My name is Gregory Sanders. I created the slideshow for the Detroit Bungalows on Facebook about which so many of you have had such kind comments. Until now, I’ve tried to remain anonymous and speak for all of us here in a collective voice. But the time has come to speak for myself and tell my own story.
I went to film school in Texas and moved to L.A. in 1977, hoping to find work as a film editor. And, who knows, maybe become a director or sell a script. I was in my twenties at the time. “Star Wars” had just opened, and every day the lines at the Chinese Theater were around the block. I moved into this apartment that summer, and 38 years later I’m still here. Back then, most of the tenants were elderly Italian-Americans who had moved in after World War II. The manager was in his 80s and his wife was over 90 even then.
I got a job in the editing room on a film called “Roar” that was being shot in Soledad Canyon. The film was in production for something like three years and in post-production even longer than that. It starred Tippi Hedren and 200 lions. They’re all still out there—Tippi and the lions. The former film set is now an animal sanctuary. The film, however, was a flop. The only people who remember “Roar” are people like me who worked on it. We were all film-student types just starting out. We got paid next to nothing, but it was a foot in the door.
West Hollywood was not a city then, just an unincorporated portion of L.A. County. When rents started to skyrocket, the city of Los Angeles passed a rent control ordinance and so did Los Angeles County. But then the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors shifted toward conservative Republicans who vowed to repeal rent control. The result was an activist coalition of gays, seniors and just about everybody else except the landlords. We went to the voting booths and did what very few people have ever had a chance to do in modern times. We created our own, brand new city. All of us (except the landlords) were progressive liberal Democrats and protecting rent control was the third rail of our politics.
Meanwhile, I was eking out a living, working on low-budget films. I won’t tell you what they were, because you’ve never heard of them. Sometimes I cut picture. Sometimes I cut sound. Sometimes I did both. But I wasn’t working all the time. Fortunately, because my apartment was rent controlled, I always had a roof over my head. But the building was deteriorating, and the owner had no interest in keeping it up.
Then one day I was pulling clothes out of the dryer when I looked up and saw a somewhat diffident but kindly man who introduced himself as Paul Zimmerman. Paul was the director of West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC). He explained that WHCHC was buying the building and wanted to rehab it. All the tenants would be moved out into temporary apartments that WHCHC would find for us and pay for. Then, two or three months later, when the work was done, we would move back. Our rent would not increase by any amount beyond that allowed by West Hollywood’s rent stabilization act.
My first response was suspicion. I had never heard of WHCHC and suspected this was some kind of developer’s scam. A way to get us out of our apartments without much fuss. And once we were gone…. My fellow residents had similar concerns. Some became very vocal. And that’s when Helen Albert came out to talk to us.
Helen Albert had been elected to West Hollywood’s first ever City Council. I had voted for her, and in 1988, she was the mayor. She died in 1996 at the age of 85, which means she would have been 77 at this time, making her one of the oldest sitting female mayors in the country. As I recall, she had been a schoolteacher. She was a gracious, humane and very intelligent woman. According to her obituary, she had been an activist for Common Cause and the California Nuclear Freeze Campaign. Her family directed that any memorial donations be made to AIDS Project Los Angeles.
That night, Helen Albert confirmed everything Paul had been telling us. And she did more than that. She put it in writing. I have the letter right here in my hand. There is her handwritten signature. I was particularly concerned about what would happen if my income went up in the future so that it exceeded the maximum amount for moderate income housing. “If your income goes up at some time in the future,” she wrote, “you cannot be asked to move.” Paul Zimmerman told me: “This apartment is yours for as long as you want it.”
Well, I was satisfied, but my neighbors were not. The woman who lived across from me started a resistance, and for a while I was WHCHC’s only ally. On her instructions, I was given the silent treatment. None of my neighbors would speak to me. One night, John Heilman came out to talk us, and I remember being impressed with him. “We’ve got a lot of work to do over here,” he said, looking around him at the neighborhood. At the time, it sounded comforting, even inspiring. City Hall cared about us! Things were looking up! Of course, when I think back on those same words now, they sound ominous.
In the end, the family in the back elected to relocate and three of us moved out into temporary apartments. The other four tenants stayed on the property living on one side and then the other as half the apartments were rehabbed. When the work was done, I moved back into what amounted to a new apartment. All the wiring had been torn out, replaced and brought up to code. Paul told me that the apartments were structurally sound. All they had needed, really, were new kitchens and bathrooms, and now they had them.
It was a great relief. I felt secure. I would always have Helen Albert’s letter, and if anyone ever tried to go back on it, I could take it straight to City Hall and find redress, although as it turned out,I need not have worried about my income going up. It did go up, but it never exceeded the limit, although it came close in a couple of years.
