Crack House Diaries: Part 1

The first nights in the crack house were the worst. It was late August, still pressing ninety degrees at eleven o’clock, the kind of late temperature where even a thin bed sheet would stifle. More oppressive than the heat were the panic attacks, adrenaline pumping fits induced by slight sounds; a honking horn or a muffled conversation outside the window would lurch me upright in expectation of confrontation. Through the window’s rusty bars the light hum of the 110 freeway laid down a blanket of continuous static, punctuated by the building then receding timpani of jets coming in for landing at LAX. These noises, the neighborhood’s din and denizens, set the aural calculus of my nights, my half-conscious ear scanning the dark, measuring potential threat in every sound. This was my prejudice made palpable. I kept a loaded pistol at the side of the bed.

It had been a crack house, according to the neighbors, and it fit the stereotype. The front lawn, a tangle of dry weeds, couched an unkempt tree with branches hanging down over the sidewalk. Without a fence the canopy and yard created an outdoor office for street business — drugs and prostitution. One could still read gang graffiti beneath a thin layer of white paint that covered the textured stucco walls of this 1920s bungalow. The paint, a dim yellow porch light and a HUD sign in the front picture window were all that constituted ‘staging.’ The sign listed contact information for prospective buyers and threatened trespassers with litigation. It was 2003, near the height of the Los Angeles real estate boom, yet this property had languished on the market for months until it finally entered the lottery for the Teacher Next Door program. One could say, though my parents would disagree, that we won the lottery.

Police officers, fire fighters and public school teachers are eligible to participate in HUD’s Good Neighbor program. Each week hundreds of applicants enter an online lottery for the chance to buy a run-down house in a sketchy neighborhood. Lottery winners may purchase a house for 50% of its last assessed value given two conditions: first, the winner must agree to make the house his/her sole residence, and second, the winner must live in the house for 36 months before the remaining 50% value (held as a second mortgage, backed by HUD) would fully vest. After 36 months, the owner could sell the house and claim any appreciation, including the federal government’s 50% incentive. When we began entering the lottery, the odds of winning were about 1:50, meaning that a diligent applicant, with a bit of luck, could hope for the chance to buy a cheap house within a year. The nature of the program also meant that an applicant could not be choosy. The house chose the owner, and not the other way around. Our number came up after six months. We had better luck than most. The house, a 900 sqft bungalow, had last been appraised two years earlier, so the price did not reflect much of LA’s meteoric real estate market gains. Our choice, if we were willing to move to South Central, was clear: we could join the landed gentry for $75k total, the price of a down payment anywhere else in Los Angeles. Goodbye Marina del Rey!

Susan, my partner (technically my ‘wife,’ though we try not to use that term any more out of solidarity with the gay community, and also because the phrase ‘my wife’ sucks) is a school teacher. Asa, our son, was four. I’m an architect. At the time I was working for Frank Gehry, whose office was just down the street from our rented house. In the mornings I would put Asa into a bike trailer and ride him to Montessori school. Our proximity to the ocean meant clean air and a comfortable microclimate. We grew herbs and vegetables in planter boxes in our front yard. Everything was good except for our finances, which made our idyllic lifestyle unsustainable. The chance to buy a house for $75k seemed like the perfect answer to one of Los Angeles’ biggest mysteries: how the hell do young people, in particular young families, afford to live in this city without making some Faustian bargain?

When we broke the news to our landlady she snorted incredulously, “People shoot each other in South Central. Have you thought this through?”

She was new to the landlording business, having recently purchased two houses on one small lot in Marina del Rey. We were her first tenants, a small family of three in a one-bedroom house for about $900/month. When she learned that the local rental market could demand more she let us know that rates would go up to $1200/month when we signed the new contract at the end of the year. We already felt broke, so this increase sealed the deal.

“Yes, we have thought this through. We would like to start building our own equity, and the price for this house is too good to pass up.”

“Well, I think you are making a mistake. People move OUT of South Central. They don’t move in. You have a young child who will do a lot of growing up wherever you go.”

It was the prevailing attitude, one shared by most of the extended family, but it wasn’t the only one.

“I really admire what you are doing. Geesh, I would never do it myself, but it really takes guts. You guys are modern pioneers.” Gag. This was our church bishop, a young guy, about my own age. I had already left the church in my heart, but hadn’t stopped my formal piety for the benefit of my friends and family. I was hoping this move would provide a chance to make a clean break.

A member of the stake presidency, which is a step higher than a local bishop in the Mormon leadership hierarchy, set up an exit interview. “I wanted to discuss where you will attend church after you move. South Central has a ‘black branch,’ but you probably don’t want to attend there. Other options include…” It probably doesn’t take an LDS background to understand what the man was getting at.

From the liberal side we took a different kind of criticism. One friend commented, “Good for you. You are another white man leveraging generations of privilege to get a good deal in a traditionally minority neighborhood. I hope that works out for you.”

