Dead Spaces Make for Dead (and Unwalkable) Places

Mirror, mirror along the wall of a vacant lot... 43rd. and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA.
Mirror, mirror on the wall…of a vacant lot. 43rd. and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

I’m feeling sorta trashy.

Not in that way.

I’ve just had trash on the brain lately.

Even as L.A. is celebrated for moving toward being more walkable and livable, trash seems to be the one constant, particularly in lower-income areas.

One of the reasons is that there is a lot of dead space in places like South L.A.

Vacant lots, alleys, under- and overpasses, foreclosed homes/properties, and streets running alongside freeways all lack someone to watch over and take responsibility for them on a regular basis.

Which means we get this:

Piles of random clothing and issues of the National Enquirer from the year 2000 (at the overpass at 52nd and Broadway) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Piles of random clothing and issues of the National Enquirer from the year 2000 (at the overpass at 52nd and Broadway) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Piles of random clothing, instruction manuals for jurassic technology, handwritten correspondence from the 90s, and issues of the National Enquirer dating back over a decade.

All piled up on the overpass the corner of 52nd and Broadway.

The mess stretches the entire overpass, actually.

Looking west on 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Looking west on 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

It’s on the north side of the overpass, too.

More piles of crap. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
More piles of garbage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

And, it’s around the corner, all up and down Grand, the street running along the east side of the freeway.

The south end of the block. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The south end of the block. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The north end of the block. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The north end of the block. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Many of these sites have been this way for years.

The situation is frustrating for residents, who are unsure who to complain to and, after so many years of the same old same old, are resigned to the notion that their complaints will go unheard.

Sadly, they almost accept that trash accumulation and dumping is the norm when freeways cut through their neighborhoods because it is so commonplace.

They don’t like it, of course — to most, it is symbolic of the city’s neglect of their communities.

But, it is the blight created by vacant lots that really makes them angry.

The lots, they understand, are owned by somebody, somewhere, and that somebody never seems to be held accountable for the mess their property attracts.

Which is why I was surprised to see a Notice of Abatement tacked to the chain link fence of a consistently problematic lot at 41st and Main in South L.A. a few weeks ago.

A notice of abatement at the lot at 41st and Main. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
A Notice of Abatement at the lot at 41st and Main. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The notice reads that, in January, a resolution was passed declaring that noxious or dangerous weeds, rubbish, refuse, and dirt were on or around this property, constituting a public nuisance. It further states that the owner is therefore required to clean up the property or reimburse the city for conducting the abatement on their behalf (via a lien placed on the property tax bill).

The notice took me by surprise because I am one of many advocates who have complained about the challenge communities have faced in figuring out who owns the land or reaching out to the owners, either to get them to take care of it or to work out agreements that would allow the community to use it.

Was getting a lot cleaned up as easy as posting a notice of abatement?

Eh, not so much.

According to the Lot Cleaning Division, undeveloped parcels are subject to being on the city’s Annual Weed Abatement Ordinance list. It doesn’t mean that all are asked to clean up every year — in 2012, for example, only 601 of the 10,777 parcels on the list were abated. Nor does it mean that there is a good way to track owner compliance with abatement requests. The city itself doesn’t track compliance, citing the potential for ownership change, improvements to a parcel, changes in the Assessor’s map, etc., to distort the data.

Technically, parcels that are especially problematic can also be hit with an additional “Notice to Clean,” to ensure that they are in compliance throughout the year.

That would assume, among other things, that a lot received a high volume of complaints.

But, tracking complaints isn’t all that simple, either.

Neighbors along 41st St., for example, claim they have complained numerous times over the years to their council district office and other city agencies. And, yet, according to the Bureau of Street Services records’ there have been only six cleanup requests since 2005 – one of which I would assume had to have been mine from earlier this year.

When I asked the media rep why the rest of the complaints – or any others lodged in the past nine years – might not have reached BSS, he clarified that the system had logged a total of twenty-eight requests during that period, six of which were for illegal dumping and/or cleaning. It is unclear what the other requests were for (they went unrecorded, as they fell outside of the BSS’ purview) or why complaints made to other city offices never reached BSS.

What is clear is that putting the burden of watching over vacant lots on residents is unfair, particularly when so many properties are such obvious and persistent sources of blight.

It is also clear that annual assessments (if they are even conducted that frequently) are not enough, either.

The recent abatement conducted at 41st and Main, for example, might have resulted in a lot devoid of weeds, but the lot itself still acts as a magnet for dumpers.

