The Fight for Wyvernwood


For sure, everyone reading this blog cares about keeping up with local happenings, not just of cultural or artistic significance, but also of social and political—of human-life—consequence, which the commercial media coverso poorly on the Eastside (a problem exacerbated over the years with the disappearance of once-competing newspapers and the continual downsizing of the Los Angeles Times).  So even if the Times doesn’t shed much light on the life and times of the people of Boyle Heights/East LA (we really are a single entity, you know, despite the city’s borderline at Indiana), I know many of you have heard about the struggle to save our homes at Wyvernwood Garden Apartments (most recently, the marching hundreds on two separate occasions last month) and that you might be hoping to get a little more background on it all.  Here is this piece, which I hope answers some basic questions about what Wyvernwood and this fight are all about.  I hope to write about the actual struggle being waged by tenants in a subsequent posting in the near future.  

The apartment complex tucked in between Olympic Blvd and 8th Street, Grande Vista and Soto streets (yes, like a four-minute walk from the iconic Sears building also being eyed for redevelopment and a little more than a mile south of the future Gold Line route) is made up of 1187 rental units in 153 buildings scattered across seventy acres.  Only a few car-accessible streets wind their way through this unique neighborhood, meaning that the two-story, bright orange structures are separated mostly by green open areas and connected by a network of footpaths.  In a city where parks and public spaces are so scant and out of reach to poor people of color, you can imagine how precious this particular layout (dotted with countless large, beautiful trees) is to the largely bus-dependent, Latino immigrant families settled here.

Wyvernwood was inaugurated in 1939, a product of the “garden city” movement in architecture and urban design that sought to foster a greater sense of community for residents than what seemed possible in the growing industrial cities of the era.  As el Chavo and his younger sister (themselves fellow Wyvernwood natives) once noted in a homemade ‘zine they published many summers ago (many, many summers ago), the experiment worked:  The six thousand people who live in this “village,” who by and large view the proposed demolition with dread, citeas their top concerns losing their homes, losing their foothold in the city, and having their lives tossed upside down like that, but also seeing a live community disbanded.

Everyone at Wyvernwood knows this is a special place, even if no one can pronounce the name.  Men and boys playing futbol and boisterous children on bikes or playing hide-and-go-seek mark a typical afternoon here, while every day, at dawn and at dusk, dozens of señorascan be seen determinedly walking their laps in groups, in pairs, or solo.  Neighbors pulling chairs together outside someone’s door for a carne asada picnic, or a brief chisme visit, is also a daily sight.  But there’s more:  Clans, not just families, make this their home.  If you ask around, you’ll learn that while some extended families transplanted intact from some ranchito south of the border over the years, other such bands of kinfolk are homegrown.  One case is that of the Helguera siblings, all eight of whom were raised at Wyvernwood and who are now raising their own children and grandchildren in the same place.  Consider all their other blood relatives also living here, their compadres and comadres they’ve acquired among the neighbors over the years, then add their kids and grandkids, and you effectively have a clan.  Achild growing up within a short walk to several relatives is common at Wyvernwood—it’s a reason people move here.  And this is the kind of place where your neighbors become family.

However, this setup doesn’t work for Fifteen Group, the Florida real-estate company that purchased Wyvernwood ten years ago.  Since the multi-family complex stands within LA city limits and was built before October 1, 1978, the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (rent control) provides tenants here with safeguards against unfair evictions and excessive rent increases.  But given that the market-rate price of housing in LA has soared over the last several years, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a profit-seeking landlord (whose tenants are covered by rent control) would be driven to look for loopholes in the law—like the clause that allows an owner to evict his tenants when he wishes to convert the rentals into condominiums or demolish altogether.  Encouraged further by many city officials’ pro-development mood these days and the Community Redevelopment Agency’s eagerness to add elegance and exclusivity to downtown and the surrounding older districts, Fifteen Group is now betting that it could make big profits bytearing down Wyvernwood and building luxurious new homes east of the river (that’s right, east of the river!!).

