VANISHING: The history of one house in Los Angeles

One day last spring, the house simply appeared, an apparition near the corner of Washington and Vermont. It was late Victorian in design, white, wooden and two-story, with a steep roof, gables and a wide front porch, and there was nothing around it but empty land. It looked like a Midwestern farmhouse in a freshly plowed field, somehow dropped before the ivy-covered slope of the 10 freeway–an inner-city dream, a hallucination.

Up close, there was a rational explanation. A chain-link fence surrounded the house and the land around it, 14 acres that were the future site of an L.A. Unified high school. Until recently, there had been a neighborhood here; the house at 1548 W. 20th St., hidden for nearly 100 years by a storage building, billboard painting facility and small businesses, was the last structure standing. And its reappearance offered something more rare than a mirage, and more precious: a glimpse of the city’s past.

The house went up around the turn of the century, though the precise date has been lost. Fading, barely legible real estate deeds record that on May 5, 1893, a woman named Anna Southwick sold a lot at this location (as well as another) to her husband, Thomas, for $5, but how she came by the land, and whether there was any structure on it, is unclear. A Sanborn fire insurance map dated 1894 shows a building at this address, but it’s not clear if the map is original or a later reissue. L.A. County tax records written in ornate, old-fashioned script on crumbling pages show assessments for the site as early as 1901–as far back as the books go–but the names of owners through 1910, including the Southwicks, are written without dates. And the Department of Building and Safety has no record of any early construction; the first permit on file, for the addition of a back staircase, is dated 1912.

But whoever built the house very likely was Midwestern and white, because that’s who was flocking to Los Angeles then, part of an early real estate boom, as suburban pioneers staked claims in the middle of nowhere. Downtown was thriving, bristling with big buildings and banks, but the acres west of Figueroa, which had been annexed in 1896, were little but scrub and farmland extending to Western Avenue, where the city stopped.
A photograph taken at the intersection of Western and Pico in 1903 shows a small group of people on bicycles heading north on a dirt road into absolute emptiness.

Those first owners probably weren’t rich people. Nearby, in the district that would be called West Adams, developers and power brokers–Abbott Kinney, Edward Doheny, Frederick Rindge–were constructing palaces in neighborhoods with names like Westacres, Kinney Heights and Berkeley Square. The house on West 20th was nothing like those mansions, with their beveled-glass china cabinets, marble fireplaces and mahogany floors. It was a respectable family home, well-built and strong, with fine redwood siding and a brick and mortar foundation that would miraculously withstand a century of earthquakes, and comfortably spacious, with a living room and two parlors set off with pocket doors and a big kitchen downstairs, and four bedrooms upstairs, each with its own gas jet for heat. A wide staircase and two-story foyer connected them.
Ceilings were high and moldings wide. The house faced north. If Anna and Thomas Southwick slept in the master bedroom, they would have looked out tall bay windows decorated with leaded glass to an unbroken view of the Los Feliz hills.

The population of L.A. nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910, and the streets around the house, with now-vanished names like Aubrey, Thornton and Warner, soon filled. It was a middle-class neighborhood, a collection of Victorians and, later, Craftsman bungalows. But around 1916, a seven-story Lyons Storage building went up a block away, and the area became more and more commercial, with small storefronts and brick buildings with vaults where highly flammable celluloid film was stored. In 1920, billboard pioneers Walter Foster and George Kleiser moved their Los Angeles office and operating plant to a several-acre lot that ran from Washington to 20th Street.
By then, the Southwicks had long since moved on. Mary and Joseph Newkirk owned the house, along with Hilliard Stricklin, Frank Simmonds and Albert J. Wilson, and George B. Wilson “as trustee.” The new owners may have been even less affluent than the Southwicks, or they may have been investors, because by 1920 tax records show the house being used as a duplex. By 1925, even neighborhoods such as Berkeley Square were losing their cachet, as the city spread west and the rich followed, to Hancock Park and Beverly Hills. The West 20th Street neighborhood continued its downwardly mobile slide, and the Depression was one more blow. The home’s tax valuation plunged, from $2,710 in 1925 to $1,020 in 1945.

