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By Susanna Franek

My family thought I was crazy buying a house in a crime-infested, gang-ridden part of L.A.

Upon my return from Spain I had lived with my sister in the San Fernando Valley to get back on my feet, then eventually moved over to West L.A. into an apartment on Beverly Glen that a friend was vacating.

Staying with my older sister and her partner in North Hollywood was temporary. It was hard living with lesbians who chose verbal abuse, co-dependency and alcoholic, jealous-induced rants. Over in West L.A., my neighbors never conversed. I felt isolated and invisible. I’d sometimes wake up wondering where I was.

In the late-80s, Silver Lake was in the early stages of gentrification, but still had a rough edge. The grit of the neighborhood appealed to me. The house on Coronado Terrace was the first of ten the realtor showed me. I fell in love with the 1918, five-bedroom, semi-Craftsman two-story house, even though it had been worked on, piecemeal, over the decades. The ghastly dark-brown carpeting, the pink walls, the olive-green kitchen with its cracked linoleum floors, the back yard covered in concrete, the garage ready to collapse, and the chipped, red painted porch; none of this discouraged me. On the contrary, I knew the minute I walked in, it was the one.

I asked the postman about the area, the block, and in particular the eyesore next door. Junked cars were parked in the driveway and on the street, piles of booze bottles, beer and soda cans in huge plastic bags lined the side of the house, stacks of old newspapers were everywhere, and rose bushes and shrubs stood unkempt and covered in dust. I told myself there were always a few houses like this in a neighborhood, and not to worry. He described the Flores clan, a multigenerational family from the Philippines that lived in the tiny two-bedroom Spanish bungalow, and that drug dealing and gang activity had been going on for years.

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

Frankie, Freddie, and Fidel – three sons out of the five kids — were part of a third-generation local gang, CYS, aka, the Crazies, a mix of Latino and Filipino youth. Robert, a white guy who lived a few doors up the street and had a reputation for meddling in neighbors’ mailboxes and asking for money, was also part of the gang. Yet something guided me to purchase the house.

Before moving in, I had some workers restore a bit of the Craftsman charm, take out the concrete to landscape the backyard, and move a few walls inside the house. Then I had the fun, yet challenging, job of dressing up 39 windows.

One day I stopped by the house during my lunch hour to check on the construction progress and noticed a gang tag on my side porch. Etched into a thick layer of dust were the initials ‘CYS’. Instead of waiting another few weeks for construction to finish, with my 5-year old in tow, and another sister and niece who were living with us at the time, we pulled the bare necessities together and moved in the next day. I too was staking claim to territory.

Frankie was the oldest and most involved with the CYS. Freddie was more of a follower. Fidel had two young daughters both under the age of 5, who were sometimes pulled along for the ride at night when the brothers would go out, and return with stolen car stereos they’d pass through their side gate to one of the brothers who stayed behind.

I introduced myself when we moved in, and regardless of their disruptive activities, I always said hello, called them by name, and engaged in conversation whenever they were hanging out on the low concrete wall that divided our driveways. They were hard to avoid.

The gunshots soon unnerved us. They were the norm on weekend nights. Helicopters hovered, sometimes for hours, with their bright spotlights lighting up the street and shaking all our windows as they moved from yard to yard. Sometimes we could hear sounds in the bushes up on the hill in our back yard. I never got used to the echo of bullets flying through the silence of the night.

One evening when I returned home from work and pulled into my driveway, a dozen CYS members blocked my way. They were hanging out with Frankie. My sister panicked; I realized we had to take a different strategy. I got out of the car to take my trashcans up the driveway, asked how they were doing, and would they mind letting me through. They moved. I got back in my car, a bit shaky but relieved. A couple of days later my front wall was tagged.