Folks at Wyvernwood may not always speak good English, but you can’t call them naïve either.  Over the summer of 2006, Fifteen Group’s new development specialist and main man in LA, Steven Fink, organized outdoor gatherings with tenants in about a half-dozen sections of the complex.  The purported aim of the meetings was to find out from the community what improvements the landlord/developer should make to Wyvernwood. “Don’t worry about whether it’s possible or not,” we were told by Fink’s team of architects and landscape designers, “just tell us what you would like to have, if you could have it.” Although a few inevitably dreamed big, as was encouraged, people mostly stuck to basic, common-sense longings, such as overdue repairs in their apartments, replacement of tattered old carpets that were awfully cheap to begin with, better grounds maintenance, a new coat of paint in the units, or, if nothing else…  changing the color of the buildings to something more palatable.  Not quite satisfied with the responses, Fink’s people specifically asked if we’d also like swimming pools, underground parking or bigger units with A/C.  But participants were reluctant about these suggestions, sensing that such amenities would come with new price tags they wouldn’t be able to afford (“si ya no quieren ni cortar el zacate de vez en cuando, ¿a poco nos van a dar tanto lujo sin cobrar más caro?”). 

In January 2008, Fink—whose resume highlights his previous work with G.H. Palmer, the developer responsible for downtown’s Orsini, Medici, and other high-end “Italian” apartment towers—publicly unveiled his most faithful interpretation of the people’s wishes: a lavish, gated paradise made up of 4400 condos and rentals, 300,000 square feet of office, commercial and retail space, including some 24-story buildings and several new streets intersecting the property.  Towering ambitions for Boyle Heights,” the Times trumpeted the next day, untroubled by journalism ethics and standards.  (The article also reported as fact Fifteen Group’s assertion that the buildings are decrepit and too costly to repair when, really, anyone who has ever attended a dinner party at my place would agree in a jiffy with preservationists on the structural soundness of the place, despite a marked reduction of maintenance in the last several years.) 

So what was the real point of these meetings with tenants??  Is Fifteen Group really just an enlightened, socially conscious sort of company looking for ways to help a working-class neighborhood, as Fink and his staff let on that summer? Or as the San Francisco Chronicle, commenting on Fifteen Group’s havoc in the Bay Area a few years ago, wondered in an editorial:  Can this company really be “trusted with its sudden expression of commitment to community improvement”?

I think a former neighbor of mine was on to something when she suggested two years ago that the owners merely wanted to claim, eventually, that it was the people themselves who had asked for redevelopment–as opposed to repairs.  The Guatemalan wife and mother of three (who after a generation at Wyvernwood was evicted last year when hard times caused her to fall ten days late with rent) further hypothesized that Fink was working to ingratiate himself with the public by projecting the semblance of a caring, charitable property owner and developer.  If successful, the resulting public trust he would gain for the company would make it easier for city officials to allow the project.

In fact, Fink seems to know the game of public relations well.  If you check out the company’s Wyvernwood website, you’ll find out how the company has “partnered” up with a couple of Boyle Heights nonprofits providing important community services (i.e., Puente Learning Center and Jovenes, Inc., on whose boards Fink sits).  Pictures of the white middle-aged man in casual dress, attentively listening to his Latino tenants at a gathering, now grace the website and much of his promotional materials, illustrating his “sensitivity” to the needs of people (whose hard-earned cash supply his income).  And ask around in the community and you’ll hear how much Fink has donated to other nonprofits and churches in the Eastside, how many neighborhood and religious leaders he has cozied up to, and how committed a Boyle Heights citizen and philanthropist he seems to have become.  “He is passionate about community service…” says his bio on ZoomInfo.com.

In his efforts to get the families of Wyvernwood to embrace the project that would give them the jolt of their lives, since the 2006 meetings Fink has called tenants to about a dozen more on- and off-site “forums” to “continue the dialogue about the future of Wyvernwood.” Unsurprisingly, these events have been nothing more than opportunities to bombard us with images of Fifteen Group’s opulent, Playa Vista-style vision for this little corner of EastLos and deceptive promises that current residents would be part of that future.  Just to add to one’s distress, we’ve also heard reports that the company uses our signatures on these meetings’ sign-in sheets as expressions of support for its redevelopment plans.  Oh… and the “dialogue” component of the gatherings always comes in the form of Fink reading and responding to a handful of written questions and comments, which always seem favorable to the project, interestingly enough.

