The battle on Bunker Hill

Recently, the enormous swimming pool here on Bunker Hill re-opened after a four-month hiatus. As I write, they're setting out the patio furniture and blowing away the leaves in anticipation of the party. But neither I, nor my 400 neighbors here in these rent-controlled apartments, are invited. We're caught in the middle of a dispute that is threatening to bisect this slice of downtown Los Angeles for the first time in 45 years.

Three tall, concrete buildings were erected on Bunker Hill back in the late sixties as part of a controversial redevelopment plan that wiped out over 130 acres of historic homes. Maybe you're old enough to remember it; if you are a native of southern California, someone in your family undoubtedly recalls that odd, bleak time of leveling.

bunker-hill-razed.jpgYou've undoubtedly driven by our buildings on your way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Disney Concert Hall or MOCA, which are across the street. "You live in a loft?" people ask when I tell them I live downtown. Not quite. These are just good, solid buildings that have endured. Nothing trendy about them.

Fifty years ago, the optimistic plan was to ultimately build five tall towers in all on this giant block between 1st and 3rd Streets. The hope was that people would clamor to live close to where they worked. For a moment, the architects of the revamped Bunker Hill even considered building a monorail around the renewed city.

In the center of what was called Bunker Hill Towers, and to lure people to take part in this urban living in 1968, a massive pool and recreation area was built, replete with BBQ grills and tennis courts and a Jacuzzi that holds 20 people. Flower Street borders one side of the pool; on the other is a block-long plaza of trees and public space that anyone can use to cross through the area. Two kids from the nearby charter school are necking out there right now. The average pedestrian wouldn't even know it was there, unless they peered through the fence.

I moved here from my native New York nine years ago to work at the public radio show Marketplace, which is housed in an office building across S. Figueroa Street. Since I was often going to work in the middle of the night, and since I am a daily swimmer, I chose to live as close as humanly possible to the office. The shorter my commute, the less of an excuse I had to miss my hour in the pool.

And because of that hour or so I spent at the pool each day, I fell in love, not just with Bunker Hill, but with all of Los Angeles. I had a ready-made avenue by which to meet my neighbors, and to learn the history of this place I now called home.

Turns out: The tallest of the three buildings here had split off in the early eighties and gone condo. The remaining two rental buildings agreed to continue to pay 2/3 of the expenses to maintain and share the pool.

A diverse mix of owners and renters gathered around that pool, all ages and races and economic backgrounds. Some of my neighbors were retired judges, wealthy businessmen, musicians at the Phil who'd bought condos as pieds-a-terre. Others from the rent-controlled units included a translator for the courts, a nurse, a saleswoman at the old Bullock's Wilshire who lived in the same rented studio apartment for 40 years.

I initially thought I'd last a year down here myself. But the rich fabric of this community is what's kept me far longer, long after I quit working across the street to write a book about a Shangri-la half a world away from this one here. In what other major metropolitan center could a person who wasn't affluent enjoy a 250-foot pool, surrounded by an oasis, in the shadow of a major museum and concert hall, shared with such interesting neighbors?

So, now, what has happened that's locked us renters out? Basically, a pissing match, and a definition of repairs versus upgrades.

bunker-hill-towers-old.jpgThe pool shut down four months ago for what the condo said were essential repairs to the pipes and deck. The owner of the rental buildings, a publicly traded company called Essex, took issue with the $400,000 price tag. They argue that tucked into the repair bill are upgrades, which they shouldn't have to subsidize. Court documents show they've refused to pay the buildings' slice of the cost.

And so, the condo tacked up a sign on the entrance to the pool, announcing that renters were no longer welcome. In return, Essex has filed suit against the condo.

This week, the condo erected a 12-foot tall steel fence just inside the gate where, for 45 years, tenants have entered the recreation area. Word is Essex, while awaiting a court date, is going to put up its own fence, on the plaza here on Bunker Hill, to mark their slice of the territory.

The only good part about lawyers being involved is that I've been able to learn what's going on in my neighborhood by requisitioning documents from Los Angeles Superior Court.

And while this Hatfield-McCoy shenanigans escalates to new and more litigious heights, I and my fellow renters here on Bunker Hill will gather on "our" side of the pool fence, and gaze longingly at what for so long was the center of a lovely community in downtown Los Angeles.

Lisa Napoli is the author of "Radio Shangri-La" and an on-air host at KCRW-FM. This is her first post for LA Observed.

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