The tagging around the neighborhood never ceased; they were like cats marking their territory. I joined the Silver Lake Improvement Association – SLIA. I started going out with crews to paint out CYS and Temple Street graffiti along Sunset, and on the walls surrounding Mayberry Elementary School that became a canvas for the tagging wars between the CYS and ExP, the Echo Park gang. Their tags went as far as Glendale Boulevard, and spilled over into the more upscale hills of Benton Way. Before long I had a bucket of paint, brushes and some overalls in the back of my car and was often inspired to stop and paint out graffiti wherever I found it in the area.

The SLIA was a great resource for me as I settled into the hood. I started going to more meetings. Over time, though, the group’s rhetoric felt unrelated to neighborhood issues. I was invited to a meeting at the house of SLIA President. Lining her mantle were volumes of L. Ron Hubbard books on Dianetics. She was attempting to recruit SLIA members into Scientology. Around the same time, a series in the L.A. Times exposed the organization’s cult-like tactics and their problems with the IRS. I asked them not to call me anymore. I didn’t know which cult was more dangerous: the CYS or the Scientologists?

Yet through the SLIA I met LAPD Officer Joe Writer. He was the Senior Lead Officer (SLO), a job he held from 1986 to 1999 at the Northeast Police Division. SLOs are the bridge that unites the LAPD with the communities they serve. They help residents create a system of vigilance to discourage burglary and other crimes. The Rampart police scandal was then front-page news; stories of criminal cops were daily headlines. Neighborhood policing was an effective way to work in tandem with neighborhood leaders known as Block Captains, and build relationships to offset some of the bad blood.

Joe encouraged me to become a Block Captain. My sister and I worried about retaliation, and envisioned slashed tires, more tagging on our front wall, and danger to our lives. The brothers next door happily spoke with us in our driveway, attempting to disassociate themselves from any crime in the hood. But their theatricality started to wear thin, and their cohorts felt much less friendly.

Another Filipino member, Jake, who lived with his family next door to Robert and was especially known for his bad temper, was shot down at a party only a few blocks away. The mourning played out on our street with a hundred gang members all in black jackets with CYS emblazoned on the back blocking traffic for two days. We worried about more gun battles from rival gangs.

These guys were heavily armed, which Frankie openly bragged about to my Italian boyfriend, Paolo, who they thought, because of his thick Italian accent, must be associated with the mafia. They liked him and invited him over one day to show him them their arsenal.

I was scared but soon learned to trust Joe. He knew all the CYS members and their families. He had a magic touch; his soft blue eyes communicated empathy, while his large, strapping build and no-nonsense personality commanded respect. He knew each of them by name and visited their homes to mediate conversations between the kids and their parents. I remember him talking to one mom about her son, offering to get funding to put him in art classes to channel his tagging habit more productively.

The CYS was openly dealing drugs, which attracted even more shady characters. From our second floor windows we saw what looked like drug deals go down. Mr. and Mrs. Flores didn’t seem to care, and when Joe approached them I could hear their excuses and laments as to how they wanted to send their sons back to the Philippines, and insisting they were not aware of their sons’ CYS activities. I observed otherwise. I often saw Mr. Flores, a plane mechanic for the Americans during the Vietnam War, drinking with CYS members in their backyard, often for hours.

The first of many Neighborhood Watch meetings I organized drew 40 people to my back yard. With Joe’s support, the CYS slowly got the message that we’d no longer hide behind closed doors and windows. I strategized with Joe and some of the neighbors, and we decided to coordinate with a few phone calls as soon as we heard Frankie and friends congregate in front of the house when they’d return from their escapades late at night. We would come outside at the same time, to socialize, and walk our dogs, big and small, throwing them off guard and disrupting their gathering. It worked. They soon shifted their hoodlum activities a few blocks over; we helped those neighbors organize as well.

The years that followed were not easy living next to the Flores family. Apart from the junky cars and hoarding, there were many nights of family feuding and shouting, or Freddie overdosing on god-knows-what, screaming for hours. Nevertheless, we always chatted with Frankie, and though conversations were peculiar since he was usually either drunk or stoned, we stayed on good terms.

