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Rodger Young Village, the Local United Nations

On Dec 23, 2023

 

At the end of World War II, thousands of servicemen and women returned to Los Angeles and looked for a house to rent. Thousands of workers who came earlier to the Los Angeles area to work in aircraft factories already occupied the affordable homes. Two thousand homeless veterans were sleeping in MacArthur Park. (Sound familiar?) This was no way to treat soldiers who had fought to defend their country. Housing had to be found.

Mayor Fletcher Bowron favored converting the National Guard Airfield in Griffith Park into a site for temporary housing for vets in 1946. Located where the Zoo parking lot is now, it had many positive features: it was flat and it already had gas, water and sewer lines. Remember that in 1946 there was no I-5 and no St. Rte. 134 so the site was much larger than the current zoo parking lot. The two large airplane hangers could be adapted into a school and a market, and1,500 Quonset huts could house 5,000.

This proposal created a quandary for Van Griffith. He was generally a progressive person and favored subsidizing housing for the vets. However as the son of Griffith J. Griffith, the donor of Griffith Park, he was charged with protecting the Park. Van Griffith formally opposed using the parkland for a housing project because it was not a recreational use of the park per his father´s deed of gift and filed a lawsuit. He also feared the project would become permanent and be lost to the Park forever. Griffith suggested an alternative. The city had 30,000 parcels of foreclosed property at the time. He proposed renting the properties to vets and putting a Quonset hut on each property. That way the vet could eventually acquire the property and begin building generational wealth. He understood that many landlords would not rent to families with children so there were few options available to them.

The judge denied Griffith´s lawsuit. Opposing housing for vets was a highly unpopular position to take at that time. Griffith´s stand to protect Griffith Park cost him; Mayor Bowron removed Griffith from the Police Commission.

The City Housing Authority gave $1,040,000 which was matched by federal funds. The city provided streets, sidewalks and utilities. City Council waived all zoning and building codes and issued a permit to operate the housing project for three years.

The City quickly put up 1,500 Quonset huts, corrugated metal buildings used frequently by the military during the war. (Quonset stands for ‘Quick On Site.’) Each family got half a Quonset hut, roughly 40′ by 20′ with two bedrooms, a kitchen with a stove and icebox, and five feet of lawn in front. Rent was $34 a month for an unfurnished unit, $40 for a furnished unit. The village was completed in a little more than two months.

Why was it called Rodger Young Village?

Noted Hollywood songwriter, Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) was a private in the Army´s Radio Production Unit during the war. Loesser´s 1942 war song, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, became a big hit. They asked him to write an infantry song to encourage the troops. Loesser decided to base the song on a Medal of Honor recipient. He searched the list of recipients, a logical place to find a hero worthy of song. He could have chosen Arnold L. Bjorklund, Ernest H. Dervishian, Jose M. Lopez, Shizuya Hayashi, or Peter Tomich, medal recipients all, to show the ethnic diversity of America´s armed forces, but he did not.

Loesser admitted that he wasn´t really looking for the greatest hero but for a name that — to his professional songwriter´s ear — would scan well. Fitting the bill was Private First Class Rodger Young who was posthumously awarded the medal for single-handedly charging and taking out an enemy machine gun nest in the Solomon Islands allowing the rest of his platoon to survive. The Ballad of Rodger Young was sung by such noted singers as Burl Ives, Nelson Eddy, Earl Wrightson and The Four Lads, and although it was popular with the infantry, the tune never became a big hit.

The grand opening

Mayor Bowron pulled out all the stops for the dedication of the village on April 27, 1946. This is Hollywood after all. The event featured Jack Benny, Don Wilson, band leader Phil Harris, Bette Davis, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, and Governor Earl Warren. Dennis Day sang The Ballad of Rodger Young. Of course Young´s mother was flown in from Baltimore for the occasion.

Who lived there?

As you might imagine with returning vets and all those war brides, Rodger Young Village (RYV) was full of small children. The on-site elementary school had more students than Los Feliz Elementary School.

One of those kids was Peter Aguilar in his sombrero. He enjoyed a happy childhood in Griffith Park playing with all the other little kids. The village featured a market, church and shops. Many residents planted flowers in front of their Quonset hut. The Fuller Brush man regularly knocked on doors offering his wares. A man with a camera, pony, and a little cowboy outfit came regularly to take pictures of kids on the pony. Peter´s little brother Victor, age 3, wasn´t too sure what to make of the pony. Peter lived in RYV so long that his uncles, who were fighting in the Korean War, came to visit when they were on leave.

Chuck Levin only lived in RYV until he was three years old, but his mother Sylvia helped preserve his memories. She invited a photographer from the local newspaper, The Mirror to cover Chuck´s second birthday party in 1949. The United Nations had just been formed in 1948. Sylvia observed the United Nations atmosphere of the party where all the neighborhood kids attended regardless of race or religion.

The Mirror returned to RYV to photograph Chuck´s third birthday party with headline: ‘Small Fry UN: Kids´ Party Welcomes All Creeds.’ Half a dozen races and creeds were represented at Chuck´s home at 1073 Rodger Young Village. Among the excited guests were Sarah Dawson, Lester Bond, Dennis Pearce, Deri Brown, Bobby Leon, Karen Epstein, Martin Epstein, Patricia Naritomi, Doris Skiffer, John Calvin Brown, Jr. and Karen Topolnak.

The Mirror commented that ‘Sylvia Levin might have what statesmen are trying to find.’ Sylvia was quoted: ‘We want our son to see all people on the same level. We´ve always lived peacefully among people of all races and religions and we want our children to learn to treat everyone alike.’

Chuck is very proud of his mother. She came to California with only an elementary school education; however as The Mirror noted, she had plenty of wisdom. During World War II while her husband served in the Army in Italy, Sylvia worked at an aircraft factory in Los Angeles. After the war the family moved to RYV where Sylvia, now a single mom, raised Chuck and his little sister. The natural integration of the residents of RYV obviously had an impact on Sylvia who instilled a sense of civic duty in her children. Chuck expresses his current humanitarian ideals by providing food and cushions to homeless people living on the streets.

After the war a new slogan was circulating around the country: ‘Old enough to fight; old enough to vote.’ The 26th Amendment to the US Constitution passed in record time lowering the age to vote from 21 to 18. Chuck became a deputy Registrar of Voters to sign up all those new potential voters. (He still has that card!)

Chuck asked his mother to help him in the summer of 1973. She too became a deputy Registrar of Voters and went to work signing up people to vote. And she never stopped; she actively registered voters until she died in 2009 at the age of 92. She registered more voters than anyone else in Los Angeles County. As a matter of fact, Sylvia Levin registered more voters than anyone else in the country! 47,000! She is scheduled to be honored by Councilmember Paul Koretz with the dedication of Sylvia Levin Democracy Square near Canter´s Deli.

There was a high turnover rate in RYV as vets found homes elsewhere. The Levins left after a few years to share a home on Western Avenue with their former RYV neighbors, a Black family. By 1953 the federal Housing and Home Finance Office declared the housing emergency over. The Recreation and Park Commission extended the lease to RYV until 1954 on the condition that they accept no new residents. But the final blow to the village was the coming of the new freeway which would run right through RYV. Rodger Young Village was formally closed on March 14, 1954.

Do you know anyone who lived in RYV? We would love to hear from them about their experiences. Please contact us at: newsletter@friendsofgriffithpark.org.

~Marian Dodge, FoGP Board Member

Photo: The sheer size of Rodger Young Village can only be appreciated from above, as indicated by this image post WWII.

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