But despite such painstaking, wily orchestration by Fink and his crew (including the hired PR firm, Consensus Planning Group, which promises to “deliver community support” for their clients’ projects, whatever they may be), the Miami Beach company must now deal with the glaring, overwhelming defeat in its quest for consent from the people of Wyvernwood.  The casual questioner strolling through the community any afternoon asking residents how they feel about the prospect of demolition and construction of a new housing complex will likely see a grimace on the responder’s face and almost invariably hear something like: “Pues… no nos conviene—obvio.  A little pressing will reveal that people find this barriecito safer and more comfortable than ever, thanks to the lowest crime rates in the area anyone can remember; that nobody wants to suffer the hardship of families who have moved to the Inland Empire in search of affordable housing while leaving their jobs, schools and hearts in LA; that families yearn for stability, so frequently elusive for working Latinos, and that elderly residents don’t want to be moved; and that despite grievances against the landlord, like widespread harassment and lack of maintenance, the uniqueness, communality and homeliness of Wyvernwood make it one of the few places in Los Angeles today where folks of modest means, young and old, can enjoy rich lives in a real community.

30 thoughts on “The Fight for Wyvernwood

  1. Good post. It’s really interesting to read about that place… I wish you the best of luck saving it from the developers. Do you know if it has any link to Baldwin Hills Village / Village Green, which is another product of the Garden City movement? I actually just moved out of a development inspired by the Garden City movement known as Sunnyside Gardens in Queens (New York). It was an amazing neighborhood, with a tremendous sense of community.

  2. An excellent overview of the situation at Wyvernwood. I’m looking forward to reading more. I like your photos too!
    I spent a lot of time in Wyvernwood when I was a teenager visiting friends and hanging out. Prior to the cheap remodeling job they did ten years ago, I thought the apartments were very nice in a charming modernist way. More importantly, the physical lay-out of the individual spaces gave one the sense that you lived in a real house and not some plywood, stapled together carpet cave. Most are two stories,have hardwood floors and small areas for gardening and lounging. The paths that intersect the buildings are also quite pleasant to stroll through.
    Is there anyway to designate the community as architecturally significant? I know with the remodeling they might have ruined some of the historic details but overall, they should still have some architectural importance. Maybe the whole area can be designated a HPOZ?

  3. I should explain, HPOZ stands for Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. For instance, Lincoln Heights is a HPOZ, changes to homes and new development has to be pre-approved in order to continue the historic character of the neighborhood.
    The Office of Historic Resources has a lot more information on their website.
    http://www.preservation.lacity.org/
    Residents can also nominate houses and places for historic designation. Historic doesn’t necessary mean old either. For instance, if Cesar Chavez gave a speech at a certain hall that helped start the UFW movement here in Los Angeles (making this up), this might also be considered a historic monument. I’m fairly certain it’s free to fill out the nomination paperwork and I know for certain, not enough buildings on the Eastside are nominated.

  4. Great post Chuy90023, even if you did out me as being a Wyvernwoodero! 😉 Esta bien though, I’m proud to acknowledge this place as my childhood home as it really was (and I’m sure still is) a special place in which to grow up. The vasts stretches of green were especially important when just past 8th street you have the freeways and on the other side of Olympic is just non-stop factories and industry, it definitely functioned as a park within a housing complex. A place for kids to gather, playing fields for football matches between rival gangs, long ass walkways in which to ride a bike for fun (especially that main central loop), and a good number of people. All you had to do was go outside and sit on the porch for a few minutes and eventually someone would see you out there and come out as well, no need to plan “play dates” you just made plans for some fun. Do you remember the Whittier Narrows earthquake and how everyone camped out on those lawns, too afraid to sleep indoors? That strong sense of community is what allowed everyone to share that large grass-floored bedroom.

