For a burglar there would seem to be better targets for a break-in than Luther Tower. A few blocks west and south of the high-rise building at Second and Beech, hotels and restaurants line the harbor and cater to businessmen and tourists who have money to spend. Several blocks north and west of Luther Tower, but still within a long walking distance, there are neighborhoods of old but expensive homes inhabited by residents more wealthy than those in the Luther Tower apartments. A serious burglar, willing to risk years in jail for a night’s work, could travel a few blocks farther than Luther Tower to secure a more lucrative take. But he couldn’t secure something Luther Tower guarantees: an elderly victim, probably weaker, older, and easier to intimidate than any other class of victim.
For seven years Hugh and Louise Lawrence have managed Luther Tower, which is one of three high-rise apartment buildings that sit within four blocks of each other on Third Avenue downtown. There are no doormen, elegant entranceways, saunas, or swimming pools at any of the three buildings, all of which were built to house senior citizens. There are, however, shuffleboard courts. At fifty-seven, Hugh Lawrence is a youngster in the building in which he both lives and works.
The highest monthly rent at Luther Tower, for a one-bedroom apartment, is $204. The lowest monthly rent is $108 for a studio. Each of the three buildings was built under various sections of federal housing laws as low-rent housing for the elderly; to be eligible to live at Luther Tower, a single elderly person can’t have an annual income of more than $13,450, and an elderly couple can’t earn more than $15,350. Eligibility rules differ slightly among the buildings — some are stricter than others, but the effects are essentially the same. The wealthy needn’t bother to apply.
Architecturally, Luther Tower is a monument to dull utility. It isn’t ugly, but neither is it pretty. Tall and rectangular, the building lacks the irregularities or unexpected shapes and curves that make other buildings pleasing eye-catchers. Two sides are narrow, flat, and windowless. Two sides, are broad, horizontally striped by balcony banisters and sliding glass doors.
Louise and Hugh Lawrence had always assumed that the first row of balconies on the tower, a row that extends from the second story, was out of reach of intruders. There are no vertical posts bracing the balconies from the ground, no posts that a prowler could easily shinny up to reach the apartments. Tower residents understandably felt entirely secure after their doors were locked at night. Then late at night on January 13, the Lawrences got a phone call that quashed any sense that the building was impenetrable.
A resident of Cathedral Plaza, a senior citizen’s residence at Third and Cedar, half a block up the street from Luther Tower, was on the phone. She told Louise Lawrence that her husband was looking out his tenth-floor window with binoculars and saw a man climb onto the second-floor balconies of Luther Tower and try to open the row of locked windows. The neighbor was watching the prowler move along the balconies as gracefully as a cat, climbing from one story to the next.
Hugh Lawrence rushed outside to the parking lot between the tower and Third Avenue. His wife called the police and then alerted an assistant manager. Within seconds she heard gunfire. She knew Hugh had been shot. “I knew it but no one had told me. I felt them hit. ” Without hesitating, she called the police again, this time telling them to send paramedics.
Hugh Lawrence had been standing in the parking lot, watching the intruder climb between the third- and second-floor balconies. The prowler spotted him and opened fire. He shot three times, hitting Lawrence once before the manager, an ex-Marine, dove for cover between two parked cars. He barely missed getting hit by the second and third bullets.
As the first police car arrived, the intruder descended from the second-floor balcony to the ground and ran. A two-block area became an impromptu combat zone as police chased the intruder. The zone ended at the Wilsonia Hotel, a dingy hotel at Second Avenue and Cedar where rooms rent for forty dollars a week.
James Canyon was asleep in his rented room at the Wilsonia when gunshots shattered the quiet. Startled awake. Canyon rolled out of bed and pulled his mattress over himself for protection until he realized the gunfire was outside. Several minutes of confusion followed. At some point Canyon propped open the hotel’s front door with a table, allowing police to enter and climb the hotel stairs to a door that opened onto the roof. Once at the roof, an officer, gun drawn, confronted twenty-seven-year-old Harold Weinlauf.
Weinlauf was more than six blocks from the Eighth Avenue YMCA where he had a room. Rather than run through the dark to his room or someplace far from the shooting, he chose to climb with gymnastic ease to the roof of a hotel less than two blocks from Luther Tower. Why he stayed so close to the shooting scene is a mystery. That he was determined not to be captured is certain. As the officer looked on, Weinlauf escaped capture and prosecution by pointing his own .38 caliber revolver to his head and Firing. He was dead in an instant.
Meanwhile, Louise Lawrence, in a state of near-hysteria, certain that her husband was dead, pushed her way through paramedics and police in the Luther Tower parking lot. A bullet had entered her husband ’s right shoulder, driven down through his lung, and exited through his back. Blood was streaming from the wound across about ten feet of parking lot pavement. But he was alive and conscious enough to tell his wife he was all right.
Paramedics rushed Lawrence to Mercy Hospital, where he spent about a week recovering from emergency surgery. When he went home, Luther Tower residents packed the lobby and lined the hallway to welcome him back. His recovery was not complete, though; in March, Lawrence was under the surgeon’s knife again for a back ailment aggravated by the leap and fall he made while dodging bullets.