I babysat the block for nearly a year and a half, and then grew weary of mediating petty complaints between neighbors. Pilar, a landscape artist and set designer for the film industry, took over the Neighborhood Watch. She revived the meetings and also brought in the French muralist, Didier Guedj, who worked with the Mayberry Elementary School kids to design a mosaic mural. Now a young magician’s wand brought words of encouragement to the neighborhood and to the school kids: Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, Justice, Love, Wisdom. Neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time went on to collaborate for months, filling in the design with tiny pieces of broken tiles.

The Flores family eventually sent Freddie back to the Philippines, an arranged marriage awaiting him. Fidel finally got his life together and left the neighborhood, moving to Valencia with his two daughters, older teens by that time.

Frankie was in and out of jail for theft and dealing drugs. Every time he’d get out there would be gatherings with some of his prison buddies out in the street or in their backyard. These characters seemed even more menacing than some of the CYS bangers, who were growing older, while the next generation of younger members stepped in. Over time, Frankie was more low-key and appeared to be less involved in gang activity. At one point we thought he might be cooking meth in his bedroom garage that bordered our backyard wall.

A month later a dozen drug enforcement officers swarmed the house, entering Frankie’s room in the back. There was no meth lab, but I later found out that he had been stealing neighbors’ credit card correspondence from mailboxes; they found blank checks that he was trying to falsify. A black cloud lifted when they carted him off to jail. That was the last I saw of him.

The Floreses finally lost their house, which was foreclosed and bought by a Cypriot Armenian who renovated it – a project that lasted a year – and sold it for almost $1 million to a young actor who plays a vampire in a TV series. The house where Robert lived, the white kid involved with CYS, was renovated by an Iraqi developer who sold it for $1.5 million, to the Oscar-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Next door, Jake’s family still lives in the same house.

Today, crime is still happening, but it’s more underground. Property values have risen; many in the neighborhood are sitting on gold mines, me included.

I don’t miss the boys next door, but I’m saddened by the neighborhood turning into a homogeneous hipster community. The newcomers refer to the neighborhood as the “East Side,” as if Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t exist. I miss a community where neighbors watched each other’s backs. It’s starting to remind me of my time living on the west side, where the new folks moving in keep to themselves. Airbnb rentals are bringing in occupants who have no roots in the community, many of whom think they can party well past midnight.

The tagging continues, but rarely do we hear gunshots. With the gang gone, the biggest threat now is the coyotes, especially for the owners of those little dogs.

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Uncategorized

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By Susanna Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n 1984 I returned to L.A., my hometown, after being away for almost 17 years. With my 3-month old son Tomás in tow, I arrived from Mallorca, Spain with the clothes on my back, and a few battle scars from a tumultuous relationship with his father. I was ready for a new start, and the safety net of home and family.

I had grown up in the San Fernando Valley and never experienced much else of the city. During my teens, crossing into Laurel Canyon down into Hollywood was an adventure that mostly got me into trouble. I was always intrigued by the canyon where my favorite musicians, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, lived. I never quite fit the Valley girl stereotype; instinct drove me elsewhere the first opportunity I had. I also remember being glued to the TV in 1965 watching the Watts riots unfold. It was hard to fathom it was taking place within my own city.

During the late 70s when I had returned from abroad to visit family, crime was up; L.A. appeared to be in lock down, reeling from the Charles Manson and Hillside Strangler murders. I feared having a flat tire on the freeway at night; worried a stranger might stop.

Now, after 17 years away, I was back in L.A. and needed a job. I had done some photography and sold ads for an English-language weekly newspaper on the island of Mallorca, so I walked into the Spanish-language daily newspaper, La Opinión, and asked for a job. They handed me a box full of old client files and a spot at an old clunky, gray metal desk in the sales department on 14th Street downtown, known as the “White House.” Named for its older, shabby brick building painted white, it was separated by an alleyway from the paper’s modern offices at the corner of 14th and Main. The sound of the press cranking out up to 80,000 newspapers every afternoon was an adrenaline rush. I ignored the mouse droppings in the desk drawers and got to work calling on inactive advertisers.

