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Hearing the Cry of Poverty in Canoga Park

Redevelopment: Group works to bring affordable housing to neighborhoods in need of a lift.

June 11, 1996|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"All signs point to a wonderful future for the new town of Owensmouth."

--From a 1912 tract on what is now Canoga Park.

Like the dusty pages of a family photo album, Canoga Park reveals itself slowly to those who venture along its streets. Each house holds secrets of yesterday's lives.

Here is a ranch house built in 1918 when sugar beets and other crops grew for acres on land touted as the "richest in the state." Here, in the 1960s, Rocketdyne workers produced engines that put men on the moon and helped fuel a nation's pride. And here, in these houses, white residents lived out the substance of suburban dreams in an era when such promises were more readily fulfilled and life seemed more secure.

But here, too, along forgotten side streets and avenues, is a quietly emerging presence no less a part of the Canoga Park story than its varied past: poverty, the kind that has seeped into many Los Angeles County suburbs as the divide separating affluence from need is blurred by ethnic and economic change.

The kind of poverty that dots Canoga Park and the still largely affluent West San Fernando Valley is not always loud, the kind that makes itself readily known in the numbers of homeless walking the streets or the sprawl of a housing project. Here it is the face of Carina, 7, Filoberto, 5, and Gladys, 3, who sometimes cry when there is no food. And Martha, their 32-year-old mother, who hears but knows she can turn no miracles.

"When there is no food," she tells them, "there is no food."

Health care for the children is a patchwork of trips to the county clinic nearby and visits from a public health nurse--visits that have all but ceased because of county budget cuts.

The nurse, Marlene Naumann, does more than tend to their health. There are hugs she gives the children and the dollar bills she leaves behind, as well as the help she offers in finding food.

"It hurts me," Martha says. "Sometimes I am ashamed."

Unemployed, unmarried and living on public assistance, she does not turn it down.

Martha named her baby girl--the youngest of her six children--Cindy Marlene, after Naumann.

Along these streets, looks are deceiving: Worn single-family homes often hold more than a single family, and the garages come equipped with windows for those who live inside.

"Bootleg units," Ellen Michiel calls them, standing on the sidewalk, pointing to the signs of overcrowding.

Apartments that rent for $600 can only be afforded when two or three families combine their income, squeezing themselves into a space built for far fewer.

Even census data cannot begin to explain the lives of these residents: They live so near to wealth that their pain is averaged out.

"We are two minutes and across the street from affluence," Michiel said, driving along Vanowen Street.

Faced with these changes, some in the West Valley have turned to a method of community renewal never before used by local residents. They have formed the West Valley Community Development Corp. and are working to bring affordable housing to the area.

"If the neighborhood can be restored, it has tremendous potential," said Michiel, an executive director of the Community Development Corp. and a member of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church. "For poor people, the way out of poverty is home ownership. It was true for my parents' generation, it's true for mine."

In other areas of Los Angeles, such groups are standard fare, but here they have been met with resistance. With no local precedent, the West Valley organization has received mentoring from a group that recently created 100 units of affordable housing and employment assistance for the residents of Pico Union, west of downtown Los Angeles.

"I understand why some West Valley residents are skittish about affordable housing," said City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the area. "The [Community Development Corp.] and I see eye to eye on what affordable housing is about."

The West Valley organization is focusing on an area where Latinos have maintained a presence for generations, said Tomas Martinez, who heads the group and is a professor at Pepperdine University.

"There is a view that this is an impoverished area of only recently arrived immigrants," he said. "That's not true. Families have grown up here."

In the days of orange groves and beet farms, the area was settled by Mexican farm workers. They came again under the Bracero program and have flowed in and out of the community in response to the push and pull of economic conditions on both sides of the border.

The Bracero program, a joint U.S.-Mexican initiative begun in the 1940s, allowed Mexican farm workers to temporarily live and work in America. It was halted in 1964.

When Father John Murray came to Our Lady of the Valley in 1983, the church held one Mass in Spanish each weekend. Today there are four--each well-attended.

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