After abatement. The weeds are gone. But... Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
After abatement. The weeds are gone. But… Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Across the street (barely visible at left, above), a mattress lies in the street. And, the parkways of 41st Place (the next street south of 41st St.) are regularly packed with broken-down furniture.

And, of course, the adjacent sidewalks still attract dumping (this time, including shattered glass).

The trash continues to accumulate. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
…the trash continues to accumulate. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The fact that not all lots are targeted for abatement or regular cleanups doesn’t seem to make much sense, either (outside of the obvious bureaucratic budget and staff shortfalls, that is).

The long-standing lots just north of Manchester at Vermont are consistently in terrible shape. This former swap meet site is populated with furniture, other bulky items, and scattered trash.

The lots just north of Manchester at Vermont -- one of which once hosted a swap meet -- have been a tremendous source of blight since the 1992 riots. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The lots just north of Manchester at Vermont — one of which once hosted a swap meet — have been a tremendous source of blight since the 1992 riots. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Here, it spills onto the sidewalk.

Why one is considered a candidate for abatement and other nuisances are ignored is unclear. Here, the vacant lot spills over onto the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Why one is considered a candidate for abatement and other nuisances are ignored is unclear. Here, the vacant lot spills over onto the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

It’s not like these lots are invisible – the two block-length lots pictured above and below sit across the street from Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Constituent Center, and seem no better off for it than most.

The one below even plays host to a lone inhabitant, who has set up camp just out of the frame.

Trash sits pretty across the street from Mark Ridley-Thomas' constituent offices just north of Manchester on Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog La
Trash sits comfortably across the street from Mark Ridley-Thomas’ constituent offices just north of Manchester on Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

A lot at Figueroa and 52nd  also has its own encampment.

Someone has moved into a lot on Figueroa and 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Someone has moved into a lot on Figueroa and 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Some attract hazardous waste, dumped by those who clearly didn’t want to pay landfill or hazardous waste disposal fees.

The lot at 43rd and Vermont accumulates trash. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The lot at 43rd and Vermont accumulates trash. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
A lot on Figueroa accumulates furniture and other trash (out of frame). Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
A lot on Figueroa accumulates furniture and other trash (out of frame). Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Some lots attract other unhealthy forms of activity.

A lot at 67th and Figueroa, for example, played host to four prostitutes at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

A few blocks north of there, a (potentially) abandoned house and lot acts as a draw for both dumped furniture and prostitution, judging by the used condoms and empty condom boxes scattered on the ground around it.

A home that may or may not be abandoned and uncared for lot attract a lot of illicit activity, judging by the used condoms and condom boxes laying around the property. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
A home that may or may not be abandoned and uncared for lot attract a lot of illicit activity, judging by the used condoms and condom boxes laying around the property. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Surely we can do better by neighborhoods than this, right?

If we must put the burden on residents to report problems with a lot, why not raise fines for non-maintenance and put some of those funds toward hiring local youth or neighbors to assist with monitoring and reporting?

Or, simply require more regular cleanups and monitoring of the lots by owners so as to curb the illegal activities they attract.

Or, take the steps San Francisco may be making toward creating an ordinance that would allow for the implementation of AB 551 – a bill that cuts developers some tax breaks if they allow the community to use the lot for urban agriculture during a period of five years. That could both activate the lots and limit illegal activity in one fell swoop.

At the very least, the city could post placards on lots with information about how to use the 311 system to report dumping. As I’ve noted here before, my experience is that a very small minority of people in the area are aware that the system even exists. Signs posted at the sites would give people an outlet for their frustration in the moment that they come across a problem. And, it might help the city create a more accurate record of just how problematic vacant properties can be, which would, in turn, justify the placement of more stringent maintenance requirements on property owners.

Whatever the solution, it is time to see the burden of maintaining these properties transferred back to the shoulders of those that own them. They are the ones benefiting from a minimal tax burden while watching the value of their land grow. Keeping the lots clean, healthy, safe, and even beautiful, would seem to be the very least they could offer the community in return.

  • True Freedom

    Wish #1: people who litter would be swallowed whole by a hole in the earth.
    Wish #2: communities would take ownership for their community, clean it up, and not wait for the gov’t to do it.

    I grew up in a low income area with lots of vacant space. We kept it clean, because even though we were in a bad area, it was our home, and we took pride in that.

  • sahra

    Many do. But, they can’t keep up with illegal dumpers. And, it isn’t always safe… shattered glass, rotting food rife with vermin, hazardous waste, rusty nails. When people come from outside of the community specifically to dump hazardous or bulky crap in yours, and have for decades, you’re dealing with a whole different set of problems…And that’s what places like South LA are dealing with much of the time. That’s not to say there isn’t local garbage — there is, and it can be a problem, as it is in a lot of communities. But that’s not what I’m getting at here.