I called on clients throughout the small cities southeast of L.A. Old auto, rubber factories, and metal-bashing industries, were now gone, as were the predominantly white, blue-collar residents. Latinos were recreating the landscape. Lining Pacific Boulevard were a Mexican Canada shoe store, a 3 Hermanos clothing store, a Gallo Giro fast food restaurant, and stores selling Western boots, jeans and cowboy hats, catering to the Mexican ranchera, banda and quebradita dance crazes of the day. I brought the advertising team from The Broadway Stores down for a walk so they could see the independent shops that catered to the outfits needed for a baptism, first communion or quinceañera. Within a 3-block radius along Pacific Blvd. we counted nine stores with elaborate Cinderella ball gowns displayed in their storefronts, catering to girls turning 15.

I was working for the Spanish-language daily that catered to the immigrants of the “lost decade” of Mexican economic stagnation, and Central Americans who were fleeing civil wars. My early clients were small business entrepreneurs. There were the Iranians who had fled the new Islamic Republic that came to power in 1979. Savvy entrepreneurs that they were, they set up shop in Hispanic neighborhoods, learned Spanish, and sold electronics, appliances and other household goods.

One of my first sales calls from the box of inactive clients was to Daryoush, a Jewish Iranian who owned Top Discount Stores in East L.A. and Echo Park. Balding and disheveled, he was a shrewd businessman. During our first meeting, he took me back to his messy cubbyhole of an office; I let him rant. He was upset at La Opinión for raising his column inch rate, which he felt was unfair given the number of consistent full-page ads he’d placed for years. Plus he was not happy with the rep that previously handled his account. His cantankerous mood was also due to his Echo Park location not doing well. The mostly off-brand appliances and electronics sold on layaway at Top Discount were ideal for blue-collar, newly arrived immigrant families, but had less appeal for a neighborhood starting to gentrify.

After rounds of negotiating, Top was back in the paper. I started looking forward to my weekly meetings with Daryoush. We’d sit in his office, go through the changes in his ad and sip tea – there was always a pot of Persian tea brewing – while exchanging border crossing stories and chatting about his life in Iran, how the revolution unfolded, and how they had underestimated Khomeini’s Islamist movement.

Daryoush came to the U.S. right before the revolution broke out, but his family waited. They hired guides, not unlike the “coyotes” that bring Mexicans into the U.S., paying hefty amounts to take them through the treacherous Kurdish mountain region from Iran into Turkey. Leaving everything behind except the few belongings they could carry, petrified, they escaped on foot and on horseback, knee deep in snow; his elderly parents barely survived. They eventually made it to Ankara, and onto Vienna, then reuniting with Daryoush and other relatives in L.A.

As Daryoush and I became friends over the years, I had the honor of meeting his parents. I was invited to a gathering held in their large apartment on Beverly Glen, south of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. I walked through the door and was immersed in the aromas of homemade Kosher Persian food, a meal that included classic Tabrizi meatball dishes, stews and kabobs, and Chelo Persian rice. Surrounded by ornate Louis XIV-style couches, tables and chandeliers, it dawned on me they had replicated their home environment from back in Iran. Melodic classic Persian music played in the background; nostalgia filled the air. This could have been a gathering in Tehran, not Los Angeles. As the night progressed, they switched to Persian pop music that fused the traditional tonbak finger snapping-style percussion with electric guitar and organ. When the music of the well-known queen of Iranian pop music, Googoosh, came on, the volume went up and everyone jumped up to dance, me included. Hard to believe the older generation had survived such a harrowing escape, their joie de vivre so contagious.

