Meditations on the meaning of Space


The building called “Senderos” is an improbably purple-colored building in a residential area where a visitor can see Victorian-aged single-family properties of varied quality and condition, intermingled with apartment buildings, many of which conceal the slum conditions that can be found within. Esperanza owns four of the apartment buildings, which have all been beautifully rehabbed and rented to local low income families, most of whom were relocated to these buildings from surrounding substandard properties or returned to the same building once they were transformed from their former slum conditions. Senderos is one of those buildings.

Senderos had been one of the most outrageous slums in the region; in fact the target of a community action held in the mid-eighties to publicize the injustice and health and safety hazards of LA’s slum housing. When Esperanza first secured this building from foreclosure, and temporarily relocated its residents, the building’s basement was a cesspool reflecting all the decay and neglect of the tiny single room units that had housed twenty-one households in squalid conditions.

Since 2001, when the rehab and lease-up of Senderos was complete, underneath its purple painted-brick exterior, the building has provided quality multi-bedroom affordable housing to thirteen families. As for the basement, it has been built out as a training room for Esperanza’s Promotores de Salud. As a training room, the space is challenged by the presence of two structural pillars, which each annual class must work creatively around during their six-month intensive community health training program. It is not a luxurious space, but it is ours — and a strong sense of ownership is felt by the promotores who train and meet there.

During the first Promotora class held at Senderos, the trainees were treated to the sounds of the family directly above them: children running up and down the corridor, in and out of bedrooms, dragging toys and furniture from one side of their domain to another. At times it sounded like a herd of small elephants. So in addition to adjusting to the peculiarities of the space, the trainees had to adjust to working under the occasional footfall of galumphing elephants. During one such session, one of the trainees asked why, whenever the running around would begin, I would laugh while others found the sound so irritating. In answer, I described the conditions that the family had lived in before this apartment: a vermin-infested single room occupied by a family of five, dank with moisture, dark with mold and failing lead-paint, a bathroom with faulty plumbing, and reeking of cockroaches despite the mother’s desperate attempts to keep the place clean. Wall-to-wall mattresses were the only space for family activity – sleep, play and mealtimes. So I laugh when I hear the “elephants.” It is the sound of people celebrating the space they now call home.

In time, even though the sounds of the “elephants” would occasionally repeat, the trainees — all community residents themselves — would look to the ceiling, smile and continue their work. The sound had simply become a background theme, underscoring the point so often made in the class that housing is a fundamental health issue.

Miss Rose

Rose lived in our community for more than thirty years. She knew every doorway, every neighbor. She was very selective about whom she would speak to, ignoring most. She took her meals with the Sisters of Social Service who lived on the corner, stashing the bags of her belongings only in areas she felt were safe. She slept at their doorstep. She knew the birthdays of her favorite Sisters.

Before sleeping on the street, Rose had slept in her car, until mounting parking tickets and other nuisance fines forced her to give that up. The car had been impounded by the LAPD many years ago. In recent years when the police or the officious bicycle patrolmen of the Figueroa Corridor B.I.D. (“Business Improvement District”) would harass her, we would run interference, insisting that she belonged and they did not. Our community was sanctuary for Rose.

When the Sisters of Social Service relocated to their retirement center in the Valley, Rose came to Esperanza. She would sit for much of the day, with her bags, at the entranceway of the Esperanza offices. She would sleep in the foliage that landscapes the front of our building. During the day, she would sit in the doorway writing letters. Rose had a beautiful handwriting and wrote many, many letters to her family: a sister in Newport, a brother in the Mid West. Every year there would be a family reunion. Her family would make arrangements for Rose to join them. She would return from these vacations feeling well loved, and resume her life and her usual habits.

We received her mail, and gave her space to make her phone calls, for which she used a phone card. She had a preference for only one desk which she would use whenever she was ready to come up and use the phone or collect her mail. Occasionally, when one of us would come to the office and invite her in, she would look up at the interruption and say that she was not ready yet. We would make her coffee (with freshly ground beans, milk and two sugars). Sometimes she would complain that it wasn’t sweet enough. Sometimes she would disappear before it was done. She never used our mugs, preferring to drink only from the recycled Styrofoam cups that were among her possessions.

Although she was welcome to use our bathrooms, she never did. Rose had a phobia about bathrooms. Back in the days when institutions would attempt to “house” her, she would subvert the arrangement by mucking up the plumbing, shoving whole rolls of paper into the toilet. This much we knew. We respected her ways and tried to provide her with as much hospitality as she could endure.

Last May, two days following her happy return from a family reunion in Las Vegas, Rose died. The police found her, in a seated position, back to the street (rare for Rose) in one of her doorways. They identified her through the police record of ancient parking violations. Among her possessions were found the blankets, pantyhose, and socks that her friends in the community had given to her. On each object, in her beautiful handwriting was the name of the person who had given it to Rose. Several of us gathered in a memorial. In her death, she gathered a small community of folks – many of us realizing for the first time the extent of Rose’s local network. Collectively, we had provided Rose with her sense of space and belonging. We had provided her food, clothes, blankets, sanctuary and kept her dignity in tact.

A Personal Story: The Persistence of Memory

My father-in-law is a refugee. Like thousands of other Palestinians, he was expelled with his family from his village in 1948. Like so many other villages, his was entirely destroyed. Leaving his family in the refugee camp, in 1955 he came to this country, moving to the same New York City street my father was born on, in another, different immigration wave a generation earlier. Over the years he relocated his family, one by one, also assisting his eight brothers and sister and their families to make a new life in this country. Here he has worked hard to raise his nine children, and provide loving support to his twenty-four grandchildren and growing number of great-grandchildren. Retired now, he is a respected community elder, social activist, family chronicler and poet. In recent years he has grown profoundly hard of hearing. He has taken on the attributes of a cantankerous old man, living very much in the isolation of his own head, although still brightening at the sight of his family – present or in photographs. He rallies to be social when he is (often) asked to preside at family or community functions.

Over the past several years, in the privacy of his home and the isolation of his thoughts, my father-in-law has quietly, persistently and painstakingly been working on a project in a new medium. Using a retractable window shade as his canvas, my father-in-law has recreated a map of his beloved village, a detailed map that includes every road, lane, well, fruit tree, each olive orchard, olive press and wheat mill, the community oven, and every single household of the village. Although the space has been completely occupied and destroyed since 1948, the map of Jimzu lives, and with it a roadmap of the heart for all those displaced from their beloved community.