Evidently, we as a people are one big mess — at least judging by the some 40 makeover TV shows on the fall schedule (never mind all the shelter mags). It’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed in the morning, especially if you have to face that apparent disaster you call your home. You can trade spaces, change rooms, rock the house, design on a dime, overhaul, sell this house, have a date with design, clean house, start over, boost your curb appeal, get into house wars or house rules. And it can all be done while you were out. To aid you, there are makeover mamas, queer eyes, weekend warriors and house invaders. And if you’re really a hopeless case, there’s always that extreme makeover.
Transformation has never seemed simpler — at least for the middle class. But what about those folks scraping to get by? Shouldn’t they get a chance to change their world on someone else’s dime? Never having been ones to miss a trend (still have the Flashdance leg warmers to prove it), we wanted in on this makeover madness. But it had to be a project that would transcend a mere design challenge (ah, so lofty are we). Think design as social statement. Our goal was to use interior design to make an appreciable difference in someone’s quality of life.
This idea led us to Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge and Services, a nonprofit organization that runs two affordable housing complexes in Southern California,
including Highland Village in Highland Park. (W.O.R.K.S. parent group O.N.E. Company, which develops affordable housing, has as part of that effort renovated historic properties such as the Halifax in Hollywood and the Dunbar in South L.A.) O.N.E.’s founding partners, Channa Grace and Mary-Jane Wagle, agreed to let us redo a room in three Highland Village apartments. Each of the two-bedroom units has a room that serves multiple purposes — living room, kitchen and dining area. These spaces offered the opportunity for the most profound change and, we hoped, would get us closest to our goal. Plus, it would provide our three talented interior designers — Michelle Minch, Dara Waxman and Jennifer Herwitt — with an intricate challenge. As if giving each designer a $1,000 budget didn’t already make it tough enough.
Highland Village, hard against the 110 freeway in Highland Park at the bottom of a dauntingly steep hill, is in an area known as “El Hoyo” (the hole). When W.O.R.K.S. took over the complex of 15 dilapidated apartment buildings, the area lived up to its nickname: gangs, drug dealing and prostitution ruled. W.O.R.K.S. completed a massive renovation in 2001, reconfiguring 148 units into 91 larger apartments and creating a lush landscape out of bare earth.
Today, the first thing you notice about Highland Village is the kids — playing hide-and-go-seek, shooting hoops, studying in the computer lab, getting after-school tutoring. There’s a dad guiding his son on a bike, two grandmothers in the laundry center chatting during the wash cycle, a mom taking a parenting class. Part of W.O.R.K.S.’ mission is community development, and to that end, ESL classes are available to residents of the surrounding area. In fact, Highland Village has become that rare place in L.A. — community by way of neighborhood, not some PC concoction.
On a Sunday afternoon in late June, Nancy Gomez, W.O.R.K.S.’ director of supportive services, conducted a lottery to find our three units: All the families living in the complex’s 32 two-bedroom apartments participated. Minch, Waxman and Herwitt got out their measuring tapes. The largest spaces, which Minch and Herwitt worked on, have a 14’ by 13’4” living room with an 8’8” by 5’9” alcove kitchen; Waxman’s room has a corner kitchen tucked into 11’ by 14’5”. A lot of living, very small spaces.
That each of the rooms was wondrously transformed is of course no surprise. We expect nothing less of professional designers, and these three have proven on numerous projects that they’re among the best in town. But what none of us expected was how close each got to her family. Minch, for example, redid, out of her own pocket, a bedroom for her family’s three boys. The transformations ended up going beyond design.
Come inside and take a look around.
The L.A. Weekly is sponsoring a benefit party for W.O.R.K.S. at Highland Village, 245-273 South Avenue 50, Highland Park, this Sunday, September 28, from 2 to 5 p.m.; admission $20, all proceeds go to W.O.R.K.S. Designers Michelle Minch, Dara Waxman and Jennifer Herwitt will be on hand to give tours of their respective rooms and answer your design questions. There will also be a silent auction, and the youngsters of Mariachi Plaza will be performing. For reservations and information, call (323) 993-3604.