Then there was VJ, who was from India and had a business in the garment industry right around the corner from the White House. One of the many subcontractors in L.A.’s fashion district, he finished sewing party wear for women that would end up in department stores like The Broadway, Robinsons May and JCPenney. His wholesale showroom was full of racks of blue, red, turquoise, pink and black sequined dresses, skirts and tops; the type of glitz older Iranian and Armenian women would wear to weddings and formal gatherings. The showroom bustled with retailers, buyers and designers that came through, scrutinizing the merchandise, discussing price per piece, delivery deadlines, etc. I often came in while VJ was on the phone or dealing with a vendor or client; he would always introduce me. The warehouse behind his showroom housed roughly 20 workers, all Mexicans, their sewing machines a constant hum.

Once in his office, I saw the close resemblance VJ had to the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, whose photo loomed large on the wall behind his desk. They shared the same sculpted facial features – eyes, a distinguished nose with wide nostrils, and chin dimple – and they both beamed the same mild and tender look of peace and compassion. Under the gentle gaze of his guru we chatted about his business, the results of his latest ad campaign, and meditation.

VJ was a successful businessman; he was optimistic and generous, and he incorporated his guru’s teachings into his business practice. Though a garment manufacturer, he appeared to treat his employees well. There was no overcrowded, dark and dank working conditions, or shouting, or any abuse. One day VJ drove me up to the Self Realization Fellowship mother center on Mount Washington and bought me a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi, a book I had been introduced to back in a college comparative religion class; this time I read it.

During the 80s and 90s, Teatro Los Pinos in South Gate catered to the Latino community offering up slapstick acts that the operator, Simón López, brought from Mexico. The vaudeville, comedy performances were sometimes full of social satire that mirrored the plight of Mexicans on both sides of the border. The transvestite, Francis, was a popular show that often doubled booked, lasting weeks. Her shows were full of slang and, regardless of the kids in the audience, lots of swearing. She wore big, extravagant costumes, reminding me of an overly dressed Barbie doll. Dancers pranced around in the background while she sang and played with the crowd. She was a pioneer using comedy to introduce the topic of homosexuality to a mostly culturally homophobic audience.

Simón was always doing three things at once; he would run a dress rehearsal, and give orders to employees while he was on his big, chunky cell phone negotiating with theatre troupes he was booking for future performances. But he always gave you his undivided attention when he finished. That we spoke only in Spanish was a treat; I got a kick out of his Mexico City chilango accent. We talked about the rise in Latino gangs. He would remind me that the behavior of the parents of these kids mirrored what they were used to back home where they could always count on relatives or neighbors in the village to keep tabs on their kids. Here it was a different story as their teens were left alone a lot while they worked two or three jobs to survive. I always came away with material galore about the local Latino politicians starting to unseat the incumbent white politicians, which he felt were out of touch with the predominant base of Mexican immigrant residents.

As I moved from handling local businesses to major national accounts, I developed market tours that allowed corporate clients to learn more about the Latino community, a precursor to getting them to advertise. I’d take corporate packaged goods clients, food manufacturers, and major retailers to walk Latin grocery stores such as Northgate and Superior. Folks from Sears were amazed how much floor space was given to setting up first time credit accounts at Dearden’s and La Curaçao, and the hefty interest rates they charged. One of my bigger accounts, Target, sent executives from their real estate division out with me to scout potential, new store locations.Sears tower edited

I set up cooking demonstrations at Chichen Itza restaurant near MacArthur Park for the corporate chefs at Kraft so they could learn about the intricacies of making mole, Cochinito Pibil, and Kibi, a dish that was brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Ten of us squeezed into the tiny kitchen to gather around the owner/chef Gilberto Cantina, Senior, and Junior, his son, while they prepared the marinade of achiote seeds, sour orange juice and spices used for the Cochinita Pibil. They wrapped the pork in banana leaves while they explained the traditional blending of Mayan, Spanish and Middle Eastern flavors that make up these regional dishes, thus expanding my clients’ knowledge of Mexican cuisine beyond burritos and tacos.

On these tours I made it a point to mention the changes taking place at the local government level as Latinos began to win elected office. Throughout the late 80s and 90s it was not uncommon to see “Henry Gonzalez for Mayor” signs on almost every front yard throughout the city of South Gate; later, political scandals involving the new guard of Latino politicians would unravel throughout southeast cities, including South Gate, although Gonzalez was one of the good guys.