It passed through more hands: William A. Wilson, Faith B. Wilson (relatives of Albert J.
and George B.?), Ogden Reid, Alfred and Vida Darby, Leroy Erich, Harry Evans, Walter Hawkins. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the racial covenants that in many L.A. neighborhoods had forbidden lease, sale or conveyance of property “to any person not of the Caucasian race.” African American families moved into and around West Adams, and with depressing predictability, whites fled. In the mid-1960s, the new Santa Monica Freeway tore through the heart of the area, destroying dozens of homes and further marginalizing those that remained. It rose like a monster just behind 1548 W. 20th, and the adjoining streets grew even more dense and run-down, new cinderblock apartments crammed up against the fading old homes, everything dead-ending in the roar of traffic. By then, Donovan and Ruby Smith had owned the house for six years, and it was changed beyond anything the Southwicks or Newkirks might have recognized, carved up into a boardinghouse of tiny rooms, each with a number on the door and dropped “cottage cheese” ceilings glaring with fluorescent lights.

Once again, a real estate boom changed everything. By the mid- 1980s, soaring Westside home prices had pushed the middle class east, where it “discovered” West Adams. The Smiths sold their house to an investor who quickly resold to Jackie and Sandra Spivey, professionals who raised four children there, loved the house, and spent all their available time and money resurrecting its former glory. Sometimes the past literally resurfaced. In the early ’90s, a collector knocked on the Spiveys’ door, asking to dig in their yard at what he said was once the site of an outhouse. A six-foot hole produced dozens of old bottles, smoking pipes, a porcelain doll’s head. By 2000, the house gleamed with cream and white paint and, says Sandra Spivey, was as nice as anything you’d find in Hancock Park.

That same year, though, L.A. Unified moved in with its power of eminent domain and an offer that couldn’t be refused. The Spiveys left for a new life in Las Vegas, and it looked like the end. As the school district’s builders prepared to bulldoze the area, there was outcry from preservationists, but not much legally could be done. This was a poor neighborhood, with homes so haphazardly modified they were no longer “historic,” merely old. In the end, six of the houses put up for auction were bought for $1 each by John Joseph Ramos, a sometimes developer who believes in using old homes for affordable housing. When he couldn’t find empty lots onto which he could move them, several were demolished anyway, their moldings and cabinets salvaged for use in other renovations. One small house was successfully relocated to Union and 22nd.

The Victorian at 1548 was a harder sell because it was so big that it would have to be cut into pieces for a move. Potential deals materialized, then fell apart; LAUSD deadlines came and went. “I let the house stay out there longer than most other people would have,” acknowledges Kip Drabeck, the new school’s project manager. He wanted to see it through to the end. Meanwhile, it sat empty, an orphan house in an orphan neighborhood, and vandals steadily undid all the Spiveys’ hard work. The crumbling walls were covered with graffiti, the carpet was burned, the grand staircase lost part of its banister. Pigeons flew in through smashed windows to roost upstairs, until their droppings crusted the carefully polished oak floors.

Finally, in late 2004, Ramos made a successful connection with Helio Marquez, who grew up admiring old Spanish colonial homes in his native Corinto, El Salvador, and owned a house in West Adams with a lot just big enough to also hold the Victorian, which he wanted to restore for his extended family. “In my country, they don’t do this kind of thing,” Marquez says. “I will try to find a picture, to make it historic.” By March, the house was being prepared for its move, which was scheduled for this month, and excavation for school construction had begun. Soon, all traces of the former neighborhood would be gone, and the lot that held the house for so long would become part of a baseball field. That’s the way it always is here, where the future erases the past so completely that it takes even its memory. But the house would have a new life, and through those last months, as rain fell and wind scoured the air clean, turning the light to pure gold, it sat there, in the open, for everyone to see. For that brief, strange time, it was again what it had been at the start, a handsome white Victorian in the empty space of a city on the brink of change.

