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It Takes a Village

The renewal of neighborhoods depends on new families moving in and rejuvenating homes. In the Southland, strong demand fuels the process.

April 28, 2002|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It happens continually. A "sold" sign goes up. Neighbors relocate, while others move to retirement communities. Younger couples move in and start families.

"That neighborhoods change is an undisputed fact of life," said Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Study Center at USC, which monitors the region's future. "Neighborhoods, like people, age."

The evolution of a neighborhood is gradual: New homes are built and the area is considered especially desirable. Families move in, children grow up and eventually the residents age and die or move away. A new wave of young families moves in and starts the process all over again.

Neighborhoods essentially repeat themselves. This constant renewal goes on indefinitely, as long as the homes remain in good condition.

"The difficulty comes when the houses start to age and reach the end of their natural life span, which tends to happen to homes in a neighborhood all at once," Dear said. "At that point they drop to the lower end of the scale in terms of desirability."

By some estimates the average life of a house in the U.S. is 44 years, but homes are often ready for renovation within a few decades. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, a large share of homes in the Sunbelt are now in the 25- to 30-year-old range, considered the threshold for increased spending on home improvements.

For older neighborhoods to remain viable and for renewal to occur, several things must then happen.

"There has to be a continued demand for the property and land and a constant influx of new people who are willing to buy the property and regenerate it, putting in a lot of money and time," Dear said.

Due to migration--27% of total household growth nationwide in this decade will come from immigration, experts predict--and a resulting high demand for property, this process of gentrification has become a natural part of our neighborhood fabric.

"Southern California is one of the most vibrant metropolitan communities in the United States, with a strong economy and demand for housing, which has led to neighborhoods naturally evolving in a manner that is barely noticeable," Dear said. "You almost don't notice that someone at the end of the street has bought the house and is upgrading it."

Other parts of the country have not been as fortunate.

"Over the past two or three decades, areas in the Midwest and Northeast, such as Cleveland and Detroit, have experienced abandonment from older housing units and as a result, entire neighborhoods have died," Dear said. "The demise of these neighborhoods dates back to the deindustrialization of the United States that began in the 1970s. At that point the influx of people into these geographic areas began to dwindle, resulting in a diminished need for housing."

With strong migration into Southern California has come an eclectic mix of population types and ages, another component of a healthy neighborhood. "If you have a good mix of people," Dear said, "the self-renewal process is a natural thing."

Matt Keefe has lived in Old Towne Orange since 1988 and has seen a tremendous amount of revitalization in the area, which has a large concentration of pre-1940 homes of various architectural styles, some dating as far back as the 1880s.

"Over the past several years, people have moved into the neighborhood and poured disposable income into upkeeping and maintaining their homes," said Keefe, a professional photographer. "This has been great overall, because it increases our property values and is aesthetically appealing."

Keefe has also found that the demographics of his neighborhood have changed over the years.

"When I first moved in, the neighborhood was more static," he said. "Since then, some of the older people have retired or passed away and now there are a lot of younger couples starting families and revitalizing the community. I personally enjoy seeing children walking the block and watching them grow up. I think a good demographic mix can only benefit the neighborhood."

Donna Hopson has noticed the same sort of revitalization occurring recently in her 40-year-old Tustin neighborhood.

"When we bought our home 13 years ago, there was very little turnover," said Hopson, who co-owns a pension service company. "As many of the former occupants aged, they didn't do anything with their homes, and the properties became very dated and tired looking. In recent years, new owners have come in and modernized the houses. The renovations have created a spark in the neighborhood."

Neighborhood transformation and demographic changes aren't without their drawbacks, however. Author and social psychologist Susan K. Perry moved into her Silver Lake community in 1969 and raised two children there. During the years when her kids were young, she enjoyed the company of a next-door neighbor who had children of the same age.

"That was a great time," Perry said. "My neighbor and I were very close, and our kids played together all of the time."

Perry's neighborhood is still her home, but she is more isolated than she once was. "It's more difficult to make friends in your neighborhood when your children are gone, because they are the context of your becoming friends in the first place."

Barbara Oldewage has been in her Santa Ana neighborhood for nearly 50 years, since 1954.

"Although there are still some of us older people here, for the most part the neighborhood has changed drastically, and there's not much option for socializing when everyone's younger than you," Oldewage said. "We've been through two or three phases of small children followed by quiet stages with no children. We're in a small-children stage again."

Despite the changes, which can be unsettling at times, those entrenched in a neighborhood often share Oldewage's sentiment: "Things might be different, but it's still home."

"We're comfortable," she said, "and we wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

*

Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Orange.

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