  • True Freedom

    I hear you. We didn’t have to deal with the bulky items (except the occasional car tire) that these areas get with couches, furniture, mattresses, tvs and appliances. It is a bit of a different beast. I still wish many areas in LA County showed even a hint of local pride and kept things moderately clean…

  • calwatch

    There are apps that allow you to take a photo and report illegal dumping from a smartphone. Examples include the County’s The Works in unincorporated areas, or MyLA 311 for the City of Los Angeles. More people need to use them, but even critically acclaimed ones like The Works only get a few thousand downloads.

  • MaxUtil

    Bureau of Sanitation will do bulky item pick up (with some limits) though I don’t know how responsive they are in areas like south LA or on vacant lots. But if people begin bombarding them with requests there would probably be some activity at least. Of course, there’s no simple fix to this kind of dumping. Even the small amounts of trash that will collect anywhere no one is actively taking care of an area will rapidly attract more. At the end of the day, I think unused areas like this produce their own downward spiral. Innovative approaches like temporary community gardens or pop up parks would probably do far more than just trash removal.

  • JB

    It’s called “land speculation.” Most of these vacant lots are owned by wealthy individuals who live outside the community, and hold onto these lots as an “investment.” Holding on to stocks and bonds to stash your money is fine. But when your investment starts mucking up other people’s neighborhoods, then I think as a society we need to draw the line. This is just one more indignity that working families have to endure at the hands of the 1%.

  • sahra

    As I said above, most people that I’ve spoken with in the area have never heard of the system. So they call a council district office or complain to some city worker they know and it never goes anywhere. There really hasn’t been a lot of outreach (that I am aware of) to let people know about the 311 system/options. Posting notices on vacant lots might help. Or, it would just confirm for people that their neighborhoods were being neglected, if the requests were not responded to quickly enough.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Perhaps all vacant parcels should be required to display and maintain at least one 311 PSA on each side of the vacant property as long as the property remains vacant. An alternative could be to add a small fee onto the property owner’s tax assessment to cover the cost of the local govt agency doing the posts themselves.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Hi Sahra,

    Did you use the 311 service to report the illegal dumping instances you photographed? I ask not as a criticism, but because your report might make for a good way to estimate rough turnaround times for 311 illegal dumping complaints to be addressed. (If you reported the dumpings and provided your email address, my experience has been that you will receive a reply once the request is added to their processing system and another email once the request is completed.) Perhaps you can post an update if/when you hear back?

  • sahra

    I tried using the online system on the underpass one, and I couldn’t submit my request. So, I passed that one and these all onto someone I have been pestering personally for some time. He’s very nice and responsive…I don’t know if your average person would be as lucky to get a positive/fast response from them. I can say, though, that the Venice underpass requests that went around last week are as yet unfulfilled. Last night, hipsters were posing the homeless for photographs among the burned wreckage in the sunset light. Sigh.

  • Yvette Benner

    How timely that I see this. I am fighting the fight over here in West Athens. I actually get a better response from the County, especially using The Works app than I do LA City using 311. Currently I’m trying to get the railroad tracks along 116th place just north of Vermont Ave cleaned up. LA City tried to pass the buck to me, saying that I needed to contact Union Pacific, but I put up a big enough stink that they contacted Union Pacific for clean up themselves and gave me the name and email address of the UP rep that is responsible for clean up. Now I can pester him until this is done as well.

    The vacant lots are bothersome. Almost as bothersome as the slumlord apartments. I report anytime the lots around me start to look pretty sketchy, but they never look great. It pains me to see underutilized space when people can use the space to enrich the community.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Hmmm. My experience with the MyLA311 app is that it wants street addresses keyed to the specific format of the City of LA’s mapping logic (read: not the Google style many folks are familiar with). While they could improve upon their app’s iconography, they do have a sort of “find my location” feature that I’ve had some success with.

    If I need to report graffiti or illegal dumping that’s not right in front of a clearly marked address, I use the find-address feature to get the closest street address possible, then use the comments field to describe the location more specifically. I haven’t tried to enter an intersection yet, but it might work. Not a perfect system for sure, but it’s a start. I hope they continue to maintain and upgrade the app.

  • Chrystal Gehman

    my friend was looking for AU Victoria Form RT 3 Notice Vacate earlier today and was informed about a document management site that has a huge forms library . If you are searching for AU Victoria Form RT 3 Notice Vacate also , here’s http://goo.gl/oaM8OT

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