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And Over Here, the Real World

The Democratic platform is little solace to the downtrodden living at The Baker, which overlooks the convention goings-on.


On the edge of sleek Staples Center stands a concrete box from another era. A few delegates to the Democratic National Convention might notice it. Odds are none will walk into the bare lobby, past the sign that says simply: "The Baker."

This is where rhetoric meets reality.

Tonight the convention agenda will focus on "progress and prosperity," matters of great importance to the people of The Baker.

Each day, Guillermina Cernas, a single mother, leads her young children through gang-infested streets to one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. Betty Moon, a mentally disabled woman in an apartment that could be mistaken for a closet, frets about noises overhead and having enough food to finish the month. Cornelio Montes catches a crowded bus, hoping to land a full day's work in an oppressive garment factory south of downtown.

These are the faces of America's urban underclass.

As delegates move between chandeliered hotels, lavish parties and choreographed celebrations on the convention floor, life will grind on at The Baker. It has to.

A draft of the Democratic Party's national platform sketches the grand vision Vice President Al Gore has for the country. Like the manifesto adopted by Republicans, it talks of good jobs, clean neighborhoods, quality schools and better health care.

But life at The Baker is a reminder of the great divide the "people's party" must bridge to make good on its promises to those struggling at the bottom.


. . . We have [to] secure prosperity that is broadly shared and progress that reaches all families in this new American century. . . . We must not leave any community behind. . . .

--2000 Democratic National Platform

Committee Report


The Baker, coated in a patchwork of mismatching brown hues, is a hand-me-down.

It began as a respectable 46-room hotel for businessmen and travelers in 1913. It's taken a long slide since.

The walls, mailboxes and woodwork are scrawled with graffiti from the "42nd Lil' Criminals," the gang that claims the neighborhood as its own. Most evenings the gangsters loiter in an alley next to the building. They drink and harass passersby. A young woman, talking with residents, complains that cholos, or gang members, stole her money days before.

"Everybody's scared of them," says another woman, hurrying across the alley as she leaves the building.

The adversity that residents share forges a close-knit community at The Baker--whether they've been there for two decades or two weeks. Mothers help each other lug babies in heavy strollers up creaky stairwells because the elevator is busted. They look out for each other's safety. They comfort one another when things go from tough to tougher.

With few places to play, the children of The Baker scamper between fire escapes and hallways or kick soccer balls at their neighborhood playground: a Staples Center parking lot.

This week, the lives of everyone at the building will be even more trying amid the crowds, the roadblocks, the protesters, the possible tear gas drifting through windows kept open for relief from the heat.

Although there's hardship, there's also hope.

Each morning, as the sun peeks over the downtown skyline, workers and students stream through the security gate on Olympic Boulevard. On foot and bike they scatter in all directions for school and work, past a series of freshly painted 14-story murals. The towering images are icons of the Democrats' commitment to workers, immigrants and the poor--Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy.


. . . By the end of the next presidential term, every failing school in America should be turned around . . . consistently bad schools should be shut down. No excuses. No exceptions. . . .


Guillermina Cernas is tired of walking.

With two children on different class schedules, she makes the 10-minute walk between The Baker and Tenth Street Elementary School six times a day. Her two children, Victor, 4, and Noemi, 6, stick close as they cross under the Harbor Freeway, past dilapidated buildings and into the troubled world of the Los Angeles school system.

Their school is surrounded by one of the city's most notorious gangs. So deeply rooted is the group that its name--18th Street--is embedded in the concrete sidewalk the Cernas family travels.

Tenth Street must run year-round to accommodate about 1,600 students. More than 90% are learning English and receiving federally subsidized lunches. Last year, it was ranked among the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

Many parents and political leaders might argue that Tenth Street fits the profile of a failing school.

But not Cernas. It seems to be a good place, she says. The mother is baffled by the Democrats' suggestion that failing schools be shut down--even temporarily--especially in overcrowded districts.

"That's not a good idea," she says, arriving at the brightly painted school. "What would they do with the children?"

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