The Nineties were relatively good to me career-wise. A friend from college began to direct low-budget movies on a regular basis and he always hired me to edit. But the same forces at work in the rest of economy were at work in the film business as well, especially in low budget and especially below the line.
The company I worked for shot most of its films in Romania, where crews worked for pennies compared to the dollars paid to American crews. Post-production still took place in L.A., but editing was computerized, which made the process easier, faster and more efficient. I loved editing on a computer, but it meant less work. A film that took 12 to 14 weeks to cut on film could be cut in six weeks on a computer. So to make the same amount of money, you had to be hired on two films, not just one. And my fallback position, sound editing, almost completely collapsed. What once took several rooms full of Moviolas and dozens of editors and assistants could now be done by two guys. You could even mix your film on a home computer if you wanted to. Post-production facilities started closing all over town.
Then direct-to-video went into steep decline. The sort of content people would pay for when VCRs were new could not compete with video games and the Internet. I still found some work, but not nearly enough. For a couple of years, I more or less lived off my savings. Fortunately, I had my rent-controlled apartment, or I would have gone under. Many of my friends did. They couldn’t make it, so they either moved back to the towns they came from to work in the family business, or they just moved away. I had a friend whom I knew wasn’t doing very well and was pushing the credit limit on all his cards. Then one day, he just disappeared. I called and the phone had been disconnected. Obviously, he felt so ashamed of what he saw as his own failure that he couldn’t even bring himself to say goodbye.
None of this was unique to the film business. It was happening in all kinds of businesses all over the country. Out-sourcing and automation. It was just the way it was.
Eventually, I found other work, editing legal reports. I work from my home, and I enjoy it. A lot of the cases are interesting. I don’t make as much as I once did, but I make enough to support myself, at least I do with my current rent. Over the past few years, I have even begun to rebuild my savings. I was not looking forward to a retirement of European travel, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to stay here where I have always lived, where I have close friends nearby, and where I very much enjoy living.
Over the years, I have watched the tenants come and go. One by one, the old men died off and were replaced by younger people. But because it’s not easy to get into affordable housing, people tend to stay once they’re here, and this fosters a sense of community. Plus this is a bungalow courts. When you pass your neighbors in a courtyard, it’s not like passing them in a hallway. You don’t just say hello, you tend to stop and talk. That’s how we all get to know each other so well.
One day, about two months ago, I ran into my fellow tenant Dr. Love in the courtyard (she has a first name we all call her by, but when she plays a public role, she prefers to go by Dr. Love). She told me that there was a rumor going around the neighborhood that WHCHC had bought the property to the north of us and intended to demolish all the buildings on both properties and put up something new. That’s why men had come around to take soil and building material samples a few weeks before. They were checking to see what the environmental costs of demolition might be. My first reaction was that this was just a rumor and couldn’t possibly be true. So I said, “Let’s just email them and find out what’s going on.” Dr. Love had the email address of Robin Conerly, the executive director of WHCHC, so I sent her an inquiry. Here are the relevant paragraphs of her response:
“The site immediately to the north is for sale, and we are in contract for its acquisition but have not yet purchased the property. We are in the process of doing our due diligence (hence the soil and building samples.) We have not yet contacted you or your neighbors because we do not want you to be concerned unnecessarily. Any speculation about what might happen there is premature as we do not yet own the site. We will keep all residents of our Bungalows community informed if we purchase the adjacent lot.”
Knowing what I know now, I would say that characterizing this email as misleading would be very generous. Even then, it sounded to me as though the rumors might be at least partially. Later Dr. Love learned from the neighbors that their property was in escrow. I decided to set up our Facebook page and I began take to all the photos that eventually became the slideshow. It took every moment of spare time I had for about three and a half weeks. My task was made more difficult by the fact that I did not have Photoshop or any kind of professional photographic software. I had a little rudimentary program that came with my camera, another program that came with my printer and a couple of free tools on line, each of which did separate things so that I had to keep moving back and forth between them. But I managed to do everything I wanted to do with the material. I put up the page a day or two before I left for Texas to spend Christmas with my family. I wanted to be able to show it to them, and I was gratified by their responses to see how effectively it seemed to make my case.
Even though the site was up, nobody knew about it yet. Dr. Love and I agreed that she would be our spokesperson. She is extroverted and a people person. I am just the opposite on both counts. Right before I left for Texas, she sent Mayor John D’Amico an email asking him to watch the slideshow and then meet with her. He “liked” the slideshow. But he did not call Dr. Love back. She and I both assumed this was just because of the holidays. He might even be out of town. Best to wait until after the New Year before publicizing the site any further.
