The young men watched the cyclists ride their way past the Watts Towers and post up at the corner of Graham Street.
Puzzled, they pulled me aside and asked what was going on.
What was the occasion?
I had to laugh. “You want to know what all these white people are doing in your neighborhood, huh?”
Nodding sheepishly, they laughed, too.
They weren’t the first people to be curious about our presence.
Even though our group was comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, it was clear that many were not from Watts, and we caused quite a spectacle as we made our way around the area.
Strange as it may sound, in 2012, in a city as diverse as ours, it is still jarring for residents to see outsiders — particularly white people — in certain parts of the city. White folk are rarely seen just hanging out around Watts outside the vicinity of the Watts Towers. When they and other outsiders do come to the area, they tend to arrive in groups and there usually is a specific reason for the visit, so residents are not shy about asking what the occasion is.
I explained to the young men that some of the group were from the Department of City Planning and that they were interested in a firsthand look at how safe the streets were for cyclists and pedestrians.
We had enlisted the help of Los Ryderz  and the East Side Riders , I said, to give the planners the best tour possible. Since both groups ride in the area and most are residents of Watts, they could offer the planners important information about how the streets are used and by whom, as well as how safe the streets feel at different times of the day.
Pointing in the direction of Chris Madrigal (one of Los Ryderz), I told them that he had been knocked unconscious in a hit-and-run on Wilmington in the middle of the day a few weeks prior. Because, like many such incidents along that street, it wasn’t reported to the police, city officials don’t know it happened and don’t know there is a need to slow Wilmington down.
“They have to see streets like Wilmington in person to really understand how dangerous it can get,” I concluded.
The young men nodded.
They were pleased to see someone take an interest in the community and said they hoped it would result in some investment in the area. Especially along Wilmington, which they all agreed was pretty dangerous.
“All kinds of things happen along there,” said one. “All kinds of things.”
E.J. Bromell, one of the East Side Riders, had voiced concerns that many of us had — that it might be hard for the planners to pick up on regular patterns of behavior on a quiet weekend morning. The hours that kids are usually going back and forth to school present one set of challenges in school zones, for example, while nighttime activities might pose a completely different set of challenges somewhere else.
Luckily, time spent at a few key stops clearly hinted at the kinds of safety challenges a street could pose to pedestrians and/or cyclists.
It was clear to planners Jane Choi and Nate Baird, for example, that 103rd St. could be the perfect spot for a High-intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK). The inadequacy of the existing yellow-striped crosswalk had already been raised during the planners’ meeting with the South L.A. Bike Ambassadors  in November. Once we were standing in front of a school and across the street from the youth center YO! Watts, it was much easier to visualize Javier Partida’s (head of Los Ryderz) complaints about how the crossing was unsafe for youth going back and forth between the center, the school, and the housing development next door.
103rd is a fairly wide street that drivers like to speed through. So much so that, instead of stopping when they see a pedestrian, drivers sometimes just swerve to move around them, Partida explained. Pedestrians often end up waiting a while to be able to cross or getting stuck out in the middle of the street, if drivers are really in a hurry. And, the problems are compounded at night when pedestrians can’t be seen and cars are going faster than they should be.
Similarly, at our stop near a crosswalk at 112th St. and Wilmington Ave., planners were able to get a taste of just how problematic Wilmington can be. Drivers moving through it are either just getting off the freeway and, as Stalin Medina (owner of the Watts Cyclery) says, “still excited from their freeway experience” or are eager to get on the freeway or move south past it to where Wilmington widens. They seem not to care that the narrow stretch between 112th and 103rd — with parked cars on each side and bikers and pedestrians darting back and forth between residences and businesses — can’t support them driving at 35 miles an hour.
On the morning of our visit, planners standing with Medina were able to observe just how long children had to wait to cross the street using the crosswalk at 112th. The long waits are especially problematic because, being that many of the pedestrians are just kids, they sometimes get impatient and venture out into traffic together, fingers crossed that someone will stop for them. Or, they just assume people will stop and end up making a mad dash when they realize drivers have no intention of doing so.
While Medina talked about the crosswalk, I spoke with some of the other planners about how much the character of the street changes at night. A motorcycle bar and tobacco shop located there both draw crowds at night, as does a food vendor, and a liquor store up the street. People are constantly crossing back and forth on foot at night while the bar crowd (or people coming off the freeway) speed up and down the street with little regard for anyone. The later it gets, the more dangerous it becomes, especially because much of the street is poorly lit. Even I was nearly run down  by a drunk driver there a few months ago.
Taking note of it all, planner David Somers asked what kinds of traffic-calming measures we thought might be effective. More stop signs or lit pedestrian crossings seemed like obvious choices to us, but it was not clear that there were easy fixes. As a major through-street linked to freeway ramps, normal traffic-calming measures apparently cannot be taken. The East Side Riders even suggested the planners consider Graham — a quiet street that runs parallel to Wilmington and is already used as a cut-through by cyclists and pedestrians — as a bike-friendly street. But, that solution wouldn’t address the needs of people trying to get back and forth to businesses along Wilmington.
We headed back out on the road to finish the tour, still pondering solutions for the street.
Except for Medina. Determined that the planners not leave without having the “full Wilmington experience,” he grabbed Baird and gave him his own personal tour of the areas of the street we hadn’t covered.
The rest of us headed back to the WLCAC, crossing over freight train tracks on our way back up Central.
This is the spot where the train goes back and forth, I pointed out to Choi as we crossed the tracks.
On our ride down to Watts I had told her about how the freight train that comes through the area will regularly stop, back up slowly, stop, move forward, stop, back up, and so on, backing traffic up for a good mile up Central, depending on how long that little dance goes on for. It probably isn’t something the planners can do anything about, but it is a weird quirk of the area that I figured someone should know about.
Back at the starting point, everyone seemed to feel that the event had been very productive. The riding groups had gotten some of their biggest priorities across and the planners had been able to get a firsthand taste of what the needs were and how people tended to use the streets.
As we were saying our good-byes, I overheard a planner speaking with Jones, saying she was glad she had come along and that the tour had been eye-opening. He laughed, agreeing that to understand an area you have to go there and see it for yourself.
“It’s a perspective you can’t get from Google Earth.”
No, she agreed. This was much better than Google Earth.
I would like to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone that got up early on a cold Saturday morning to tour the area. Thanks to the East Side Riders and Los Ryderz for putting together the route and to the planners for their commitment to getting to know the needs of the community. Special thanks goes out to the youth of Los Ryderz for taking on a leadership role and speaking up to make their community a safer place.