Hope endures in a recession-battered area of L.A. County

The unemployment rate in Westmont is 23.6%, but people are doing what they can to get by in trying times.

September 15, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

In South Los Angeles' flat plain of humble homes, apartments and palms, there is a community officially (but rarely) called Westmont that has no "mont," not even a hill. It got its name, it seems, from being west of Vermont Avenue.

These days it has another distinction no local will brag on.

The unemployment rate in Westmont is a staggering 23.6%, the highest in Los Angeles County.

Last week, I shared this news with a dozen people who live and work there. No one was surprised.

"These days you're not getting ahead, you're just staying in place or moving backward," Jose Contreras told me as he leaned over the fence in the frontyard of his home on Budlong Avenue. "And you're just wondering how long it can stay that way."

Seven Los Angeles cities and unincorporated communities -- Commerce, Compton, East Compton, Florence-Graham, Industry, Willowbrook and Westmont -- have unemployment rates higher than 20%.

During the heyday of Los Angeles County industry in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, these places were filled with factory families. Since then, several recessionary storms have swept through. Now the biggest one is raining bad news, leaving everyone in Westmont with grim numbers spinning in their heads.

Contreras, 42, drives a truck for a company that loads shipping containers onto rail cars in Vernon.

"They laid off 300 people where I work," he said. "Volume at the port is down 18%. That affects us, because what goes through those ports feeds our railyard."

Contreras earns $15.10 an hour, but the crucial number in his life these days is 76. That's how many names separate him from the bottom of the seniority list should there be another round of layoffs.

Still, he says, he's better off than his four younger siblings, each of whom is facing financial difficulties.

Both his sisters -- one a teacher's aide, the other a customer-service employee -- have had their hours and their pay cut. His brother, who works at a plumbing-supply company, got his workdays cut back too. "He's delivering pizzas on the weekend to make ends meet," Contreras said. Another brother recently moved to Bakersfield because he couldn't afford L.A. rents.

A few jumbo jets passed overhead as he told me all this, and then a big yellow butterfly -- a Western tiger swallowtail -- came fluttering over his pomegranate tree.

My report on life in Westmont would be incomplete if I did not mention seeing that tree and that butterfly. Because the little touches of nature and suburbia in Westmont are some of the things that make life there livable, even in the midst of a Great Recession.

Yes, there are some boarded homes. And yes, there are too many signs that pronounce "Bank Owned." These are the toughest times anyone can remember. But you really can't say the people look broken.

Beneath a two-story-tall doughnut that looms over Century Boulevard, I met Romaine Breda, a tall 19-year-old who told me he was homeless.

"You don't look homeless," I said. He had new slippers and cornrow hair that looked recently braided.

"I'm trying to keep it fresh," he said. "To go to school and impress the ladies!"

He surveyed the various peddlers nearby and turned serious. "People are trying to live," he said. "Either you're going to sell CDs, or something that hurts our race."

On 90th Street, I met Tony Cleveland and Randy Thompson, two older gentlemen leaning against a car as if contemplating how to fill their day.

I asked them if they knew anyone who was out of work.

Cleveland gave a half chuckle and said: "Yeah. I am."

He's been out of work, he said, since June 2008, when his small business buying and selling cars for scrap went under. (The federal "Cash for Clunkers" program came way too late to save him.)

"I went from grossing $500 to $700 a day to nothing," he said. The market for cars for scrap overnight fell from about $280 to $40 a ton. "I thought, 'I've got to roll with it. It'll get better,' " he said. "A year went by. The price stayed down."

Cleveland laid off his four employees, shutting down a company that he'd owned for four decades. He sold some of his business assets to pay the rent. When that money ran out, he was homeless and slept in his car.

"I'm 67 years old," he said. "That never happened to me before. When you get older and the bottom falls out of your life, how do you deal with it?"

I asked where he was living now.

"See that white guy over there who looks like Santa Claus?" said Cleveland, who is black, pointing to a man sitting across the street, wearing a navy-blue jumpsuit identical to his. "He was an employee of mine. I'm living with him."

Perhaps I looked a little too surprised. Moments later, he told me: "Don't put down my name in the paper. I don't want to sound like I'm whining,"

"You're not whining," I said. "You're just describing a situation."

"He's just one of 5 million," said his friend Thompson, a retired airplane mechanic.

Cleveland thought about it for a moment, then said it was OK to use his name. He said he was unsure what to do next. He might move to Las Vegas. "I even had an offer from an ex-wife that was tempting," he said, then laughed so heartily at the thought that Thompson and I started laughing too.

The people of Westmont know they don't deserve to be at the bottom of the recession.

But Contreras, Cleveland and the others I met didn't seem interested in making a big stink about their situations either. They're not going to march on Washington -- although they should, of course.

Instead, they made it clear to me, they get by from one day to the next by buckling down, saving a bit, and trying to laugh at the sort of things that would probably make me whine a lot.

All that places my new friends in Westmont at the top of a tall mountain of hope.


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