As the need to build classrooms grows in one of the nation's most densely populated and ethnically diverse communities, the Los Angeles Unified School District is considering a traumatic solution: evicting hundreds of families from their homes to create space for schools.
The district's willingness to consider so controversial a course reflects the enormous pressure in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, where every year, on a Sunday night in May, parents line up and wait for morning so they can get the first chance at signing up their children for the local school.
Some succeed. Most do not, and the children of those who are turned away pay the price. In this one small community, more than 1,000 children, some as young as 5, board buses every day and ride for as much as an hour to attend schools in less crowded areas.
School district officials understandably want to end that, and at the same time they are trying to limit evictions as much as possible. Just last week, in fact, they decided not to condemn and demolish one large apartment building that the district had been considering.
But the district is still weighing plans that would eliminate more than 200 residential units--some of them densely crowded ones housing extended families, others that are home to elderly men and women--to make way for classrooms.
"It's very tough," said Kathi Littman, a construction management expert brought in to help the district find sites and build schools. "One man's blighted housing is another man's affordable housing. . . . Unless there is no other way to get around taking housing, we are going to avoid it at all costs."
And yet, there's no avoiding it altogether. School board member Caprice Young, who represents the area, predicts that hundreds of families will be affected. "It's absolutely certain that some homes will be taken," she said.
The battle over the small area north of Wilshire Boulevard--bordered by Catalina Street on the east, Western Avenue on the west and Beverly Boulevard on the north--is of huge interest to that community, but it has implications beyond there as well. It is a microcosm of the stresses created by Los Angeles' pressing need for new schools, and it is a harbinger of the community battles looming, as the district tries to balance the competing pressures of a bulging student population and state rules limiting classroom size.
In mid-Wilshire, ground zero is a roughly 100-square-block area strewn with Craftsman-style houses on some blocks and large apartment buildings on others. It is an area of vast diversity. Stores have signs in Spanish, Korean and Arabic; English ranks a distant fourth. Local stores race to keep their food inventories apace with changing demographics. One sign of the times: Two neighborhood markets recently dropped kimchi for frijoles.
And it is a community bulging with children. Even with a year-round operation that allows 1,300 students to attend Cahuenga Elementary School, a staggering 1,400 children a day board buses there to go to far-flung schools.
"I bus away more children than I have," said Cahuenga Principal Lloyd Houske, an enthusiastic, beloved fixture at the school and in its neighborhood.
"Some of those children ride buses more than an hour each way. Their parents aren't as involved in their schools. They can't be; many don't have cars. There's not as much language support. . . . It's harder [for the children] to make friends because they live so far from school."
But if the need for schools is clear, so is the hardship that could be created by the school district's plan for building them.
'What Am I Supposed to Do?'
Take the case of Vila Tweedt. She is 86 and has lived in the same apartment for 29 years. She suffers from asthma and doesn't drive. She pays $400 a month for her small but tidy apartment, conveniently located a half-block from the bus stop, two blocks from a market.
"What am I supposed to do if they take this place for a school?" she asked. "I've lived here for a long time, and I really don't know how I would manage if I'm displaced at my age."
Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the Assembly and a candidate for mayor, acknowledges that stories such as Tweedt's are compelling and decisions to oust anyone from a home are wrenching.
"In the past, the district's just gone in and started saying: 'We're building here, here and here,' " Villaraigosa said. "There's no question that the district has a credibility problem. . . . But at the same time, we gotta build these schools."
Even some residents with children, ostensibly those whom the new schools would benefit, are irritated with the school district.
"They say they're trying to help the community," said Greg Havens, whose son is in third grade. "They're going to destroy this community, at least for us."