On Jan. 5, Dr. Love sent out a barrage of emails to every City Council member, every member of the WHCHC board (except for a few whose emails we could not find), as well as preservationist organizations and community activists. The response was gratifying. There were comments and likes all over the website. Lauren Meister, who is a candidate for City Council, wrote: “If WHCHC is buying the property next door, they should build affordable units—on that property. But they should not evict the current residents of the Detroit Bungalows—this is their home. And how about we set a good example for Aging in Place?”
This was particularly satisfying since it is the very compromise I was hoping we would finally reach once the City Council members found out what was oing on and intervened. But other than John D’Amico’s early “like,” none of the sitting council members contacted us.
Then on Jan. 7 we found out why. From an article in WEHOville we learned that the City Council not only knew what WHCHC planned to do and had known about it for years, they gave them a million dollars to do it. The project already had a name—“Blue Hibiscus”—which almost certainly meant an architect was involved. Robin Conerly explained to the reporter that the Bungalows was an old building, that estimates a few years back put the cost of upgrading it at between $500,000 and $1,000,000, and that even then it would not be up to code. I have no way of knowing whether these estimates are valid or not, but I very much doubt that Conerly has ever been asked to produce them or been questioned closely about what was truly necessary and what wasn’t. She said that the tenants would be given “generous benefits packages.”
Dr. Love met with the woman they have hired to deal with us. She described various levels of payouts, all of which, no matter how “generous,” would soon be gone if we had to find housing on the open market. No one is offering to find us new apartments. We are on our own there, and no one really cares where we go, so long as we just go away. “I think they can all come back and live in the same building,” Robin Conerly told WEHOville. Note the weasel wording. She “thinks,” she doesn’t know, and she certainly doesn’t guarantee. Weasel words are what you use when you know the truth but don’t want to say it.
One of the activists who contacted us seemed to know more about the plans for our building than we did. She had come by to see the property earlier because, she said: “I found it so shocking that WHCHC would evict the residents who may not be able to get into their new building. As I heard it, it’s a HUD project and for some sort of particular special needs.” Robin Conerly told WEHOville that the building will house people living with HIV, homeless young people, the mentally ill and those with other special needs. That probably describes at least some of the people living here, but not me. I don’t have HIV. I’m not young, and I’m not homeless (at least, not yet). I avow that I am not mentally ill. And I don’t have any other special needs. So it looks like I’m one of the tenants who’s not eligible for this building.
And even if I were, how happy would I be in a building full of young people? I am 63 years old. To be perfectly honest, I am better fit for senior housing these days.
This article brought me to my knees. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t recall any other turn of fate for which I have been so utterly unprepared. I was shocked. I was devastated. But more anything else, I felt betrayed. Betrayed by the politicians for whom I voted again and again, decade after decade, confident that if I ever needed their help, I would have it. Especially if it involved rent control. Especially if it involved my housing. And instead, when they saw a steamroller pointed in my direction, they put gas in the tank and told the driver to floor it.
“September 1, 1939” is a poem that was written by W. H. Auden in a bar on 52nd Street in New York City on the day that Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II. All day long, lines from this poem have been drifting through my mind. WWII was a universal tragedy that reached into every corner of globe and killed between 60 and 85 million people. A handful of tenants being evicted from a little building in West Hollywood can hardly be compared to it. But when an everyday tragedy is your own, when it is your house being burned to the ground or your job being taken away or you get a diagnosis of cancer, it feels to you, at least for a while, as though the whole world, and not just your own little life, has been turned upside down.
“All I have is a voice” wrote Auden in the poem’s most famous verse. A voice to undo “the lie of Authority/Whose buildings grope the sky.” But if Authority is the lie, then what is the truth?
“There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.”
As I sit here in my little apartment late at night, I too am surrounded by corporate buildings that grope the sky and proclaim the strength of Authority. I too feel waves of anger and despair. I too am uncertain and afraid. It seems to me at this moment that the victory of the forces arrayed against me may very well be irreversible. For years now, they have plotted their moves in the dark and I have lived in a dream. I do not know what the future holds for me, what battles I will have to fight, what griefs I will have to bear. Like Auden, all I have is a voice and our Facebook page and WEHOville on which to post it, and all I know is what is in my heart at this moment: that this was once a city where we all strove to love one another, but that somewhere along the way, the ground shifted beneath my feet, and now it seems I must watch, helpless, while everything I ever loved about my city slowly dies.
[Note: As I was writing this, Dr. Love received the following email from Mayor John D’Amico:
“This is the beginning of a very long process that will require me to make a vote or two as this proceeds. Now is the time for the community to weigh in and for me to listen. I hear you and of course I understand your concerns about your own home. I will continue to follow this closely and advocate for what’s best for the residents.”
So maybe things aren’t as hopeless as I thought. But this essay is meant to be a snapshot of the moment at which it was written.]