The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused

 

 

The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.

“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?” 

First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.

These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food. 

Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”

Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero. 

Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed. 

The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.

“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”

At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge. 

He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.

Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”

 

For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series­—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel­—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.

Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way. 

“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)

“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.) 

Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.

“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies. 

Most Americans Have Pets. Almost One Third Can’t Afford Their Vet Care

Since mid-2020, more than a thousand low-income families have brought their sick and suffering pets to the nonprofit Pet Support Space, housed in a tiny Los Angeles storefront. One 14-year-old dog had a tumor that a veterinarian had quoted $5,000 to remove. A four-year-old pit bull had been vomiting for days, a cat’s painful bladder stones required surgery, a pug limped from the foxtail embedded in its paw. Skin and ear infections abounded. Neither the animals’ problems nor their owners’ inability to afford help for them was a surprise.

recent nationwide study found almost 28 percent of households with pets experienced barriers to veterinary care, with finances being the most common reason. In low-income households, the researchers found, financial and housing insecurity can increase the risks that animals will not receive the care they need. Sociologist Arnold Arluke, author of Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty estimates that 66 percent of pets in poverty have never seen a vet at all.

The “why” behind those numbers is complex. Of course, money is the primary problem. Veterinary care is expensive. A majority of practitioners work in for-profit clinics, consolidation in the industry has increased emphasis on profit margins, and vet prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. That has checkups starting at $50, dental cleaning going for $70-$400, and blood work and x-rays at $80-$250. If a dog breaks a leg or eats a sock, surgery costs begin at four figures.

High prices aren’t necessarily about greed. Michael Blackwell, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, is the chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) that was formed in 2016 to study this very problem. Veterinary training, he said, teaches vets to practice a “gold standard” of care, which means running every possible diagnostic test and pursuing every treatment option, even when a client’s budget is limited. (Many pet owners don’t know they can decline a recommended procedure, such as blood work, and even fewer are willing to decline care for fear of looking heartless.)

Some private vets offer struggling clients discounts, added Jeremy Prupas, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the City of Los Angeles, but they themselves carry an average of $150,000 in student loan debt, so they simply “can’t carry the immense existing need on their own.” Telling clients you can’t help them because they have no money is one of the leading causes of burnout in the veterinary profession, according to Prupas. Pet insurance might help defray costs but requires monthly premiums and comes with such a complicated array of deductibles, co-pays, caps, and exclusions that one how-to guide recommends hiring an attorney to review the policy. Credit cards designed for medical care financing, if one can qualify, can carry punishing interest rates as high as 26.99 percent.

Equally critical is a long-term failure on the part of the animal welfare movement to consider, much less prioritize, the needs of low-income pet owners. Since the 1990s, the rescue/humane world has poured vast amounts of funding and energy into cutting shelter euthanasia through adoption, but far less into helping those without money take care of the pets they have. “If you can’t afford an animal,” the thinking went, “then you shouldn’t have one.”

“Until recently, we focused on shelter-centric challenges,” acknowledged Amanda Arrington, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’s Pets for Life Program, which assists low-income pet owners. “There was a lot of judgment and making determinations on who was or wasn’t deserving of support and resources that was influenced by what I think a lot of society is influenced by, which is classism and racism. We conflated a lack of financial means and access with how much someone loves their pet or desires to care for it.”

In fact, owners can be punished because they can’t afford veterinary care — “most humane neglect cases stem from an inability to get care for a pet,” said Prupas. In Michigan, for example, failing to provide an animal with adequate care, including medical attention, is a misdemeanor that can carry 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. With a second violation, it becomes a felony.

The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true.

