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She has a lot at stake

A determined activist runs into multiple obstacles in trying to turn a blighted Hawthorne parcel near her childhood home into a park.

August 29, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Viviana Franco stabbed the toe of her boot into the dirt. Behind her, the evening commute was underway on the 105 Freeway, a daily, numbing racket that is as much a sure thing in this gritty pocket of Hawthorne as the rising sun. In front of her was a barren lot, a sorry little patch of dirt, just a third of an acre, ringed with sagging concrete walls, covered with weeds. At her feet was a used condom.

"Oh, man," she said, shaking her head. "That's the third one."

Over the years, Franco has found it all here: couches, tires, condoms -- even a dead goat, which she never did figure out. The lot might have been the bane of her life. Instead, it became her passion.

When she was a kid, it was her proving ground -- the spot where she played baseball against her brothers, where she learned to ride a bike as construction of the 105 began.

When she was a teenager, her parents sent her to private school in Torrance. She discovered the "other" South Bay -- Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills -- and began to ask hard questions: "Why don't they have a liquor store on every block? Why is it so green?"

When she became an adult, she earned a master's degree in urban planning at UCLA specifically to clean up the lot and replace its hardscrabble dirt with a blanket of grass.

She's 30 now, a ferocious community advocate with four tattoos and a nose piercing. Nothing has changed.

Franco's zeal and idealism have run headlong into reality -- into local politics, dizzying bureaucracy, a weak economy. The lot, the way she tells it, has become a singular, hidden monument to land-use inequity -- to the discrepancy in green space available to the wealthy and the poor.

The lot is 100 feet from the house where Franco was raised. It was a loving home, with parents -- a mother with a third-grade education and a father who worked as a janitor, both Mexican emigres -- who preached the gospel of education and hard work. But as a kid, she suspected that she was no better than the abandoned lot down the street. That, she said, was wrong, and it is an experience that defines thousands of lives.

"That lot is who I am," she said. "You have a shared consciousness in a neighborhood, and that lot stamped us. This was a place of crime and blight, and it shaped our attitudes, our identities. If it was green and had a few trees? Yeah. A whole new world."


The 105 construction in the 1980s "literally ripped these neighborhoods in half," said Hawthorne City Councilman Gary Parsons, and created dozens of forlorn lots like this one, at Doty Avenue and 118th Street. Over the years, it fell through the cracks, forgotten by all except the kids who played there and the drunks who slept there.

Even figuring out who owned the lot -- something Franco started five years ago, in graduate school -- was no simple matter. Hawthorne and the Department of Transportation both said it wasn't theirs. After poring over records, Franco helped prod Caltrans into acknowledging that it owned the land.

Last year, after forming a nonprofit group called From Lot to Spot, Franco asked Caltrans to give her a good-faith $1-a-year lease allowing her to improve the lot. Instead, the department -- under financial pressure, like all state agencies -- put a fence around the lot and put it up for sale.

At the first auction, in February, Caltrans valued the lot at $375,000. No one put in a bid. Again, Franco asked for permission to improve the lot. Caltrans balked and staged a second sale in April, lowering the valued price to $300,000.

"They said: 'Going once. Going twice.' And there was this one guy in the back of the room who put up his paddle," Franco said. "It sold."

She introduced herself to the buyer, who said his name was Al. It was evident, Franco said, that he was not interested in chatting. When she asked Caltrans for his name, the agency wouldn't tell her. She found it buried in another agency's agenda. The lot had been purchased by Ali Awad, an owner of a local repossessed car dealership and a supporter of the mayor.


Politics in Haw- thorne is not for the faint of heart.

Larry Guidi, 50, is a hard-charging, NAFTA-trashing, business-friendly man who has been mayor since 1992. He seems to be everywhere at once, whether it's a homeowners association meeting or a local girl's quinceanera.

Guidi is alternately revered for saving Hawthorne from the brink of bankruptcy, though it is not a wealthy city, and reviled for running an old-style political machine, known as "Team Guidi." To his critics, Guidi cites a passage from Romans 3:13-14: "Snake venom drips from their lips; their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."

The Caltrans auction, it turned out, had not been the end of the story. The California Transportation Commission must approve all sales of Caltrans land. In May, Franco asked the commission for a 90-day stay of execution -- to try to raise the money herself so she could turn the lot into a tiny park. The commission, to her great surprise, agreed. Now she needed $300,000.

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