For ten days after the shooting, an armed guard patrolled Luther Tower. After the guard was removed, the building’s tenants petitioned the property management company to have the lobby doors locked twenty-four hours. Until the shooting, the doors were locked only after 5:00 p.m., and then unlocked each morning, allowing tenants — and anyone else — easy entry during daylight.
Louise Lawrence requested permission from the building’s management company, her employers, to lock the door. Until they gave the okay, she didn’t feel she had the authority to do it herself. Then, one afternoon while she was sitting in her ground-floor office, a disheveled man who appeared to be drunk or deranged came to the office’s locked sliding glass door and tried to force his way in. Lawrence asked what he wanted. He demanded a job. She said she didn’t have a job for him, and the man left.
A short time later the man returned, this time through the unlocked lobby door. Lawrence found herself backed into a comer, facing the man who was still demanding a job. A building cleaning woman heard the commotion. Brandishing a hammer, she helped chase the intruder out of the building. That day, more than seventeen years after Luther Tower First opened its doors to residents, Louise Lawrence locked the lobby for good.
With the doors locked, the Lawrences feel safe in their building. Each is several years from old age and could move to another neighborhood and job, but they’ve decided not to. What happened to them at Luther could have happened anywhere, they figure. Louise Lawrence has noticed changes in her neighborhood, but she reasons that the whole world is changing. She apologizes for saying so, but the would-be burglar’s suicide was a blessing of sorts. It meant there would be no lengthy trial. It meant it would be easier to forget about that night in January. The Lawrences are ready to put the event behind them.
But to many of the residents of the senior citizens’ towers along Third Avenue, the bullet that pierced Hugh Lawrence ’s lung punctuated a growing feeling that things are changing in their downtown neighborhood. For many, the changes are creating a lifestyle based on fear. Fear of strangers, fear of the dark. Fears that they drummed into their children are, ironically, coming back to haunt them.
Still, rather than move to suburban senior citizens’ apartment buildings they stay downtown. They urge their friends to move downtown. They create waiting lists to get into the three Third Avenue buildings and the three brand-new government-sponsored towers: San Diego Square (Ninth and Broadway), Lions Manor (Third and Market), and Horton House (Third and G). The waiting lists for the low-rent housing stretch so that the last on the list can expect to wait three to four years before getting into one of the apartments. For downtown developers, the elderly have become the guinea pigs (some would probably rather say pioneers) for their efforts to populate and renew the city’s heart. For the elderly, the developers are providing something they want, an affordable place to live where they’ll be close to the action. Close to stores, parks, museums, the harbor, theater. Anything that differs from the slow, tedious predictability of life in a suburb. Anything that makes them less dependent on automobiles and the #fast concrete arteries that free the young and frighten the old.
Pat Whalen refuses to tell her age, but admits she’s well beyond seventy-five. She moved into a thirteenth-floor apartment in Cathedral Plaza the first month it opened seven years ago. The apartment is a small studio, but a window that runs the length and height of the east side of the room makes it seem bigger. The window frames a comer of downtown, part of Balboa Park and Interstate 5.
When she first moved in, building security was light. Back and front doors to the lobby were unlocked during the day, the elevator had a simple button call system, and apartment doors were secured with spring locks, the sort that are easily jimmied with a credit card.
Then, about two years ago, security started tightening. An iron fence and gate were erected to cut intruders off from the courtyard in back of the building. The back lobby door was locked twenty-four hours, and the front lobby door was locked after 5:00 p.m. Deadbolt locks were installed in apartments. None of these measures are unusual for an apartment building, especially not for an urban apartment. But they came as residents began to feel the encroachment of transients into their neighborhood. Rumors and whispers about muggings, car break-ins, and purse snatchings traveled from building to building, apartment to apartment.
After the incident on January 13, security increased dramatically. Today the building is as airtight as any apartment in town. It takes a key to get in, a key to call the elevator, a key to get into the garage, and two keys to unlock each apartment.
Six years ago I could visit Pat at Cathedral Plaza simply by walking into the building, taking the elevator to her floor, and knocking on her door. Now I call ahead and arrange for Pat to meet me at the lobby entrance. If I’m early, I must wait outside. Through the glass door I can see elderly residents lounging in the lobby on the other side of the door. They can see me. I’m a female of medium height and slender build. I have a friendly face. I don’t carry weapons. When I visit Pat, I'm neatly dressed. I don't look intimidating. But until Pat arrives, no one opens the door for me. No one acknowledges that I am at the door. Only one of the three buildings, Westminster Manor (Third and Elm), hasn’t beefed up security since January. The manager says he doesn’t want to give the building an institutional atmosphere. Cathedral Plaza feels like an institution.
Every day Pat takes a long walk. She likes to average about six miles a day. It keeps her heart pumping and her brain working, she says. Some of her neighbors would never think of walking downtown alone, even in the day. She tolerates their fears, but only with some irritation. “A lot of these people come from farms and small towns and they haven’t learned to be alert and aware of things. We don’t have many street-wise old kids in here.”