    It’s funny that you mention the clan aspect; at one point 5 units were being occupied by my extended family, so I know exactly what you’re talking about! They all eventually left for the empty promise of the suburb, ending up mostly in or near the IE. By the time I left the nest Wyvernwood was in the middle of some heavy gang violence, which I’m glad to hear has subsided. Here’s a link to a post I wrote about raising chickens, which happened to be in Wyvernwood. Chuntaro to the core!
    http://chanfles.com/blog/?p=833

    Needless to say, I’m looking forward to your next installment. When are you gonna take me around the old neighborhood? I’ll bring my camera!

  5. Sounds like a great place, especially for kids. It always surprises me when planners actually put together a place that really, truly encourages community! Seems so rare ): !

  6. Chimatli: To respond to your question about the HPOZ, Wyvernwood is already registered as a California historical landmark, which makes it automatically eligible to be registered as a national landmark. I inquired about seeking it declared as such at the city level but I’ve learned that none of these designations really protect it. Having one just means that when the owners seek demolition permits, the project will get closer scrutiny on account of the property’s historic significance. However, it’s by no means a silver bullet, I’m told.

    By the way, I’m glad you mention you used to hang out there even though you didn’t live at Wyvernwood. This is very common here: The layout of the place means that people come out from far away to visit relatives or friends and spend entire days here. My family sure did during the years we didn’t live here. And as I go door-knocking, I’m always meeting people from the IE, from the Valley, from all over the place–folks who seemingly visit their relatives here as an excuse to hang out at Wyvernwood!

    Chavo: Sorry about outing you. But hey, at least I didn’t out you about some other stuff, you know…! 😉 (Just kidding, folks.) About your visit with your camera, I’m still looking forward to it. Maybe next weekend?

    CWM: Hey, easy on the planners! I aspire to be one myself… But I understand what you mean: They often say LA is an unplanned city, but that’s not true. It was quite meticulously planned, actually. The plans just didn’t work, in many respects.

  7. Nice job writing up the post. It’s a lot of info to take in and disect. There aren’t many places in L.A. left like this. I know how it is to live in such a close knit community and I miss it. When I have kids that the kind of place I want them to grow up in. The Anglos have their culvasacs and we have our barrios.

  8. I moved to the neighborhood last summer to escape the gentrification of silverlake. I am a half a block away from Wyvernwood and the apartment complex is one of the reasons i like the neighborhood. It will be a shame for it to be torn down and it is just not right to displace the residents. Shame on Jose Huizar for supporting this. The opposition needs a catchy phrase/website. I suggest ‘SAVE THE WOOD’

  9. If everyone is so concerned about preserving this “historic” apartment complex, then let them make a bid to buy it and run it as a coop. If you want to “have” your barrio, you need to buy it.

    But you can’t just take it, through government fiat, and expect someone else to subsidize it for you. If you want to see how that works, visit Cuba.

  10. Looking forward to the next installment.

    @Gentrifythis – I think some elements in the “government” are supportive of Fifteen in displacing the residents.

  11. I agree with GentrifyThis. The only people who deserve open space and a sense of community are those who can pay up front for space in the LA real estate market.

    The people who lived there for the last however many decades were really just holding down the fort for the legitimate developers who are going to provide housing for vulnerable upper middle class people who really need it.

    Seriously, like Cuba and shit.

  12. Excellent post, I really hope Wyvernwood will not be destroyed, it’s too important to the city, culturally and historically.

    In response to the question of a link between Wyvernwood and Baldwin Hills Village: I live at Baldwin Hills Village, the only “link” really is their similarity as a result of both being planned with the Garden City ideals in mind. Both had some oversight by the newly formed FHA, but the architects and planners involved were not related at all.

    There are some differences, mostly in circulation and density. Wyvernwood has some through streets, while Baldwin Hills Village has none. While both properties are about the same acreage (70ish), the density at Wyvernwood is higher: Baldwin Hills Village has 629 units in 95 buildings; Wyvernwood has 1187 units in 153 buildings.

