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Out of House and Home

Boyle Heights

'I love Aliso Village. I pray for Aliso Village.'

November 06, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Public housing across the United States is entering a new era.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants 100,000 substandard American public units destroyed before century's end. The hope: to end the warehousing and isolation of the poorest poor, while creating mixed-income communities where role models abound and stereotypes explode.

With demolition, reconstruction and remodeling planned, residents are being given the option to move into the private sector through Section 8 housing assistance. Some have seen enough, lost too much, and they will leave. For others, this is home.

Here, reports from Chicago and Boyle Heights.

*

Flowers overflow an old wooden fence, its skewed pickets shedding slivers and flakes of white paint. Two kittens, different colors, stare out from a window. Roses rise alongside front stoops. Some grow tall and hide walls scarred by earthquakes. Or deterioration. Or bullets.

It is the bullets we hear about, portraying the Pico Gardens, Aliso Extension Apartments and Aliso Village public housing projects clustered in Boyle Heights as an urban hell of street gangs and violence.

Why would anyone stay?

"This is my home," says Anita Moore. "I love Aliso Village. I pray for Aliso Village. We used to stand on the four corners of this place and just pray. Just pray."

Moore, 55, has lived here almost 25 years. She knows the people here, has worked to help them, as they have helped her. In midafternoon and sometimes into the evening, she sits with friends Charlene McCoy and Iola Henry in a corridor between their buildings, where they have had wedding receptions and birthday parties, christenings and baby showers.

She raised five children here and served as president of the Residents Advisory Council for 15 years. With bullets flying, she has charged into streets screaming to shooters and to God, "Please, please stop."

Moore worked with gang members, trying to bring peace. She attended their funerals and wept until the hollowness inside her claimed her tears, and she could cry no more.

"I didn't know that could happen," she says. "I was going to two funerals a week for about two months. I believe that kids belong to everybody, and I thought we could save them all. I went to a funeral for a kid I had known since the womb, and I sat there, and I couldn't cry."

She will stay, she says, because this is her home. She works in the cafeteria across the street at Utah Street School. Her church, Christian Fellowship Church of the Foursquare Gospel, where she teaches Sunday school, is just around the corner.

Despite the different languages spoken here--Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian--people communicate in times of need.

"If you want to help someone, you find a way," she says. "And that's what people here do. We help each other."

Mothers stood shoulder to shoulder in front of Dolores Mission Church last year when gang rivalry threatened to interfere with a funeral. The women formed a human wall, so gang members from a different area could safely attend the funeral Mass.

There are underlying truths about Pico-Aliso and Aliso Village. Yes, there is violence here. Yes, there are drugs. Yes, there are street gangs. And yes, there is poverty and despair.

Behind some doors, families live without furniture. Neighbors take up collections when they learn someone is without food. They have carwashes and sell food to raise money for those in need.

"Go through our garbage cans and see what you find," Moore says. "See what our kids eat. You won't find caviar or pate, but at least our kids eat. They may not get the best cuts of meat, but they have a little piece of chicken or something. Sometimes I tell my kids I'm going to take off and fly I eat so much chicken."

Pending further funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 203 of the 685 units at Aliso Village will be demolished; the remainder will be upgraded. Funding already is in place to demolish the 577 units at Pico Gardens and Aliso Extension. Upon reconstruction there will be 421 units, including 60 senior citizen apartments.

When Moore came to Aliso Village, she did not intend to stay, but what she found here was a home, not an apartment. A home is not a building. It is a community with its churches and stores, families and neighbors.

It is plants growing on water and hope along a foot-wide stretch of haggard dirt between a street curb and freeway embankment.

It is laughter and visits from children in college--welcomed home by roses.

It is also Maria del Carmen Escobedo, who describes her home at Pico Extension Apartments as "a blessing from God."

*

Escobedo, 48, came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago and to Pico Extension Apartments five years ago, when she and her husband separated after a 15-year marriage. She took the children, he took the furniture.

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