Little Old Lady Power
As I drive around what’s left of Venice’s Lincoln Place apartments, sunshine glistens over the massive 38-acre complex, burnishing the broken windows, peeling paint, boarded-up entrances and miles of chainlink fence. As cheesy as it may sound, hope, the kind you find in a movie’s happy ending, is in the crisp, flag-flapping air on this recent Sunday. The community clotheslines that had been abandoned years ago almost dance in the ocean breeze.
I pass the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and California Avenue, where elderly tenants had constructed a tent city outside the Ross Dress for Less to fight their evictions and parade signs intended to shame the City Attorney’s Office, pleading: “Don’t throw Grandma out.” Today, there is nothing but shade trees and green grass.
Just a few years ago, nearly all 795 units of Lincoln Place were occupied, and, on any given Sunday, a walk around the property would reward you with a few yard sales, a couple of kids’ birthday parties, and, well, little old ladies sitting in lawn chairs and wearing hats and blue blockers. Now only 13 residents, either elderly or handicapped, remain scattered about the 52 buildings, living among the boarded-up wreckage.
But on this Sunday, the lucky 13 have gathered just down the street at the Senior Center on the edge of Penmar Park, where they are joined by former tenants, local supporters, politicians and lawyers. The scene is familiar from the many tenants’ meetings I attended over the course of the Lincoln Place residents’ yearslong struggle to resist eviction: metal folding chairs, cheery children’s decorations and some of the faces I’d grown accustomed to: Sheila Bernard, the Lincoln Place Tenant Association president; attorney Jan Book, a former resident; Laura Burns, a former resident and advocate, back from Texas. Of course, the little old ladies were there — 76-year-old Gloria; 80-year-old Rose; 78-year-old Lucy; and 83-year-old Frieda, now in a wheelchair. They had all shared their stories with me for this paper when they were about to lose their homes.
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Lincoln Place, which was built for WWII GIs returning home to a housing shortage, has been a golden goose to prospective developers who saw dollar signs all over this chunk of beach-adjacent property since the late ’80s, when Venice began the gentrification that has turned it from a boho enclave to a nesting ground for industry bourgeois and stars alike. A series of owners tried to kick out the tenants to turn the spot into some kind of Park La Brea by the shore, but the Lincoln Place tenants fought each of them. The little old ladies proved to be no pushovers, and formed the Lincoln Place Tenant Association to deal with the constant threat of eviction. For the past 20 years, the tenants have been mired in court battles with developers.
Recent years dealt the ladies some tough blows. The property was bought by a Goliath, the largest apartment owner in the country — AIMCO — which has been hell-bent on turning the affordable-housing project into luxury condos. Tenants were offered relocation deals, and some say they were threatened with eviction and bullied into signing away their rights. In December 2005, 52 residents were forcibly locked out of their homes. Slowly, many of the seniors and disabled, the complex’s stalwarts, left the property.
But the tenants’ fortunes changed recently when the California Court of Appeal ruled that the remaining 13 tenants would not have to leave, and those who were ousted in December (and possibly previous tenants too) could likely return. Another victory for Lincoln Place residents came earlier this month when L.A.’s City Council finally grew a pair of cojones and voted 12-1 (District 5 Councilman Jack Weiss was the only member who did not grow a pair that day) to enforce certain conditions of AIMCO’s approved tract map for the property, which stated that no resident would be evicted. It appears as if the tide has finally shifted away from the City Attorney’s Office/developer greasing and toward the people who have long found refuge at Lincoln Place.
At the Senior Center, one can see among the de rigueur potluck crudités and chips and salsa, not one but two celebratory cakes, and something not seen in a long time: smiles. Close to 100 past, present and perhaps once-again residents gather to honor the people who helped them along the way — their old councilwoman, Ruth Galanter; their first attorney, Marsha Scully, who took on the Lincoln Place case pro bono back in the late ’80s; Elena Popp, another attorney who helped fight the evictions; Amanda Steward, the conservationist who worked to get Lincoln Place on the State Historic Register; David Ewing, a community activist they call Preacher; one of the best land-use attorneys in the state, their present lawyer John Murdock; and their current councilman and hero, Bill Rosendahl.
Rosendahl, wearing a pinstriped shirt and black Dickies, hugs his way up to the microphone during a standing ovation. The councilman thanks Galanter too — he says he would have been toast a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her.
“When I see all those vacant, boarded-up buildings,” Rosendahl says into the microphone, “I think of all the people who need affordable housing on the Westside.”
Next, Rosendahl launches into a story of how he won his colleagues’ votes, walking into the council vote with the deck stacked against him and changing everyone’s (but Weiss’) minds in a matter of hours.
“The City Attorney’s Office, it’s not Rocky, it’s the bureaucrats who have been sitting in office for 20 years, and they run the show; they think they know everything, they know the history of everything. One of them told me, ‘Councilman, you just don’t learn.’ But I turned and said, ‘I’ve been learning. I’m the policymaker, not you.’ It took me two years to get the legs. But those three hours were the most significant in my two years in dealing with Lincoln Place. That day in December will go down in infamy. I will never forget, you will never forget, and we won’t let them forget.”
The audience responds as if Robert Kennedy were at the dais. When Rosendahl brings up Chuck Snow, a resident who attended Lincoln Place rallies with his oxygen tank in one hand and a Bible in the other, the mood shifts from triumph to loss. Snow died last year, before he got to see the end of the Lincoln Place battle. The day Rosendahl faced his fellow council members was Snow’s birthday, and Rosendahl tells the gathering that Snow was with him and gave him strength. As scripted as it may be, the moment brings tears to the crowd.
Rosendahl tells me later that the fight isn’t over. The Court of Appeal ruling is strong, but AIMCO still has some options, including taking the case to the Supreme Court. Whether or not The Nine will see the case won’t be decided until January. True celebration and victory will have to wait until then, but today they have reason to smile.
After the speeches, I find Gloria, who had to leave Lincoln Place, but stayed in Venice, paying three times what she did before, and barely scraping by. Gloria can’t wait to move back.
“I’ll never find a better home than Lincoln Place,” she cries as she tells me how much she misses the neighbors whose kids used to help her take out her trash, or pick up things from the supermarket for her.
Frieda, who had to move to a senior home, also can’t wait to go back. “Do you know what they did?” she asks. “The first thing they did when I got there was put a diaper on me. They don’t have enough staff to help me to the bathroom. I can’t wait to go home and live with dignity.”
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