    But the similarities are more important; the way both places foster community like no other neighborhoods in Los Angeles. People feel passionate about living in both places. Having access to (and living in) so much open green space changes your life. The layout of the buildings, in relationship to this open space creates a community bond that can’t really be duplicated in another setting.

    That would be lost in the proposed project.

    I really hope that real estate situation kills this project, if the community opposition doesn’t.

    Please keep us posted!

  13. “The only people who deserve open space and a sense of community are those who can pay up front..”

    Hahaha, that’s stupid. I guess public parks are Communist plots as well?

  14. This is soooo similar to Lincoln Place in Venice. In fact, I wonder if it was designed by the same architect…
    Anyhow, residents of this complex better get a good lawyer because if history is any indication, it’s probably going to get pretty ugly!
    Check out this link for more info about the landmark California Supreme Court ruling in this case. Unfortunately almost all of the residents were already evicted at that point, but at least the ruling set a precedent that could help with Wyvernwood and Ellis Act abuse…

    http://www.lincolnplace.net/

  15. “Oh, I think you are a little confused. We are talking about the Wyvernwood Apartments not the Grand Ave project.”

    Touche’, except that the Grand Avenue was approved by your team on the city council and the mayor, none of whom I ever voted for. As far as I’m concerned, they should be prosecuted for public corruption, both for subsidizing a billionaire, for subsidizing the foreign investors, doing so via tax exemptions (disadvantaging competitors), and in exchange for token “low income” set-asides.

    I’m not gung-ho for a playa-vista style redevelopment at high-density in any locale, nor do I fancy displacing 1000 families overnight. But if you want to preserve it, as is, then you need to own it, in order to control it. That can be done via condo conversion or a limited-equity coop.

    But if you expect time to stand still, and the property owner to act as a charity, operating for public benefit, I’d like to share whatever it is you’re smoking.

  16. Gentrify – I agree with you about owning to control it. I don’t understand why the landlord is obligated to subsidize the rent. How about if the city would kick back the owner with the differential of market rent and actual rent received, then it would entice the current owner to maybe give it a second thought. Now, what incentives does the city have in keeping this property providing services, such as police and emergency when they can have a new project, high tax base and less demand for the services? I am just playing devil’s advocate here.

  17. Gentrify – you sure like strawman arguments. You make assumptions that the commenters here support the Grand Ave project. Or the Staples Center LA Live thing. Or that they even voted for Villaraigosa, Reyes, Huizar, or anyone else involved (Perry, Molina, Riordan, etc.)

  18. Deborah Helt,
    Yeah, someone pointed out that it might be sarcasm. sorry for jumping the gun. But since the post had just been linked to la.curbed.com where similar comments are made WITHOUT sarcasm, I thought it was sincere. So in other words, good one! 😉

  19. How did the word “subsidy” even enter this discussion??

    The article doesn’t mention it–it certainly doesn’t seem to be asking that anyone subsidize tenants. The landlord doesn’t take Section 8, so you can’t say people there are subsidized in that way either.

    And you also can’t say that the landlord subsidizing tenants just because some tenants are paying below market rate–that’s due to rent control, guys. This means that even though many people’s rents haven’t risen at the same swift rate as market prices for housing, nor have the landlord’s mortgage payments. And god knows that his property taxes haven’t either. So… he’s not losing any money by this.

    On the other hand, keep in mind that tenants’ rent payments are the same as the landlord’s mortgage payments. The only difference is that the tenants don’t hold a title. So if anyone is subsidizing anyone, it’s the tenants who are subsidizing the owner–they’re paying for housing they can’t keep or sell, as a homeowner would… they’re paying somebody else’s mortgage!!

    It’s legal, of course. But is the law right? Is the economic system that allows this morally correct?