What exists for pet owners in poverty is a patchwork of low-cost care options, ranging from local efforts — such as Emancipet in Texas and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — to well-funded national enterprises such as Pets for Life, which operates in several dozen cities. The great majority, however, offer only basic services like sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatments. “We are not a full-service veterinary clinic and do not treat sick or injured pets,” warns one low-cost option on its website. Another suggests that needy people travel, since “vets in smaller towns may charge lower fees,” or start a GoFundMe. As a result, many types of care are largely unavailable: emergency care (by some estimates one in three pets will have an emergency need each year), management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, medication, dental care (dental disease affects perhaps 80 percent of older dogs), and the mercy of humane euthanasia (which can run $50-$300).

The final piece of the care gap is a practical and cultural disconnect. Because many economically challenged neighborhoods are “vet deserts,” with few if any practitioners, it’s not easy to find care, and reaching it can require wrangling an unhappy animal over distance and/or arranging private transportation. Keeping an appointment at an office with weekday-only business hours or a once a month clinic can mean losing a day’s pay. Paperwork raises the fear of immigration status inquiries. The veterinary profession also remains one of the country’s whitest: Just as people who feel alienated or unwelcome don’t utilize human health care options, pointed out Arluke, they don’t utilize care for their pets.

The result has been suffering: most directly for animals that remain untreated, die from what vets call “economic euthanasia” (putting an animal down because treatment costs too much), or end up in shelters. Fear of a looming vet bill, and the mistaken belief that all shelter animals receive medical care, is a prime cause of owner surrender.

But people pay, too.

Some sick animals can infect their humans. Roundworms, for example, can pass through contact with pet feces and cause lung, heart, and eye problems. Blackwell reports meeting an optometrist who practices in a low-income Florida community who has seen increasing numbers of children with roundworm larvae in their eyes.

The psychic toll is just as real. Families in poverty who love their pets and for whom “they offer an emotional core and possibly one of the only sources of joy” face “mental and emotional” devastation from the unimaginable choice of weighing that love against potential financial ruin, said Blackwell. Professor Katja M. Guenther, author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, called the rupture of an animal-human bond “a kind of community violence” in a 2021 webinar.

Change seems increasingly possible. Covid-19 and the country’s recent racial and economic reckoning has prompted humane organizations to examine their assumptions and biases about who has the “right” to a pet’s love, and, said Arrington, there’s increasing recognition that “racial and economic injustice really impacts animal welfare.” Meanwhile, AlignCare, a new program out of Michael Blackwell’s Program for Pet Health Equity, is trying to create a national model of something like Medicaid for domestic animals. Under the program, families already found to be struggling (because they participate in SNAP or a similar program) and who ask for help at a shelter or veterinary clinic will be signed up and paired with a veterinary social worker or support coordinator. They’ll then be directed to a veterinarian who has agreed to offer preventative, dental, and even critical care, for a reduced fee; AlignCare will pay 80 percent of the cost. After three years of pilot programs in 10 disparate communities, it’s taking on its biggest challenge yet, Los Angeles, where one in five people live in poverty.

AlignCare won’t offer “gold standard” care, instead emphasizing preventative, incremental, and cost-saving measures (such as offering telehealth appointments and limiting diagnostics that won’t change treatment options) when possible. But it will expand the human safety net to include the animals most of us now consider part of our families. And while the effort is currently funded by grants from Maddie’s Fund, the Duffield Foundation, and Petsmart Charities, Blackwell’s goal is “community ownership:” The combined involvement of local vets, city animal services departments, social service agencies, rescue and community organizations, pet food and product manufacturers, and affluent pet owner-donors can make the model self-sustaining.

There is no perfect solution for low-income pet owners who need help accessing veterinary care. But growing awareness of the problem is a big step forward. “What we call ‘animal welfare’ is changing,” said Lori Weise, whose nonprofit, Downtown Dog Rescue, runs the Pet Support Space. “The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true. People can’t afford care. Sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there; they themselves have never been in a hospital. As more people are brought into the system, we’ll see the first generation to get proper veterinary care.”

 

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