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Magic's Deep Pockets 

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Photo by Christine Pelisek

During a recent visit to Jordan High for the renaming of the school’s student health clinic after benefactor Magic Johnson, OffBeat was struck by the paucity of reading material in the school library. Some of the bookshelves were nearly bare. So we did some snooping and discovered that only a week before, the shelves had been brimming with an additional 4,000 books. What happened?

It seems that just days before Johnson’s appearance, principal Etta Seamster-McMahan had ordered $50,000 worth of remedial-reading texts moved to a closet. According to staffers, she remarked at a staff meeting that she hoped the empty shelves would prod Johnson into giving the school more money.

One insider quoted Seamster-McMahan as saying the school wanted to get money from Magic for "real books." (Staffers requested anonymity because they were fearful of losing their jobs.) Another person present at the meeting said Seamster-McMahan told them she’d already made the decision to move the books to make space for more advanced material, but bumped up the date so the books would be out before Johnson’s visit.

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Seamster-McMahan roundly denied both accounts, saying that she relocated the books because they weren’t supposed to be in the library in the first place. She acknowledged sending Johnson a letter asking for more money, but said it was for the athletic department, not the library.

"Everyone in the world knows we are short on books, but that wasn’t why he was on the campus," she said.

Jordan, which ranked near the bottom on Superintendent Ruben Zacarias’ list of the 100 worst schools, has some of the lowest scores on standardized tests in the U.S. According to school stats, in 1998-99, 47 percent of Jordan High School students read between the fourth- and sixth-grade level. Only 9 percent read at the grade-10 level.

Whatever the reason for the empty shelves, Johnson was apparently unmoved to give any more than the $100,000 he had already pledged for the school’s health program. As for Seamster-McMahan’s plea for funds for the athletic department, a Johnson spokesperson told OffBeat she hadn’t received any such request.

—Christine Pelisek

Hollywood Sweet Home

 

With all the hoopla over the current push to re-glamorize Hollywood, little ink has been spent on the housing crisis facing the thousands of poor and working-class families living just beyond the boulevard. More than two-thirds of all Hollywood households live on less than $25,000 a year, with an equal number living in overcrowded conditions. Many families are shoehorned into the dilapidated one-bedroom apartments that dominate the area.

So it came as no surprise when more than 500 families flooded Hollywood Community Housing Corp. with requests for apartments in a recently renovated building — despite the building’s location at Wilcox Avenue and Yucca Street, an intersection with one of the worst drug and gang records in the neighborhood. These families had put their faith in the nonprofit, which for the past decade has been quietly buying up the scuzziest of Hollywood slums and painstakingly transforming them into livable spaces, a process that can take years. Last week’s opening of the Wilcox Apartments marked one of Hollywood Housing’s most hard-fought victories.

Initially, the nonprofit’s bid to buy the building was rebuffed by the Resolution Trust Corp., which had commandeered the four-story eyesore during the savings-and-loan crisis and had every intention of selling to the highest bidder, most likely another slumlord. But after a brutal murder in which a skinhead gang reportedly bludgeoned one of its members to death, buyers were in short supply. Suddenly the RTC was all too happy to unload the property — for a mere 10 bucks.

Over the next several years, Hollywood Housing scraped together the nearly $3 million needed to renovate the 1921 building, converting 54 cracker-box singles, many without kitchens, into 23 apartments, several with three and four bedrooms. All units got new kitchens, bathrooms and carpeting, and the building got a new roof. The paint was stripped off the exterior, revealing a charming clinker-brick façade. The walkway leading to the lobby is lined with roses. There’s a computer room, a community room, and a children’s playroom.

All of which brings welcome relief to 17-year-old Mendy Fuenes, who recently moved from one-bedroom squalor into a four-bedroom apartment at the Wilcox with her husband, who works in an auto-body shop, their toddler, her mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law, a niece and a nephew. "This is so much better," she said. "We have more space, and I feel safe here."

