A polyglot effort to keep L.A. history alive history

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Archaeologists and architects will tell you that an unoccupied building decays and crumbles much faster than an occupied one.

There's no one to fix a leaky roof or complain about a broken window in a vacant building, which is one of the reasons why so many gems of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture have disappeared from the depopulated hearts of American cities.

So in a way we Angelenos owe a collective thank you to Regino Mendez, a 60-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, for his contributions to historic preservation in the Pico-Union district, just west of downtown.

Mendez pays $300 a month to live in one room of a gorgeous, three-story, century-old Victorian on South Bonnie Brae Street. His building has gabled roofs and an oval window on the front door, and it's one of several homes on the block designated a National Register Historic District.

"In all of Los Angeles there isn't as tranquil a place to live as this one," Mendez told me, which is an odd thing to hear, given the presence in the surrounding neighborhood of at least a half-dozen gangs with overlapping turf. Inside the old Victorian, however, oak beams and creaking floors swallow noise, and Mendez sleeps soundly after a hard day's work at a local garment factory.

Mendez is helping to preserve that architectural gem for future generations simply by living in it. So are hundreds more families living nearby....

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