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Hope that transforms

Los Angeles

Sister of Social Service Diane Donoghue is a community artist who can’t paint, doesn’t draw and none of the tile murals in this region of South Central Los Angeles are hers.

Though Donoghue’s face is in one of the murals, her own picture of community is in her head. It’s a juxtaposition of all the ordinary things the multiethnic folk in some of the nation’s poorest urban census tracts lack: decent housing, access to jobs that pay enough to live on, access to child care, to medical care.

Her canvas is the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, known for its public art and its uniqueness in being operated as a women’s collective. (“I’m first among equals,” said executive director Donoghue. “We make decisions by consensus.”)

Make no mistake, though Esperanza’s driving force may be social, its mission is political -- the politics of everyone’s right to human dignity. What Esperanza (Spanish for hope) provides are steppingstones toward that achievement.

The housing corporation is seven brightly painted apartment buildings dotted around the 12-square-mile area known as the Maple-Adams/Hoover-Adams neighborhood, bounded by the Santa Monica 10 Freeway to the north, and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the south.

Alice Salinas, director of housing and policy, uses exterior paints in colors dominant in the Mexican and Central American towns that once were home to the bulk of Esperanza’s tenants. But Salinas isn’t just about pretty colors and well-appointed buildings. She’s local politics to her core.

Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Salinas was a leading figure in the successful campaign for a Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance.

“Most public agencies are pretty clueless about how to bring good jobs to the inner city,” she said. “Now city contractors’ workers can work one fulltime job -- instead of holding down a second job just to survive -- plus have health insurance. But public policy is only as good as it’s implemented. We’re watching.”

So she could die at home

Esperanza’s story really begins in 1985.

Donoghue had worked in the area since the early 1970s. By the early ’80s, she was a community organizer based at the magnificent St. Vincent’s Church at the corner of Adams and Figueroa. (Esperanza’s headquarters’ building today is at the northeast end of the St. Vincent’s School parking lot.)

A couple came to Donoghue and said the woman’s mother, dying of cancer, was about to be evicted from her home. Donoghue met the man who wanted to build a factory on the site and neighboring homesites, and got an extension of the eviction until the woman died. Then Donoghue began a four-year neighborhood organizing campaign. Once the community identified what it most needed -- affordable housing -- Esperanza was launched.

In 1994, Villa Esperanza, 33 units for 220 parents and children, opened -- on the site of the proposed factory, which the community had opposed in favor of housing units.

The Villa’s art includes a pair of fine ceramic tile tableaus by Guillermo Granizo showing Los Angeles at work and at play. At ground level in the community building, there’s a University of Southern California-run Head Start site, part of a USC training program. Upstairs, there are neighborhood classes ranging from literacy, to English as a Second Language, to computer training, all under the watchful guidance of Yadira Arévalo, Esperanza’s director of education and outreach.

“This is a heavy gang area,” said Donoghue, during a tour of Esperanza housing, “but there’s no graffiti spoiling our art. The people who live in the area know Villa Esperanza is for them. What we’re trying to do,” she said, “is make the neighborhood a neighborhood of choice, not a neighborhood of last resort. We’re trying to tap into the cultural richness the residents bring.”

That richness is reflected in the Head Start children’s colorful work, taped up around the center.

The other indoor art includes life-size painted cutouts of children, cutouts that tour schools and museums. They were Elizabeth Eve’s initial project.

Eve, fulltime director of arts and science, does pottery, paints and leads inner-city kids into the mountains or on overnight trips to Catalina Island for snorkeling, kayaking and marine biology lessons. In the Santa Monica Mountains the kids most wanted to see the plant whose leaves make soap (the wild California lilac).

The artist’s huge (121 x 33-foot) 85-face mural on Esperanza’s Mercado La Paloma on Hope Street took the arts dynamo only eight weeks to complete.

Not counting the painted historic figures such as Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, George Bernard Shaw and César Chávez, community art truly exists when many of the people in the murals and cutouts step out of them and come to life because they live and work or go to school in the neighborhood.

Donoghue and Eve are just two of the mural’s many local faces.

Low rents are a boon

Converting rundown units -- like the boarded up 33-single bedroom apartment building at 801 23rd St. -- is the starting point for Salinas. (Esperanza bought “801” for $700,000 and will have to raise more than $2 million plus to convert it into 14 two- and three-bedroom apartments.)

The low-rents ($525 or $550 for a three- or four-bedroom unit compared to $1,400 for two bedrooms on the local commercial market) are a major boon. There are 600 families on Esperanza’s waiting list.

But Esperanza doesn’t just offer living accommodation. The Budlong Apartments have a kiln in the basement where school-age kids do after-school pottery.

Across the street from those apartments is Richardson Family Park. Across from the Amistad apartments is the Estrella Children’s Park, built with $70,000 raised by nearby Norwood School’s fifth and sixth graders -- all from low-income families.

That was in the 1980s, but the park is a good example of what Donoghue means by community-building. When Norwood’s fifth and sixth graders made their original pitch to L.A. Athletic Club members in 1982, the event was filmed.

