Storying Wyvernwood: Connecting Community

Storying Wyvernwood at CSULA, June 5, 2014 | Photo: Marco Amador/Facebook

Built in 1939, Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights is the oldest large-scale complex of garden apartments in Los Angeles, and an important forerunner to projects like Village Green, Park La Brea, and Lincoln Place. Similar to Union Station Wyvernwood is now celebrating its 75th anniversary, but rather than being embraced with civic celebrations, this historic community is under threat of being replaced by a $2 billion mixed-use development project. This week L.A. Letters salutes Wyvernwood and the multigenerational coalition of residents, activists, preservationists, professors and students committed to preserving the site and stopping the redevelopment.

Wyvernwood is now owned by the Miami-based owner/developer Fifteen Group, who hopes to replace the current site with their plan of 4,400 apartments, 300,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, 25,000 square feet of civic space, and 10.5 acres of publicly accessible, privately maintained community parks. Needless to say, longtime residents are alarmed as are local community groups like the L.A. Conservancy, the East L.A. Community Corporation, and Somos Wyvernwood. Most recently, a group of professors and students from Cal State L.A. banded together with Somos Wyvernwood and longtime residents to oppose the redevelopment. Teams of students from two English classes spent time at Wyvernwood over the last few months, gathering oral history and stories from lifelong residents. Paintings, photographs and other visual collages also emerged from their time spent there.

The culmination of this project was an event held on Thursday June 5 at Cal State L.A. Sponsored by CSULA's Department of English and the Office of Service Learning, "Storying Wyvernwood" was billed as a celebration of Wyvernwood, a multimedia event that included music, poetry, art, folk dancing, and food. CSULA Professor Bidhan Roy, one of the central organizers on campus, wrote: "Storying Wyvernwood" documents Wyvernwood as a center for the multifaceted narratives of identity, gentrification, and space. The event explores the themes of globalization, business, and the cultural impact that these changes pose on families and the individual within a sociopolitical context."

Before discussing more about the CSULA event, it is important to establish some historical context about the space. Wyvernwood is a Registered Historic Landmark in Boyle Heights, sprawled between 8th Street and Olympic Boulevard, a few blocks east of Soto and the iconic art deco Sears Tower. For several generations, hundreds of families have called the space home. Originally built in the Garden City model of urban planning from the early 20th century, the 1187 units were constructed according to the principles written by Ebenezer Howard, the British writer and urban planner that authored "Garden Cities of Tomorrow" in 1898. One of Howard's central tenets of the Garden City was that, "Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together."

Map of the Wyvernwood Housing Project in Boyle Heights in July 1938. Drawing by the architects, Witmer and Watson | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Map of the Wyvernwood Housing Project in Boyle Heights in July 1938. Drawing by the architects, Witmer and Watson | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

These sentiments were echoed by Boyle Heights native Francisco Escamilla, who lived 21 years of his life in Wyvernwood. He says, "There are so many trees in Wyvernwood, it was like growing up in the park." Escamilla recalls the purple jacaranda flowers that carpeted the concrete by his family's apartment near 8th Street. He also told me about his grandfather, who lived in Wyvernwood and worked for many years as a mailman. His grandmother had even for a time opened a restaurant in their backyard.

Thirty eight year old Rigo Amavizca has lived almost his entire life in Wyvernwood, and is one of the organizers of Somos Wyvernwood. One of the key figures in Somos Wyvernwood, he tells me, is that "We want an L.A. that works for everyone." He sees their collaboration with CSULA as a method to "take control of the narrative." Amavizca notes the history of Chavez Ravine, the East L.A. Interchange, and other projects in L.A. history where generation of families have been erased.