Pat is street-wise. She’s developed strategies for avoiding trouble. It's her defense against the fears that paralyze some of her neighbors. “I’ve handled enough people that I can judge them. I wouldn’t trust two girls any more than two boys. I wouldn't let two fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girls get on behind me on a bus. You know why? Because it’s too easy for them to snatch my purse.
“If I walk up, say, on Fifth around Laurel, I never walk against a wall. If two fellows come along and I don’t like their looks, I never keep walking by them. I stand against the wall and pretend I’ve stopped to do some business. ’’ In the middle of her apartment, Pat demonstrates how she would stand. She holds an imaginary purse behind her and keeps one knee slightly bent. The pose is a cleaned-up version of the one I’ve seen call girls make as they lean against street signposts. “If you hit one of them a good clean crack with your knee, hit him in the testicles, he’s not going to be doing much.”
In the past few years Pat has watched her neighborhood change. She says there are more transients now than she remembers there ever being before. The transients aren’t necessarily harmful. Some are just drifters, more likely to shoplift or break into a church or auto if they need something to eat or a place to sleep. Some are so unhealthy, their strength sapped by alcohol, drugs, bad diets, and living outside on doorsteps and under bushes, that to middle-aged or younger adults they’re more a nuisance than a threat. But to some elderly — those who are conscious of, almost obsessed with, their own physical weakness — the sight of a transient on the doorstep provokes fear.
Cathedral Plaza sits next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Catholic church built with covered porches, recessed windows and doorways, spots that make good sleeping areas for homeless men and women. Pat has watched the number of people sleeping in doorways in her neighborhood increase in the past two years. She blames downtown redevelopment for pushing the drifters into her neighborhood. The cheap hotels and ramshackle buildings where down-and-outers stayed are disappearing from the city’s heart. They’re being tom down or renovated and packed with stylish boutiques and restaurants. She says people who found shelter in the decrepit downtown buildings are moving into the garages, doorways, and alleyways of her neighborhood. Sometimes residents of the three Third Avenue towers discover strangers sleeping in bushes that border their buildings. They report their discovery to the building managers and the managers chase the strangers away or call the police. The ritual has become almost routine.
The elderly of this area most often encounter crime when they travel four blocks or more to the south to catch a bus downtown. The neighborhood around Third and Ash is statistically no more crime-ridden than any other area with many seniors. Still, many of the elderly seem to carry a cloud of fear about crime with them. The elderly, studies show, aren’t the victims of crime as often as they think they are. Their perception of themselves as victims is exaggerated because when they are victims it hurts more. The trauma is greater.
Their bodies break more easily, their confidence is shaken, sometimes destroyed. The police department has a program, Adam 65, that tries to alleviate some of the elderly’s fears and gives them tips on avoiding crime. But the tips can’t break the fears that linger after a bullet flies at a nearby building or a friend gets mugged.
About a year ago a Luther Tower resident, an eighty-three-year-old man, was riding a city bus on Rosecrans near Sports Arena Boulevard. There were fewer than a dozen passengers on the bus. “I was just sitting there looking out the window. Suddenly this young fellow in his late twenties, suddenly he lunged toward me and stabbed me in the right eye,” he recalls. Two of the other passengers wrestled the young man to the floor and held him there until the police came. His weapon was a ball-point pen. He had a history of mental illness and irrational attacks.
The pen left two pieces of metal lodged just next to the old man’s optical nerve. He was lucky, though. He didn’t lose his vision. He just lost his confidence. Now he’s leery of anybody walking near him on the sidewalk. He worries about being hit from behind. He rarely goes out at night, though he lived most of his life as a night owl.
Incidents like that become part of the list of whispered tales that float from apartment to apartment, trapping the residents inside, making them prisoners of nightfall. Toby Ann Cruzat lives three floors above Pat Whalen at Cathedral Plaza. She is seventy-two but looks ten years younger. She’s solidly built and jogs three miles every day. Sometimes she goes with Pat on her walks, but it makes her nervous to follow some of Pat’s routes along Market Street to Seaport Village. She worries about being mugged. She worries about getting hurt, becoming disabled. But she worries most about getting caught in the darkness. “You can’t stick your nose out of here after dark. So what I have to do is wear myself out so I’m happy in my little cage.”
There are private tour groups that take senior citizens on weekend bus trips to places like Las Vegas. The trips are usually pretty cheap, the kind of thing someone on a fixed income can afford. The trips start at the Grant Hotel, about four blocks south of Cathedral Plaza. They usually start on a Saturday morning. Cruzat has tried the tours, but she’s found she can’t sleep when she's away. She ends up worrying all night about how she’s going to get back to her apartment from the Grant Hotel when the bus drops them off after dark on Sunday. She's afraid to walk the four blocks back to her apartment in the dark, and the distance isn’t great enough for a taxi.
“It’s comedy and tragedy. Living up here and living the way I do, I become paranoid,” she says. Her day begins when the sun rises. She gets out of her apartment early and stays out until late afternoon. “My whole life ends when the sun goes down. I’m a farmer living in cement.”