In 2000, when the park was rededicated with brand-new play equipment, the film was shown to neighborhood children. Donoghue said that one Norwood student -- “She’s now a master’s graduate and school social worker in the neighborhood -- was able to tell today’s children, ‘That kid in the movie is me.’ ”

Esperanza’s economics pan out because the corporations take full advantage of Esperanza’s upfront federal tax credits. The corporations are not doing well by doing good, they’re doing very well: up to 18 percent return on their money.

In the 1920s, this rundown but once-prestigious South Central neighborhood was home to millionaires such as the rascally oilman Edward L. Doheny of the Teapot Dome Scandal. Some of that era’s lovely “craftsman” homes still exist. Doheny’s own mansion is a central building on the Doheny campus of Mount St. Mary’s College.

On 23rd Street between Figueroa and Estrella, two craftsman homes, converted into a fourplex, are owned by Esperanza as rental units.

A market to create jobs

Jobs remain key to inner-city stability.

One Esperanza project aimed at providing local entrepreneurial opportunity -- and jobs -- is the $7 million conversion of a former garment factory into Mercado La Paloma (The Dove Marketplace). La Paloma’s goal, said manager Elizabeth Arévalo -- Yadira’s sister -- who previously ran a local five-restaurant chain, is to provide dining options, boutique shops, art displays, a meeting center and gathering space for local residents.

With the Department of Motor Vehicle building just across the street, La Paloma attracts some foot traffic to its Thai and other restaurants, flowers and gift stalls. But Arévalo is fighting “a psychological barrier -- that there’s no life east of Figueroa.” She wants as lunch customers the thousands of students from the University of Southern California four blocks away.

“We’re getting some USC cooperation,” said Arevalo, who gives tours to faculty professors, “but unless we get plenty of customers, there’s nothing for our new vendors. And we want to be sure there’s something here before they plunge in their life savings.”

Esperanza plunges sizeable sums into its undertakings. The projects are so expensive, said Donoghue, because Esperanza factors in the low rent benefits for 50 years.

The Senderos (Shining) apartment building on Estrella (Star) Avenue was a smart complex in the 1920s. And it’s smart again -- in more ways than one.

“My priority for housing is to put in as many bedrooms as possible,” said Salinas. “The kids need to grow, and the parents need privacy.

“But vendors will say to me, ‘Why are you putting in high-quality lighting fixtures? They’ll get stolen.’ ”

Salinas’ unspoken answer to the vendors, she said, is, “The buildings reflect a cultural and political vision. And we have a brilliant architect [Mark Billy, who has done all Esperanza’s projects] and contractor.”

Senderos’ spacious interior hallway has classical columns and special Scandinavian floor covering that deadens sound. The floor covering is impregnated with a chemical hostile to roaches and insects, but not to humans.

“These days families eat while watching television,” said Donoghue. “That’s fine, but we tell the residents, ‘No fitted carpets. Get throw rugs you can stick in the washing machine.’ That way pest problems are avoided.”

Not that Esperanza leaves pests or other health hazards to chance.

Health program director Nancy Ibrahim -- her husband, Mahmood, chairs the California Polytechnic history department -- has seen 138 neighborhood health promotores through Esperanza’s intensive six-month community health outreach training program.

Seventy-eight percent of the promotores are now in fulltime positions with local agencies, plus 15 with Esperanza’s Healthy Homes project, and seven at Esperanzasalud, the neighborhood health information center inside the Mercado La Paloma.

Sixty percent of the children in South Central Los Angeles are below the poverty line. Per capita income is $5,800; jobs are low-paid labor or garment work. Illiteracy is rampant. Educational levels are extremely low.

“Poverty is the underlying health problem,” said Ibrahim. “Even in boom times this is a medically underserved area.” The promotores “learn about the range of problems they’ll see in the neighborhood,” she said. Chronic asthma, cancer and diabetes certainly. But the recruits learn about health rights, worker rights, tenant rights, family planning, immunization, lead poisoning prevention, pest management, gang prevention and drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

“When they graduate, they have internship opportunities with a partnering health or social service agency,” Ibrahim said. Esperanza’s community door-to-door outreach and collaborative health promotion is the national model for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Esperanza has received the Centers for Disease Control’s award for a collaborative effort that’s raised immunization rates in three census tract areas.

There’s a strong demand for places in Esperanza’s training program -- 100-plus applicants for 33 annual slots. The acceptance committee is staffed primarily by alumni promotores themselves.

Smaller deals are hardest

Housing, though, remains Esperanza’s primary focus.

Salinas says the biggest challenge is undertaking the smaller deals that don’t have much profit for their investors, and need to most work. But she has the personal victory now and then that keeps her pushing ahead.

The toughest: “rescuing a family of eight or nine, literally from a closet where the kids were covered in scars from rats and roaches. That was very difficult for me to see.”

Meanwhile, Donoghue, out on 23rd Street, is pointing to the ceramic tile work of Manuel Hernandez on the Senderos wall. It is a lively depiction of a cultural festivity, The Day of the Dead. Its message is in both Spanish and English: “The great loss in life is not death, rather what dies within us while we live.”

Down in the corner there’s a little brick that reads: “Pensando en la vida” (Think about life). Donoghue does. And paints it into her vision of community.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

Related Web sites

Esperanza Community Housing Corporation

Mercado La Paloma

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002