Wall Street Weekend
Wall Street is often demonized as a breeding ground of predators and vermin. On Saturday afternoon, the USC Annenberg School Fellows Class of 2011 stopped by to see it for ourselves. There wasn't a Gucci loafer or a stretch limousine anywhere, but spray-painted evidence of their presence adorned just about every available surface.
Did you think I was talking about New York City?
Wall Street, in what is now known as "South" Los Angeles, is a quiet, leafy street running between East 23rd and 25th streets. A handful of children played in spacious, seemingly well-kept Trinity Park, which stretches along half the block. A yappy dog barked inside an apartment somewhere. Sitting on her stoop, an older woman looked up from her Word Search puzzle and smiled at us as we walked past.
Looking every bit like accidental tourists, we had ventured into the neighborhood on a field trip to explore health and housing conditions of low-income immigrants. The trek was led by Roberto Bustillo of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAJE, a 15-year-old advocacy organization working on behalf of tenants' rights and community improvements in long-neglected neighborhoods. Bustillo and his staff wanted to show us some of the truly sick conditions that SAJE's clients must live with - 24/7 and often in fear for their lives.
Our small group stopped before a decrepit, gray, graffiti-covered, three-story building that appeared to be - charitably - right out of the old Soviet Union, specifically Chernobyl. There was no discernible architectural style and I couldn't imagine that it had once been new. Like the other homes and buildings on the block, it was fronted by iron fencing and an imposing gate. Unlike the other gates, this one had no lock.
Maya Abood, the SAJE staffer who accompanied us, said the lack of a lock gave the building a certain neighborhood notoriety; gangbangers knew it as a safe place to run to and hide in when fleeing police. Such activity is a regular occurrence on Wall Street, which apparently is at the territorial confluence of as many as five of the 42 South L.A. gangs known to the LAPD. To make matters worse, the door to the entryway was permanently tied open with a couple of bathrobe sashes.
The casual observer might think that being terrorized day and night by criminal street gangs would be the worst thing that can happen. It's not even close.
Naty Ramirez, a first-floor resident and SAJE client, graciously invited us in to her home, proudly showing it off to her visitors. As her son sat on the sofa mesmerized by SpongeBob SquarePants, she talked animatedly with Abood, who acted as our interpreter.
The one-bedroom apartment was outwardly immaculate. There was a place for everything, and absolutely everything had a place - somewhere. Almost every square inch of wall and surface space was covered with something. Toys were neatly boxed and put away, boxes of cereal were lined up on the kitchen table. It actually was a spacious setup - for two people. But Ramirez and her husband, and their four children, live there. Where does everyone sleep? Seriously?
Upon closer inspection, there was quite a bit of evidence of ceiling leaks and peeling wall plaster. Ramirez described how the padding beneath the carpet was often wet. As we talked, as if on cue, a small cockroach brazenly sauntered across the floor. That roach met death under the shoe of one of our group, which prompted a spontaneous and entirely innocent exclamation.
"Why kill one when there are thousands?" our host asked.
It was a good question and I think the lack of an answer pretty much summed up the visit. When facing abject poverty, and a landlord so hands-off as to be criminally negligent, where do you start? I mean, what's the point?
Well, Ramirez had one.
"We have to fight," she told our translator. "We have to try to make things better. I tell my husband that, if not, things will just stay the same."
I admire her eloquence and the defiant optimism. And I didn't get the sense that she was at all naive about or intimidated by the ferocity of the fight. She talked about rats skittering across the linoleum, the asthma problems of her children, and a weird rash the kid next door has had for quite some time. Down the hall, the ceiling of another apartment had caved in from a water leak, electrical boxes were exposed and sparking, strings of mold hung from the ceiling like spaghetti. In a covered space designated as a common area, the slippery concrete-slab floor was covered in water leaking from overhead and then pooling at the base of the wall of the adjacent apartment. The room emitted a moist stench that smelled suspiciously like sewage. That common area's ceiling had the tell-tale characteristics of asbestos.
Despite the challenges, SAJE soldiers on. Bustillo said the organization doggedly pursues the slumlords who make life a living hell for their tenants. He says they hector city authorities until they crack down, recruit lawyers for litigation, and are trying to fashion an urban land reform solution to solve the pesky problem of low-income workforce housing once and for all.
In partnership with St. John's Well Child and Family Center, Esperanza Community Housing Corp. and the Inner City Law Center, SAJE is also compiling a database of the growing health disorders plaguing South L.A.'s slum housing, particularly among its children.
Meanwhile, SAJE is asking its clients - the people who are living in filth well beyond what they can control - to be patient and to bear with the bureaucracy. I'm not sure that's going to work, but I won't be around to see it. We got back on the bus and left.