warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Unemployment and Rising Rents Worry District 10

Kaitlin Parker |
March 4, 2011 | 10:32 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

At 9 a.m. on a Thursday, every booth is taken at Maria’s Café. The diner is attached to a bowling alley that sits right where Venice and San Vincente boulevards meet—almost the geographic center of Los Angeles City Council District 10—a sprawling district represented by Herb Wesson that includes the neighborhoods of West Adams, Mid City, Arlington Heights and Koreatown. 

Maria's Cafe (Kaitlin Parker)
Maria's Cafe (Kaitlin Parker)

Waitresses bustle back and forth between booths holding white and Latino police officers, families with young children and a group of nurses in scrubs, while older African American men wearing flat caps and argyle sweaters sat at the counter. One of those men is Leroy Lucas. This particular morning, he seems jovial, smiling broadly and commending his counter-mates on their food choices whenever another short stack of pancakes or plate of grits and bacon would appear out of the kitchen. But when asked about the economy, his mood suddenly darkened.

While getting a feel for the pre-election pulse of District 10, people of different races, ages and genders expressed many of the same concerns, even if they did so in different languages.

“Look. People are up in arms because of this financial situation. They’re stressed out. There’s too much gauging,” Lucas says.

He doesn’t see the upcoming city council election in his district as offering much in the way of change.

“Any time these politicians do any cutting with the budget, they start out with the poorest people.”

Lucas, a 30-year-resident of District 10, said he had known tough times before, but right now things seemed to be worse than he ever remembered. “It feels like traffic has tripled. There are potholes all over the city. And people do what to fix it? Come by, drop a little mud in? The next time it rains, it all washes away.”

Next to Lucas, Boyd A. Dickey chats with the waitresses. They all know him and call him by his last name.

Dickey has lived in District 10 even longer than Lucas. He moved to Los Angeles in 1946, after serving in a combat unit in World War II. Dickey was blunt in explaining how he decided to settle in the central part of the city. “When we put our Japanese in concentration camps,” he said, “all these places around here were vacant and the black people started renting them.”

He remembers all the places men had opportunities to work in the late 1940’s: “The shipyard, the Goodyear plant, the steel mill, just to name a few.”

Dickey ended up joining the local carpenter’s union and working all over the county.

“In 1960, you could get around,” he said. He recalled riding the Red Car rail line from Venice, to downtown, up to Pasadena. “But today the 10th District don’t have the money. Wesson, [Jose] Huizar, they promise, but they can’t deliver. And more people than ever are trying to work.”

Like Lucas, he acknowledged that this was not the first instance he has seen people fall on hard times. “I’d go out, down to 5th Street, with the guys from my union after work, and some of them would sell a pint of blood just to get some wine or whiskey.”

Today, Dickey feels the biggest problem is that people have lost a sense of community and togetherness. He pointed to one downtown restaurant as an example.

“Clifton’s was one of the two places you used to be able to eat downtown, but if you went in there now as a black man, you wouldn’t get served.”

He’s afraid a lack of cohesiveness makes the country vulnerable to a larger, looming threat. “It seems like 90 percent of everything made comes from abroad. I don’t think people are worried enough about China. It’s just a matter of time before the foreigners take over."

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t think anyone does. But what I do know is that we’ve all got to live together. If the public would get together we could change a lot of things, but no one will get together.”

Rents go up, but wages stay low

Maria Ramos has lived in her current apartment off West Adams Boulevard for 16 years, but she’s been a resident of District 10 for twice that long. A bookshelf cluttered with dried flowers, picture frames and stuffed animals takes up one corner of her living room. Across the room, Ramos chatted on an oversized couch with two of her neighbors, Araceli Rodriguez and Maria Paz-Jaen. A picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe hung on the wall behind them.

Speaking in Spanish, the women shared many of the same concerns. Interpreter Davin Corona summarized Ramos’ biggest problem. “The issue is the high rent increases, and unfortunately we don’t get paid that much, and our wages don’t go up to match.”

Rodriguez agreed, and said that all the students from the nearby University of Southern California were making the problem worse. “We have so many families that have been either evicted or displaced from this community,” she said. “What we’ve noticed now is that many landlords would rather rent an apartment unit to a student than to families who have been here for a while.”

Ramos’ rent started at $500 a month and is now $849.49, said Thelmy Perez of the L.A. Rights to Housing Collective.

Paz-Jaen has also experienced difficulties with landlords. “A lot of the landlords harass the tenants that live in this area, especially if you’re not considered a student, and they somewhat terrorize us. They’ll harass you to the point where you get sick and nervous and break down,” she said.

She continued, telling the story of single mother whose landlord evicted her and her young child by taking all of their belongings and throwing them out the window, into the front yard and then changing the locks.

“So we did everything we could,” Paz-Jaen said, “We called the cops, we told them what was going on, but she could not get in to her apartment.”

The women feel like they have no one on their side. The cops don’t care, the landlords raise prices without warning, and in terms of the city council, “the landlord lobby helps them with campaign contributions and we don’t, so whose side do you think they’re going to take?” Rodriguez asked.

Rodriguez has tried to make her concerns known to Councilman Wesson, but her efforts haven’t yielded any tangible results.

“They listen to us because they have no other thing to do,” but when it comes to taking action, Rodriguez said the city council always finds a way to rearrange the agenda. She described her experience at a meeting last year where a proposed law to stop rent increases was supposed to be the first item up for discussion.

“For example when we were trying to pass this law, they were going to give us their votes to stop rent increases, but when we’re there at the live assembly when they’re going to take the vote, they take a step back and send everything back to committee and never vote on it again.”

Paz-Jaen no longer sees confronting her councilman by herself as a way to get anything done.

“To be honest, on my behalf, I no longer believe in politicians…I’d like people to get organized. We need more people to understand what these struggles are about and actually take action around them.” Rodriguez also feels jaded with the local political process. “When they’re trying to get re-elected, they promise you the world,” she said, “But once they get into office, they forget about you.”

This story is part of our March 8 election preview series Irked and Inspired: Los Angeles Residents Speak On The Issues. 

Reach Kaitlin Parker here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.