edge of Downtown were talking of 1934--not 1994.

The boys of Temple Street were back in the neighborhood for a reunion Saturday. And memories for Los Angeles' original inner-city youths were sweet.

The 42 men are mostly in their 70s now and they came from as far as Las Vegas to eat a chicken and pot roast lunch at Les Freres Taix French restaurant and rekindle friendships interrupted half a century ago.

Their old neighborhood is gone. The Hollywood and Harbor freeways gobbled up much of the place--the four-level interchange wiped out their beloved Custer Elementary School.

High-rise office buildings have replaced the crumbling Victorian mansions on Bunker Hill that were used as boarding houses and passed at the time as the city's affordable housing. Apartments and newer commercial buildings have taken the place of most clapboard houses and brick-fronted shops.

But the lessons of shared hardship--and true friendship--have survived.

"We were all first-generation immigrants," said Marvin Marsh, a USC psychiatry professor who now lives on the Westside.

"Pacific Asians, Hispanics, Filipinos, Jews, Koreans, African Americans. You name it, we had it. The neighborhood was a melting pot. We all had a common interest: to get along and be good Americans."

"Everybody there was poor, I can tell you that," said Chuda (Jerry) Rhee, a former hospital administrator from Northridge who recalled that one of his proudest moments in life was the day a Jewish friend's mother said he was "her third son."

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Morrie Greenberg, a retired junior high principal from North Hlls, said children growing up along Temple Street in the '30s and '40s never paid attention to ethnicity.

"You looked at people as your neighbor and your friend. Only later did you realize that guy was Mexican, or that guy spoke with an Italian accent," Greenberg said.

Central American street vendors who these days hawk bags of oranges along Temple Street reminded Ralph Arouh of 63 years ago. That was when he and his brothers helped build a produce stand out of scrap lumber that was eventually parlayed into a commercial meat business.

"It's very similar to today," said Arouh, of Tarzana. "People have to make a living."

His brother, Isaac (Turk) Arouh, an office supply salesman who lives in Beverly Hills, said the Temple Street neighborhood--bounded by Figueroa and 3rd streets, Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue--was a comfortable place to grow up.

"We could see the shadow of City Hall coming down Temple Street. But you felt like you were living in a small town," said Arouh, who organized Saturday's reunion.

The old-timers laughed over the old days. Archie Lifland, a retired Burbank teacher who works as volunteer youth sports coach in Lincoln Heights, hugged Louis Smith of Huntington Beach.

"This guy had the only car in the neighborhood and he'd take us to the beach. That's why we became friends," Lifland joked.

Leo Resnick, a retired real estate broker who lives in Van Nuys, was kidded about the time neighborhood boys sent him to Chinatown to buy firecrackers--only to be stopped on the way home by police, who confiscated the contraband.

David Goldstein, now a Las Vegas resident, recalled how he and neighborhood chum Mendel Fontes ventured over Bunker Hill into Downtown and discovered a group of sailors beating a Latino youth.

Fontes, now of Pico Rivera, stepped forward "and knocked a sailor out with one punch," Goldstein said. The other assailants fled. "Mendel taught me something that day I never forgot," he said.

Those at the reunion passed around a history book picture of Francis Temple, a banker who died in 1880 and for whom Temple Street is named. They vowed to get together again next year.

"I'm proud to be from here," said Mort Rogo, the only member of the Temple Street boys who still lives in the neighborhood. These days, however, he lives in a posh 31st-floor unit of the Bunker Hill Towers.

"This was a poverty-stricken area then. And a lot of it still is," Rogo said. "But we're cosmopolitan now."

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