  20. The landlord’s property taxes go up by 2% per year. Rent control regulates the maximum that a landlord can increase rent and this is usually a rate much lower than the current market is willing to support – sounds very socialist to me. Yes, the landlord holds title to the property, but rent defined by websters is “a payment made periodically by a tenant to a landlord in return for the use of land, a building, an apartment, an office, or other property.” Also, there are maintenance costs, mortgage (if any), management fees, rent control fees, real estate taxes, insurance costs that the landlord has to pay. Look, if an apartment that pays $800/mo and the max that could be increased is 3% that would mean an increase $288 a year. Suppose that the tenant has a request to change say the carpet. It would take at least 4 years for the landlord to break even, and with the rate of inflation, the landlord is in the red. What incentive does the landlord have to gladly meet the requests of the tenants? NONE!

  21. I lived here in the 40s – 50s when my parents started paying $37.50 for a 2 bedroom furnished apartment. Only 2 years old, very well kept, clean, and safe. No gangs! They had their own Police Protection patrolling the streets. What a wonderful place for kids to grow up then. I wouldn’t want to live there now, though. If you ever get a chance to see pictures of what it was like in the 40s, you’ll be surprised.

  22. 1960’s we lived there twice,once on Sussex lane,once on Aintree lane,..made many teen friends,we still keep in touch,a true sense of community and togetherness felt by all.before 1960s,we heard only Anglos could live there. We were across from Estrada courts and The Circle,where the gangs hung out.we all walked to school together,shopped at Sears,Fines grocery,the Vern theater,and for bowling,took the bus to Huntington Park.Junior High for me was Stevenson,every time i pass Wyvernwood on the Freeway,to this day,i feel so happy!

  23. I lived in Wyvernwood from 1968-1994. I lived in the same house on Glenn Ave with my single mom and 3 other siblings. It was a great place to grow up and be a kid. We would play outside with about 20 kids (kickball, baseball, football, biking, skateboard, skate, excercise and just hang out). Nothing but good memories and everylasting friendships. When we moved out my mom was paying $400 for a 2 bedroom/2 story house. The only reason we left was the gangs started to come around and they did not care who was there. Day or night they started killing and injuring the innocent. Now when i do drive by to show my kids it just looks like no one cares about the neighborhood. It is actually ugly. When i was growing up we had a white 6ft fence in our backyard and flowers in our yard. We had a garage in the alley and we could have a washing machine in our unit with clothes lines in our fenced yard to dry our clothing. Wish it would of stood like it was in the 70’s and 80’s beautiful.

  24. I grew up in B-town, and remember when Wyvernwood was all white we use to call it “the paddy courts”, the white people were afraid of the people from ” Estrada Courts”. Costello Park swimming pool was segercrated, one day for Wyvernwood one day for “Barrio Nuevo(Estrada courts)”. I caught the tail end of all that shit. We would walk through the paddy courts to get to the Vern theater on Olympic

  25. I used to live in Wyvernwood on Glenn Avenue fron 1957 to 1970. I had friends at the Estrado courts as well as Wyvernwood. We would always enjoy walking around both complexes. There was never any segregation while I was there. We were two happily co-existing family complexes. I am caucasian, but half of my friends were Hispanic. We would always visit each other homes and enjoy having fun together. As a kid I used to eat frequently at the Alzaga’s home for lunch near Dakotah Street school. There was nothing like the taste of a freshly made tortilla slighted scorched over an open gas flame of a stove. Thank you Mrs. Alzaga.

  26. I grew up in Wyvernwood 76-88 and have nothing but fond memerios. Riding our bike through the path in The Mall, rolling down the grass hills, playing baseball and someones window always getting broken by a homerun. I too remember the whittier earthquake and the hundreds of people camping outside, but those old building seem to hold up to anything. I hope this can continue for other children in the future.

  27. I grew up in Wyvernwood in the late 50’s to mid 60s. It was heaven on earth to a 5 year old. Climbing the huge pine trees on Christmas Tree Lane (the Mall) – Dakota Street School, buying my mom cigarettes from Fines (she sent me with a note and 39 cents), going to the movies, running through the cool grass at dusk waiting for the street lights to come on telling us it was time to get inside. We eventually moved to Sussex Lane (3 bedroom) and it, too was perfect until they started taking away the large grassy expanses to build more apartments. I have the most magical, beautiful memories of that place…

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