The three-hour long "Storying Wyvernwood" included live performances and a press conference stating their platform, with several tables that displayed photographs, maps, and paintings along with petitions and other connected material. A collage of voices, sounds, and images were assembled to represent the spirit of Wyvernwood. The passionate testimonials were presented by a mix of both longtime Wyvernwood residents and CSULA students that had spent time immersed there. Students from Professor Bidhan Roy and Lauri Ramey's classes created a truly fruitful collaboration that was on full display. Among many highlights, 26 year old Fernando Franco, an educator at Trade Tech College and CSULA graduate student in English, read a speech in Spanish that deeply moved the crowd.

Thirty one year old dance instructor Flor de la Torre from the Ballet Folklorico Resurreccion has lived her entire life in Wyvernwood. Before she introduced her folk dancers presenting a dance from Jalisco, she spoke very eloquently about her own idyllic childhood in Wyvernwood. Her reflections on riding her bicycle through the park like settings corroborate with the Garden City and Francisco Escamilla's testimony.

CSULA graduate student and KCET contributor Kevin Stricke read his poem "Nightfall in Wyvernwood." His poetic characterization of the current redevelopment debate succinctly summarized the situation in a few powerful lines:

Stricke's comments echoed a common theme of generations. Speaker after speaker spoke about how long their families have been at Wyvernwood. They are afraid that the new redevelopment is going to price them out of their homes. Though the developers have said that longtime and current residents will have first dibs on the proposed new units, the residents are afraid that the price will be too high for them to afford.

Banners in the background proclaimed statements like, "Not Another Chavez Ravine!" and "We are Wyvernwood! No Gentrification of our Community! No Gentrification of our University!" All told, a few hundred people gathered together to celebrate Wyvernwood.
Modeled after the English project, "Storying Sheffield," "Storying Wyvernwood" succeeded at encouraging engagement between the Boyle Heights community, neighboring Los Angeles areas, and students at CSULA. This tapestry of narratives is effective because it is shared and woven through a multidimensional approach to research.

Storying Wyvernwood at CSULA, June 5, 2014 | Photo: Marco Amador/Facebook

The "Storying Wyvernwood" project is very much aligned with Dolores Hayden and her Power of Place perspective. "Learning the social meanings of historic places by discussing them with urban audiences involves the historian in collaboration with the residents themselves as well as the planners and preservationists, designers and artists," Hayden wrote. "It engages social, historical, and aesthetic imagination to locate where narratives of cultural identity, embedded in the historic urban landscape, can be interpreted to project their largest and most enduring meanings for the city as a whole."

One of the most indelible images of the day for me was seeing a grandmother and lifelong resident of Wyvernwood hug Fernando Franco after his speech in Spanish. Franco grew up in Echo Park and mentors teen youth at Trade Tech. For him, projects like "Storying Wyvernwood" are why he became an educator and writer in the first place. The ability to affect change on the real world level is something Franco deeply believes in and his commitment came across in his presentation.

On a personal level, my grandparents lived in Wyvernwood for five years during World War II. My mom attended kindergarten in the neighborhood and remembers playing in the courtyard. My family is among hundreds that have such memories. The multimedia presentation "Storying Wyvernwood" demonstrated what a sacred place the complex is to the community.

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Wyvernwood lies in District 14, under the jurisdiction of Councilmember Jose Huizar. The participants in "Storying Wyvernwood" and groups like Somos Wyvernwood ask all parties that are interested in helping their cause to email or call Huizar and voice their opposition to the redevelopment. This issue has been in debate since 2008, and the L.A. city council remains undecided about the future plans. For the time being, the future is uncertain; clearly a ground swell of voices from within the community can sway the outcome.

All in all, the bottom line is that 6,000 residents are in danger of being displaced. The multigenerational coalition of activists working to save Wyvernwood are not only hoping to save these residents' home, but also preserve the architectural and historic legacy of Wyvernwood. In a city with a track record of erasing history, like Sugar Hill and Chavez Ravine, their concerns are duly warranted. The time to act is now. Salute to Wyvernwood and the activists dedicated to preserving it, they are bright beacons in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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