I called often on Al Tapia, a store manager at the old Sears Tower in Boyle Heights. Built in 1926, the building became a dominant icon on the Eastside. Having toured different parts of the Sears complex over the years, I got stories from both Al and his secretary about how common it was that people met there and ended up marrying. Employees roller-skated around the building, sending merchandise down the huge chute that traversed several floors of the art deco tower, fulfilling orders. The place was haunted too. Years before, someone had died on the premises and was often seen by employees working in the store.

The tower handled the nationwide distribution for Sears’ mail-order catalogue business until 1992. The ground level retail store stayed open, but the tower and distribution centers passed through the hands of different developers with plans to turn it into housing, offices and stores.

Al, a Mexican American born and raised in Los Angeles, was an unassuming, simple guy who wanted to be a teacher, but started working for Sears instead. He was a family guy, his desk covered with photos of his wife and children. I loved sitting in his office where I could look at the large black-and-white framed historic photos of the tower as the neighborhood changed over the decades. I’d show up with research to show how he could make his case to the corporate advertising guys back in Chicago to invest in the Latino community. He was promoted to a coveted national Hispanic marketing director position in 1991 and moved to corporate headquarters in Chicago to handle a $20M ethnic advertising budget.

Koreatown, meanwhile, continued to grow with an influx of Korean business entrepreneurs; many also advertised in La Opinión. I saw some of these business owners develop strong ties with the Latinos who were then forming a majority of the residents of Koreatown. I used to take my son Tomás to a hair salon there, at a time when the community was perceived as mostly insular and isolated. The women who washed hair and kept the floors clean were all from El Salvador. They had learned enough Korean to carry on what seemed to me extensive conversations with their Korean colleagues and clients. I tried selling advertising to the owner, but to no avail since she spoke no English or Spanish.

Crime kept rising through the 1980s due to crack and gangs. Things seemed to fall apart even more desperately during the 90s as the economy slumped.

I watched on TV as the riots broke out in 1992, and saw a client’s building burn to the ground. We stood on the rooftop of La Opinión’s new press on Washington Boulevard, and saw fires burning everywhere. A few of us drove around town. At Beverly Boulevard in the Pico-Union area, the flames from fires were so hot we had to roll up our windows and drive in the center lane. People ran from stores, with TVs, diapers, athletic shoes, and whatever they could get their hands on. With a gun in each hand, a Korean storeowner shot into the air to fend off looters. Samy’s Camera on Beverly was on fire, and later that day we saw looters coming out of the Samy’s on La Brea with Hasselblad and Nikon cameras. It was the first time any of us had seen army tanks roll through L.A. streets.

Many of our clients went broke. Most of the Iranian-owned discounters lost stores, gave up and closed – including Top Discount. La Curaçao’s Olympic store, owned by Israelis, was burned down, its inventory destroyed. National retailers including Circuit City and Radio Shack were also hit hard; looters drove trucks into their stores to load up on merchandise causing major damage and losses. All these clients stopped advertising while they got back on their feet.

I spent 15 years selling ads for La Opinión, touring a city under construction in many ways; a city I had never known as a child.

After the riots, I lost touch with Daryoush. At some point VJ closed his business and moved back east. I’m not sure what happened to Simón. He ran the theatre for 17 years and then moved on. Teatro Los Pinos closed its doors in November of 2014, the new company owner, Esperanza Molina, wasn’t able to renew the lease with the theater owner. I read that Al retired from Sears in 2000, after 33 years of service. The battle over how the Sear Tower will be redeveloped has not ended. La Curaçao rebuilt immediately and now has five locations in Los Angeles.

I live in Silver Lake and recently walked up Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where Top Discount was located. The shop still caters to the few Latino residents living in the area. It is surrounded by tattoo parlors, cafes, bars and eateries, and a trendy boutique that sells $50 t-shirts.

Susanna Whitmore

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