By her own admission she’s always been a fighter and a hell-raiser. Activist Karen Jaeger’s strongly held — and worded — opinions have enlivened life in Echo Park for some thirty years since she arrived in 1969 “to live an adult life” in Los Angeles.
Karen left Los Angeles in June after her recent retirement. Happily she plans to return occasionally to the area where she made a strong mark.
It was Karen who started Friends of Echo Park Library in the mid ’70s in response to the closure of the branch library in 1972 and its removal to temporary quarters alongside the freeway on Laveta Terrace where, Karen said, “The police couldn’t even find it!” They certainly needed to — crime was a constant problem. Fifteen windows were broken during one incident of Vandalism alone.
After selling used books in the parking lot of Pioneer Market with owner Mike Leum’s blessing, Karen finally got official permission to use the temporary branch’s basement to store donated books and hold book sales. But the Los Angeles Library Department neglected the little orphan branch in Echo Park — they would not even replace the library clock when it broke! And when the branch’s TV and VCR were stolen, Karen and the Friends held book sales for two years to raise money for replacements.
A tireless advocate for a permanent library in a more convenient location, Karen confessed that she “raised hell everywhere”. She wasn’t afraid of being unpopular with bureaucrats at the Library Department if her noisy complaints reminded them of the needs of the Echo Park community. Nearly 25 years of loud persistence paid off when the new library on Temple Street opened — complete with a bookstore of its own for the Friends. But, she points out, needs still exist — dictionaries and children’s books are in short supply.
Says Karen; “I enjoy a good fight!” With friend and fellow activist Juanita Dellomes, Karen set up the Inner City Alliance to address the threat posed by “Central City West”. A speculators’ scheme that resulted in the destruction of thousands of low income homes.
Self-titled “Echo Park’s Minister of Information for Life”, Karen took an active part in shaping the Cathedral Center of St. Paul which replaced the church of St. Athanasius at 840 Echo Park Avenue. Although impressed with the church’s commitment to social causes, she recently characterized the Cathedral as “about as spiritual as a downtown hi-rise”.
In spite of her worsening health, concern for the mismanagement of Echo Park’s park facilities prompted Karen to campaign for better care of her beloved lakeside park. Letters were written to the newspapers and a fledgling group formed with Gloria Sohacki and other friends. A few years ago Karen began to address the shortcomings in children’s and teens’ programs at the park’s recreation center.
A university graduate from Michigan, Karen arrived in Echo Park with, as she put it, “a banjo on my knee”, meaning that she hoped to become an actress. Talent isn’t always recognized thought and Karen started teaching for LAUSD instead. She thought third grade was “terrific” and taught at Solana Avenue School for a year as well as a couple of other schools before switching to Special Education and speech therapy.
But now perennial warrior Karen, forced into retirement by chronic illness, has left Echo Park for the more peaceful life of a rural community. True to form, when she visited the little town to which she’s moving, Karen started writing a letter of protest to the editor of the local paper — she had been dismayed by a Christmas Nativity display at City Hall. “But then”, she says with a laugh, “I said, no! Wait ’til I get here to give ‘em hell!”