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Sunset Hall's Red Twilight

At the Mid-Wilshire retirement home, aging leftists reminisce about long-ago activism. Like their memories, the facility's future is hazy.

March 09, 2005|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

One was a young woman when she spent a night behind bars for attacking a policeman at a labor rally. "You're talking to a jailbird," she says. "Someone who stood for what she believes. An old red."

Another was just a girl when she became aware of "the extraordinary inequalities of the capitalist system." Still another looks up from her walker, through 91-year-old eyes, and remembers a pair of anarchist icons executed after their 1920s trial: "Sacco and Vanzetti, they went to the gallows with such dignity."

There are only 11 of these aging leftists now at Sunset Hall, and the retirement home is in jeopardy. Located in an immigrant neighborhood near MacArthur Park, it is small, poor and shopworn. Often, when its residents die, no one replaces them. Five elderly newcomers, without political leanings, recently have come to fill vacancies, but that still leaves 20 empty rooms.

Once before, when board members tried to close Sunset Hall and sell it, a judge ordered the home kept open. But perhaps there is no saving it this time.

Sunset Hall might be the only one of its kind. The nonprofit home was established in 1924 by women from a nearby Unitarian church. It was intended to house aging religious liberals. As time passed, it catered more to residents with a political bent.

"A retirement home that attracts old socialists and liberals?" says Anne Katz, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. "Totally unique."

Don Redfoot, a senior policy advisor on housing for AARP, says: "I've certainly never heard of anything so tied to an ideology." Then he adds, with a chuckle: "The Newt Gingrich Memorial Homes?"

The day of reckoning is March 26. That's when the residents of Sunset Hall and its 50 or so dues-paying supporters will vote on its fate.

One plan, a longshot, is to keep it open for another year, hoping for donations and new residents. Among the other plans: sell the two-story building and buy or build another place in a better neighborhood.

"Unfortunately," says Wendy Caputo, its director, "that will be too late for the people living there now. Some of them don't have much in the way of family. And so many of them are so frail. What will happen to them?"

Sturdy, Opinionated

Luba Perlin is one. She is 91 and wide-hip sturdy. Like most of the others, she has a mind that is slowly betraying her. But because she remains opinionated and is one of the only ones left with much energy, she is also their unofficial spokeswoman.

"I have the sense that this is a very special place," she says, pronouncing her words crisply, emphasizing each syllable with care. "A place for people who care about the welfare of the working people and the trades unions, the AF of L.

"This place is most precious."

Sunset Hall's concrete-covered quad contains one tall mimosa tree, a few dozen other plants and a fishpond drained of water should any of the residents fall in. It has a cozy library lined with eye-catching titles: "This is Communist China." "The Collected Works of Lenin." "Karl Marx and Christian Ethics."

There are no finely trimmed lawns or golf courses. Its residents sit, just before lunch, in Zen-like peace in the living room. Some sleep. Some seem frozen, not moving or making a sound. Some gaze at the television, distance in their eyes.

Then Perlin, as usual, pipes up. "People might believe it is not beautiful here," she says, before losing the thought. Her knotted hands caress the fine, white hair of 90-year-old Betty Weiss, who often gets confused. Weiss was a homemaker who wore her left-of-center politics proudly. Perlin coos softly in her ear: Everything is going to be OK. Then she looks up. "What was I saying?"

Their visitor reminds her.

"Oh, yes, I believe that Sunset Hall, it is beautiful because it is full of the most wonderful idealism. In today's world, I find that highly unusual."

The management at Sunset Hall, which calls itself "a retirement home for freethinkers," is careful to note that conservatives are welcome. A Republican lived here once. She left. Her story, which has reached mythic proportions at Sunset Hall, goes like this:

It was all about the food. Rye bread is a staple in the cafeteria at the home, where most residents are Jewish. All that rye bread -- the Republican couldn't take it. "She wanted white bread," one of the managers says, grinning. "White bread."

There is humor here. Most of the residents are women. They joke about how frail men seem. "They don't last." And they joke about their own memories. "Feels like I lost part of my brain. Oh, well."

They talk about how long ago it was when they were teachers, engineers, labor organizers, all with what they call a progressive bent. One of them was a typist for the Communist Party.

There is no hurry here. Sitting down to watch CNN in the big living room chair means backing down slowly, stumbling for a moment, then getting the balance right before falling onto the leather. It can take a whole minute.

Pushing a walker 10 feet to the bathroom can take four minutes.

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