It was a good deal, and we were operating from a position of privilege, but I also wanted to believe that there we were doing something better. In architecture I had studied urban planning, and I had subscribed to the ideal of mixed socioeconomic neighborhoods — economically they provide a harmonious mix of local labor; environmentally they put everyone close to a potential job, reducing the need for long commutes; socially they expose everyone to a wide range of cultures, interests and ideas. But mixed socioeconomic neighborhoods aren’t natural, at this American moment. While they occur during neighborhood transitional phases, like gentrification, to reach any sustainable mixed equilibrium requires engineering. 80/20 programs offer developers incentives, like increased building density (more and smaller apartments) if they will make 20% of units available to low-income households. While this works well for new developments and loft conversions in dense population centers, it doesn’t work for lower value lower density neighborhoods like South Central. The “Teacher Next Door” program piqued our interest as an engineering experiment worth our support… that and economically we felt that we had little other choice.

Okay, so Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine also had some impact.

First where Moore walks through South Central to dispel its popular violent mythology (this starts at 5:49):

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFzkV9D9Dt0&feature=related[/youtube]

and second, the short animation that briefly illustrates the history of white flight to the suburbs:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zqh6Ap9ldTs[/youtube]

This started us thinking, “Is the only reason we haven’t considered buying in South Central because of prejudice? Are our concerns even founded in reality?” Real world confession-I don’t think we would have bought our house if it had not been for Moore’s movie. He described an America driven by fear, and I recognized a good dose of that fear in my own heart. He said, “Be not afraid,” and we decided to take his advice. After Bowling for Columbine we started to enter the weekly lotteries, and six months later we moved into our first home. Michael Moore is the patron saint of our crack house. How freaking weak is that?

The first nights in the crack house were the worst because our letting go of fear had not kept pace with our ideals. What if the grandparents were right and this was all a horrible mistake? They expected that we would be singled out, as the only white family in the neighborhood, and be targeted for burglary and hate crimes. We had gambled, as it were, on the hope that our prejudice and the prejudice of the millions of other white middle-class families that would rather spend a half million on a suburban home and a two-hour commute rather than dream of moving to South Central, were the vestigial remnants of our racist past.

Five years later, I no longer sleep with a loaded gun near the bed (I wouldn’t even if the gun hadn’t been stolen), and we all sleep easy every night (except when someone in the neighborhood throws a quinceñera). Several years ago I had been blogging, briefly, about our experience moving to South Central. This was published as a series of contributions at LAVoice, under the title “Crack House Diaries.” Susan had wanted to me to resume them at some point, so when I was invited to contribute at the Whatsit, I decided to revisit some of those early experiences (a comfort zone) with the benefit of a little more hindsight and reflection.

Greetings Whatsiteers!

19 responses to “Crack House Diaries: Part 1”

  1. Gale says:

    Welcome welcome welcome welcome! Favorite sentence: “even if it hadn’t been stolen.” More on that in your next post?

  2. lane says:

    wow, you actually did it. i’m looking forward to hearing about it.

    and try to continue your habit of ending everything with a joke.

    nice to meet you.

  3. Dave says:

    Welcome, Rogan. I was a huge fan of your Crack House Diaries back in the day, so I’m overjoyed about having you on the site.

    The Michael Moore/pistol next to the bed juxtaposition was nice.

  4. Rogan says:

    1. No need for a post on that. The stolen pistol is a bit of a teaser. It wasn’t stolen out of my house in South Central. It was stolen (most probably) by a TSA inspector at the airport, where it was lawfully stored in my stowed luggage.

    2. Nice to meet you too Lane. I have enjoyed your work (online) and have wondered if you use, or wouldn’t benefit from using, a laser cutter.

    3. Thanks Dave. As I noted in an email, I don’t plan on writing only Crack House Diaries, but it is a familiar place to start, and there are a few other things I would like to reflect on, so I will probably do a few more.

  5. rm says:

    i just showed my class the episode from the first disc of the first season of Morgan Spurlock’s (Mike Moore’s spawn) 30 Days where he and his fiance try and live on minimum wage jobs for a month. on day 1, they’re looking for a place to live and the landlord explains that the place downstairs from them was a crack house. they hesitate but he explains that “a crack house doesn’t mean violence, it’s just a place where they sell drugs.”

    let me echo the gw welcome rogan, but this post did leave me with some questions.

    what’s the price at which you wouldn’t have bought your house? a federal subsidy for state employees enabled you to get your home for 75K, what would the number have been before you no longer would have wanted to support this experiment? does your partner teach “next door” or in another part of town? do you feel racism is the primary reason white middle class families aren’t moving to south central?

  6. Tim says:

    Welcome, Rogan! I look forward to more of this story and any others. I find your perspective on LA very interesting: working to build one of its signature high culture monuments while living in its supposedly least desirable area.

  7. Scotty says:

    Welcome to the Whatsit Mr. Rogan. Do you live near this Treepeople demonstration house? The only time I was in South LA was to tour this site, and I was shocked by how nice the neighborhood was. And yes, as I was driving in I had the same M. Moore interview with Barry Glassner playing through my head (if you haven’t read Glassner’s book, The Culture of Fear, I recommend it).