Now if Hollywood Housing could just persuade the boulevard developers to put in a supermarket.

—Sara Catania

DOING DICK’S DIRTIES

 

The Times’ recent panegyric on the mayor’s appointment of Raquelle de la Rocha to the Police Commission was more hype than history. In the June 23 story, reporter Jim Newton dutifully characterized de la Rocha as one of Dick Riordan’s "most trusted friends" and quoted hizzoner praising the former ethics commissioner as an "outstanding Angeleno." But the story failed to mention de la Rocha’s only major commission achievement: ridding it of hard-charging executive director Ben Bycel.

You’ll recall that in his four years running the then-new department, Bycel made a lot of enemies. One was Riordan, who tired of Bycel’s insistence that the commission be run sans mayoral meddling.

In 1995, Riordan made de la Rocha commission president. She quickly launched an investigation of Bycel and lobbied other commission members to push him out. And by year’s end, Bycel was gone. To this day, the justification for Bycel’s dismissal has never been disclosed, and de la Rocha’s career on the panel has since proved undistinguished.

There was a formidable backlash against Bycel’s firing — including harsh criticism on the Times’ own editorial page. De la Rocha’s action also inspired Councilman Mike Feuer to shepherd through a voter-approved charter amendment that deprived Riordan of his power to appoint the Ethics Commission president — and one of his two appointments on the commission itself. When the amendment was enacted, the commission quickly removed de la Rocha from her post.

So de la Rocha’s impetuosity eventually cost her the job of commission president. As it also cost the mayor considerable power over the commission.

Despite the major collateral damage, de la Rocha did do the mayor’s dirties for him on the Ethics Commission. Riordan knows she can be counted on in the crunch. Even unto the ouster of popular, if controversial, managers.

You may ask, why does Riordan need someone of such keenly proven hatchet-personal capabilities on the city Police Commission? What message is he trying to send, and to whom?

OffBeat wouldn’t be surprised if the message weren’t a gentle reminder addressed to the increasingly outspoken Police Chief Bernard Parks as to who really holds the reins at City Hall. And as Bycel’s career suggests, this is a message any general manager ignores at his professional peril.

—Marc B. Haefele

ROCKET SLIME

 

It’s been more than a decade since Rocketdyne shut down its nuclear-test site to focus on cleaning up the toxic goo contaminating its sprawling compound between Chatsworth and Simi Valley. The cleanup has been a long, slow process, with the aerospace giant fighting for ludicrously lenient standards every step of the way.

One of the barriers to better standards has been a standoff between the California Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Energy, which in a classic conflict of interest both regulates the cleanup and owns the grounds on which Rocketdyne’s nuclear site is situated.

So OffBeat was heartened at the announcement last week that the EPA, which backs a much more stringent definition of "clean" than the Department of Energy, plans within two months to submit a proposal to examine contamination levels on Rocketdyne grounds. A 1997 UCLA study linked increased cancer-death rates among Rocketdyne employees with exposure to nuclear materials on-site.

The EPA has been pushing for a contamination report for years, but has been unable to wrest the funding from the Department of Energy, which controls the bulk of the cleanup cash. Rocketdyne recently got nearly $150 million from the government toward its cleanup costs, and it looks like the EPA may finally get a slice.

Trouble is, the stricter the standards the more it costs to extract the toxic waste that has leached into the ground from the 16 aging iron-and-concrete reactors and other nuke facilities at the site.

At a recent meeting of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup (ostensibly created to figure out how best to clean up the site but, OffBeat suspects, really just a device to placate those pesky concerned residents and anti-nuclear activists), about 60 spectators looked on as various governmental and Rocketdyne types bemoaned the high cost of cleanup.

"We want to do the right thing," proclaimed Hannibal Joma, the local site manager for the Department of Energy. "We don’t want to break the bank," he added. "At the same time we don’t want to leave contamination on that site." Just where this heartfelt financial concern leaves Rocketdyne employees and local residents remains to be seen.

—Michael Collins

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