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Seniors at Center of the Action

Residents of Angelus Plaza welcome the new life taking hold in downtown L.A. But some worry they may be pushed out.

August 24, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

With luxury lofts rising from abandoned buildings and trendy restaurants popping up on once-desolate corners, there has been much talk about people rediscovering downtown Los Angeles.

But Margarita Medina is truly an urban pioneer.

Medina, 75, has called the Angelus Plaza Senior Citizens Housing Complex home since it opened 24 years ago, arriving long before the Italian cucinas and designer hotels. The massive 1,100-unit apartment complex was billed as a bridge between the old and new downtown, a retirement community for aging denizens of the gritty Bunker Hill district that was demolished in the 1960s to make way for skyscrapers.

Medina and her neighbors have seen downtown Los Angeles change from their balconies, and for the most part, they like what they see. They enjoy all the new shops and the increasing foot traffic from both new residents and tourists who come on weekends -- a big change from the barren streetscape they faced more than two decades ago.

"Nothing was built here. I saw all these buildings grow," Medina said, recalling that when she arrived, workers hadn't even finished the sidewalks.

But there is also a nagging apprehension that the new downtown might pass them by. They live a block from the land along Grand Avenue that planners want to transform into a $1.3-billion housing, hotel and retail development, The city hopes it will bring a vibrant nightlife to the nocturnally dormant city.

The seniors wonder if there will still be room for them in the grand new vision for the hill. Over the years, there have been rumors that the massive development might be sold.

"We don't worry about it 'til it happens," said longtime resident Cecil R. Menifield, 77. "I'll make it some kind of way, baby. Life is too short to worry about those little small things, like that they might kick you out at any minute. You can never tell."

Residents have learned to make life work in an area without a major grocery store, few parks and only a handful of restaurants catering to those on a fixed income.

They get around on the 25-cent DASH buses that run across downtown. Grocery shopping means taking a shuttle to 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue about three miles away, where there is a Ralphs and a Vons. They eat at the low-priced fast-food restaurants that cater to the office lunch crowds or splurge for a meal at Grand Central Market.

Menifield said he lives an "active civic life" downtown, albeit on a budget. He attends free plays in Pershing Square, listens to free music at California Plaza, swims at the Hope Street YMCA pool and reads at the Los Angeles Central Library.

"It's a small town as far as I'm concerned," Menifield said. "I don't think of it as a big city because there are too many empty spaces. In a big city, you're jammed, but here you got a lot of space."

Last week at the California Plaza post office across the street from the complex, Menifield got a hearty, two-handed wave and a "How are you?" from a postal clerk. Later, at a nearby deli where Menifield bought a lottery ticket and a Diet Coke, the clerk welcomed him with the same warmth.

Sitting in front of a fountain on the office plaza built in 1985, Menifield gestured to the sparkling buildings above him. "I like the scenery," he said. "They built a magnificent place around me."

The monolithic concrete towers of Angelus Plaza straddle the 3rd Street tunnel on Bunker Hill. For decades, the area was the heart of a teeming residential district. When it was first developed at the turn of the 20th century, Bunker Hill was one of the city's finest neighborhoods, with grand Victorian homes and tall palms overlooking central Los Angeles.The original Angels Flight rail line traveled up and down the hill on 3rd Street where Angelus Plaza was later constructed. The rail was later moved to 4th Street.

But after World War II, Bunker Hill declined. Mansions were converted into single-room hotels, and the neighborhood gained a reputation as the home of poor elderly people, transients and prostitutes. When city fathers moved to expand downtown northward in the early 1960s, they decided to bulldoze the neighborhood and start from scratch. Office tower complexes replaced the winding alleys and grassy peaks of Bunker Hill.

The nonprofit Retirement Housing Foundation built Angelus Plaza in the late 1970s with the promise that it would help house some of the senior citizens who once called Bunker Hill home. Each tower received a biblical name like Moontide and Evensong.

The development, which offers federally subsidized housing, now has 1,300 residents -- but only a few who once called the original Bunker Hill home remain.

William Dixon, an Angelus Plaza resident, never lived in the old Bunker Hill but was a frequent visitor. He said the area's run-down reputation was undeserved. It was gritty, he said, but also had a welcoming atmosphere.

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