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Ladera Heights Grapples With Its Racial Harmony

Neighborhoods: Residents find life to be a series of trade-offs and compromises as more whites leave.

January 28, 1996|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a slow day at the Arcade Barbershop that serves Ladera Heights, an affluent community of several thousand homes tucked between Culver City and Inglewood. A handful of long-time customers, all of them white, trickle in for an old-fashioned haircut, to listen to a radio playing music from the 1930s and '40s and talk about how the neighborhood is changing.

"A Greek fellow, an old-timer who lived down the street from me, moved the other day," one elderly customer says. "The only people who come to look at the house are colored."

A few yards away at Hair Architects, a line of customers, all of them black, wait inside a prosperous black-owned barbershop offering designer cuts, manicures and pedicures.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity for blacks," said Henry Graham, who opened his shop 22 months ago. "I started out with four barber chairs and now I have nine."

Welcome to Ladera Heights. Long considered a jewel of race relations in Los Angeles, Ladera is becoming a lesson in how integration is as difficult to maintain as it is to achieve. In a Westside neighborhood of 6,700--57% black, 34% white in the 1990 census--a slower, subtler version of what was once called "white flight" is taking place.

A little more than a decade ago, whites were Ladera's majority. Today, few whites with children are moving in. The median age of white residents is about 60, compared to 40 for blacks. Enrollment in the two local elementary schools is more than 90% African American.

And so a black real estate agent buys Ladera Realty. A white restaurateur adds chicken wings, grits and blues music to the 1950s-style diner he inherited from his father. A clergyman, aware that Sunday church service is usually America's most segregated hour, promotes his integrated flock to would-be members. A disenchanted white couple who expected more new arrivals of their own race wistfully prepare to move out.

Acceptance is civil, adjustment is earnest. The people of Ladera still covet their integrated existence in an era marked by heightened racial isolation and separatist stereotypes. In supermarkets, in churches and on the street, people are far more likely to be unified by economic class than divided by race. The crime rate is low. Disdain for public education is high. Property values are cherished by a vigilant homeowners association that removes graffiti overnight, works closely with law enforcement and nudges residents to trim their lawns.

"Most people couldn't care less about the color of the person who lives next door as long as the properties are well maintained," said Ronnie Cooper, a white resident who is president of the Ladera Civic Assn.

To wander through Ladera Heights and the neighborhoods that surround it is to grapple with the complexities of integration, particularly as it applies to America's oldest racial gulf, the gap between blacks and whites. In this small slice of unincorporated Los Angeles County, where the average family income is nearly $90,000 a year, residents find life to be a series of trade-offs--compromises that, in many cases, depend not on your class but your race.

A Welcome Exception

Three years ago, a developer began adding more than 60 luxury homes to Ladera Heights on a 37-acre hilltop tract he called Ladera Heights Estates. To sell the four- and five-bedroom Mediterranean and colonial-style houses, listed for $450,000 to $650,000, he took pains to launch a sales campaign directed at African American professionals.

Paula and Harlan Sims, two black regional executives for Xerox, were among the first to buy. Their arrival symbolized another step in a long historical trail that has marked change in Los Angeles: the inexorable westward movement of the upward bound.

What is happening today in Ladera happened more dramatically decades ago to the neighboring upper-middle-class communities of View Park, Baldwin Hills and Windsor Hills, which lie east of Ladera and west of the Crenshaw district and are now populated almost entirely by African Americans.

In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement prompted well-to-do blacks to move into those formerly all-white neighborhoods--and prompted almost all whites to flee within a few years.

Ladera was different.

It was not until the late 1960s and early '70s that blacks in significant numbers began buying into this neighborhood of 3,500 ranch-style homes, some with sweeping views of the Pacific. Some anxious whites left. But in what was considered a remarkable victory for race relations, more of them stayed put, eventually creating an even and harmonious balance by the 1980s.

This was rare, demographers say, because whites are historically uncomfortable being a minority group. It is unusual to see a majority-black community with a substantial white population.

"It's as integrated a community as a black community could get," said USC sociology professor Angela James.

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