It wasn't enough to turn this eyesore-of-an-apartment complex in Pomona into a place families would really want to live. The developers decided that in its second life, Park William Apartments would both shelter and feed its residents.
So, in a novel teaming of community, a group of Cal Poly Pomona students brought the best of their education to bear and taught 60 adults and 90 children how to grow their own food on land that was once the selling ground of drug dealers.
It took $5 million in public and private investment to renovate the 31 units during a yearlong process. Government agencies that promote subsidized housing were brought in to help. The city and local police worked with the developer and tenants.
And finally, after months of back-bending work in gardens that take up nearly every patch of dirt, the tenants of Park William celebrated Saturday what is literally their new lease on life by throwing a big "Harvest Fiesta."
The food spread was amazing. Nearly every vegetable had been handpicked just hours earlier from gardens throughout the complex. Big aluminum trays filled with fresh salsa--tomatoes, jalapenos, aromatic cilantro. Chile verde made with fresh, not canned, tomatillo sauce. Nopalitos, cactus, just picked from Cal Poly farms and stewed with home-grown herbs into a tangy salad. Baskets of cucumbers, peaches, oranges and plums.
When the breeze blows through the complex's entry gate, it carries the scent of fragrant rosemary. The courtyard air is perfumed with sweet basil and oregano. Someone is sauteing garlic and onions, perhaps a pan of Spanish rice is on the new stove.
In the middle of it all stands Beatriz Gamboa, marveling at the "before" photos on a display board assembled for the event, attended by suited politicians and government types.
"It was all so ugly, so dirty, so dangerous," the mother of three said. "This used to be my apartment." She pointed to a photograph of a corner unit with tattered blinds, chipped stucco and an obnoxious neon-blue painted door. Another photo showed the old courtyard: dry, hard-packed dirt and a broken swing set.
Today, the courtyard sports a new jungle gym sitting in a cushion of redwood chips surrounded by grass and benches. The community center--with its spacious kitchen, game room and computer lab--is nearby.
The apartments have become an example of how to transform blight into homes and gardens for working people whose paychecks can't compete with high Southern California rents. As an added value, the tenants' grocery bills are down at least 15%, thanks to the produce outside.
"Next time I need to take someone on a tour of affordable housing, I'm bringing them here," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose 1st District includes Pomona.
The Park William residents used to be yet another example of how low-income workers in Los Angeles County are forced to crowd into slum apartments.
A recent study by the Low Income Housing Coalition showed that a couple holding down two minimum-wage jobs would each have to work 11 hours a day, seven days a week, to be able to rent the typical $1,140-a-month apartment in Los Angeles County.
One Park William tenant, who works as a cashier at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant and whose husband does construction work, said they endured the filth and danger of the former place because it was all they could afford for their four children.
"We used to live in fear. But now we are happy, so lucky to have this apartment," she said of her three-bedroom, $573-a-month subsidized unit.
The project was developed through a partnership among several firms with big acronyms, including the ONE Company, which stands for Opportunity for Neighborhood Empowerment and is a women- and minority-owned for-profit development firm.
A nonprofit group called WORKS, for Women Organizing Resources Knowledge and Services, also played a key role in bringing classes and counseling to the complex.
A Kitchen Full of Good Food
In the world of innovative development circles, they call Park William the first "tenant cultivation" project in the state.
Tenant Jose Guzman calls it a nice place to live with a kitchen full of good food.
Guzman, a 28-year-old fire-extinguisher and alarm technician, opened the door of his three-bedroom unit to show off his new stove and kitchen cabinets in an apartment cooled with new insulation and ceiling fans.
But it's the zucchini and chili peppers that really make him gloat.
"My wife, she makes the best zucchini soup and calabacitas," he said. "Then we make fresh chile rellenos with tomatoes and cheese. My kids are eating vegetables for the first time because they grew it."
That's just what Cal Poly professor Paul Sommers intended when he and his class took on the project last year. He is the outreach coordinator for the university's John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. Students of regenerative studies learn to design landscapes and buildings that minimize the use of energy and take advantage of natural resources.
What Sommers said looked like "a real mess of dirt-puddle nothing" turned into the future food supply of Park William tenants. His students interviewed the tenants, learned what they liked to eat and then took that information to the drafting table. At the same time, the students incorporated nutrition into the plan.
In one corner of the complex is every Mexican cook's dream: a salsa garden--three types of chili peppers, cherry tomatoes, oregano. Above it stands a row of citrus and a guava tree for the power-burst of vitamin C these fruits will provide.
Avocados, passion fruits and bell peppers. Dill, garlic and mint. Everything but the playground grass is edible.
Julia Lopez, the complex manager, kept trying to give away cucumbers to the visiting dignitaries, who would politely decline. She said there are already 97 families on a waiting list for vacancies.
"But the people tell me they are never going to move away," Lopez said.