    Anyway, I know it’s off topic, but I was wondering what your professional opinion is of the Treepeople project — if you have seen it. If not, given your environmentalist leanings, I think you’d find the tour interesting.

  8. Scotty says:

    And I found your story most compelling. I look forward to as many installments as you can muster.

  9. Rogan says:

    5. There actually is a lot of violence in South Central, which I hope to write about in more detail one of these days. Crack houses, in this neighborhood, spawn violence because they are part of gang business.

    After examining our finances, we decided to move to South Central, whether we were able to take the subsidy or not. While we were entering the lottery, we were also making weekly trips to the neighborhood to look at other homes. Had we not ‘won the lottery,’ we would have bought a house based on what we could afford, or we would have moved to the Mountain West.

    My partner teaches at Thomas Jefferson High, which made national news a couple of years ago due to race riots. Police officers that participate in the program are allowed to live outside of the neighborhoods where they police, but the same isn’t true of teachers. The program requires teachers to teach in the same neighborhood where they live.

    Yes, I think racism is the main reason white middle class families don’t consider South Central.

  10. Marleyfan says:

    What an amazing start to TGW! Your article is like crack (gimme more, gimme more). Are the Crack House Diaries from LAVoice available online? By the way, I have a son named Asa who just turned eleven last Friday.

  11. Rogan says:

    7. I didn’t know about the Treepeople project, but after looking at their website, their ideas make a lot of sense. I will try to make one of their quarterly visits to check out the model home. I’m developing a garden paver prototype that addresses some of the Treepeople’s concerns about ground permeability. It isn’t rocket science. If you allow water to seep into the ground, rather than enter the sewer system as runoff, you do a lot of good for plants and the environment. My paver is a riff on some traditional Arabian geometric patterns, and the open holes serve as funnels to direct rainwater into the ground. Simple. Pretty. Green.

    10. The old CHD entries can be fished for at LAVoice (which has changed management since I participated). I am still listed as one of the featured voices, even though I haven’t posted there in four years. Clicking through my name should bring up old entries.

    Asa is a great name, no? Asa loves it. We call him ‘Ace,’ which he thinks is pretty cool.

  12. Scotty says:

    Just wanted to thank you again for such a wonderful post. Throughout the day, Swells and I keep coming back to how thought provoking it is.

    Oh, and we were wondering how you pronounce your son’s name, and what’s its origin? Is it an LDS thing?

  13. swells says:

    I was totally thinking of those Bowling for Columbine scenes while reading your post; I especially appreciated the line, “One could say, though my parents would disagree, that we won the lottery.” As the Fresh Prince so succinctly put it, “Parents just don’t understand.”

    On top of that, that TSA story about the gun in your luggage really had me in fits. The system, man, the system.

  14. farrell fawcett says:

    Hey Rogan

    I’ve thought for quite some time that you and a couple other people i know would make great TGW contributors. (matt coats are you listening?). And here you go and do it. Very nice post.

    I taught for a year at Centennial High. Those neighborhoods did scare me a bit. You and your wife are brave. And clever. Best of luck. And i look forward to many more episodes.

  15. Rogan says:

    12. Asa = ACE-uh. It is only LDS inasmuch as Mormons often look to the Bible for name ideas. We didn’t realize it was a Biblical name until after we found it in a used baby-name book we picked up at DI. We stopped looking as soon as we found a name that we both liked. We didn’t get past the A’s! Asa is still a fairly common Jewish name, where it is pronounced AHS-uh. It is also a very old-timey American Christian name. Your grandparents probably knew an Asa or two.

    14. Matt would be a great catch!

  16. PB says:

    I love ambiguity of the first paragraph. I was taken in immediately.
    We lived for many years in a neighborhood that included a subsidised housing “project.” Most of the time we were all great neighbors. But sometimes kids got harrassed, cars got keyed, people screamed in the night and I had to face, as you say so well: my prejudice made palpable. I think you bring up so many provocative issues that I am often too uncomfortable to voice. I really look forward to your discussions.

  17. marleyfan says:

    Asa was my great grandfathers name (rumor had it that it was a derivative of Asariah. We also call him Ace, and AsaTron (a spin-off from The Rugrats).

  18. lane says:

    “the unseen power of the picket fence”

    this is a great Pavement song, it ends with this funny little audio skit about Sherman’s March through Georgia.

    “Asa, Asa! I’m comin’ Asa!”

    I heard it this week for the first time in 10 years, When I heard those lines I though “I KNEW I’d heard that name somewhere before!”

    it’s funny. check it out.

  19. Annie says:

    I meant to say this when I first read your post last week, but I really enjoyed it–especially the reflections on prejudice and stereotypes. I also found myself wondering if the urban landscape you now live in has influenced your vision/work as an architect. Looking forward to reading more.