During a recent visit to Jordan High for the renaming of the schools 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 Johnsons 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 shed 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 Johnsons visit.
Seamster-McMahan roundly denied both accounts, saying that she relocated the books because they werent 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 wasnt 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 schools health program. As for Seamster-McMahans plea for funds for the athletic department, a Johnson spokesperson told OffBeat she hadnt received any such request.
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 buildings 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 weeks opening of the Wilcox Apartments marked one of Hollywood Housings most hard-fought victories.
Initially, the nonprofits 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. Theres a computer room, a community room, and a childrens 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.
DOING DICKS DIRTIES
The Times recent panegyric on the mayors 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 Riordans "most trusted friends" and quoted hizzoner praising the former ethics commissioner as an "outstanding Angeleno." But the story failed to mention de la Rochas only major commission achievement: ridding it of hard-charging executive director Ben Bycel.
Youll recall that in his four years running the then-new department, Bycel made a lot of enemies. One was Riordan, who tired of Bycels 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 years end, Bycel was gone. To this day, the justification for Bycels dismissal has never been disclosed, and de la Rochas career on the panel has since proved undistinguished.
There was a formidable backlash against Bycels firing including harsh criticism on the Times own editorial page. De la Rochas 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 Rochas 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 mayors 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 wouldnt be surprised if the message werent a gentle reminder addressed to the increasingly outspoken Police Chief Bernard Parks as to who really holds the reins at City Hall. And as Bycels career suggests, this is a message any general manager ignores at his professional peril.
Marc B. Haefele
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