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In an effort to show how transportation, open space, planning and other issues are intertwined with the health, culture, livability and strength of a community, Streetsblog and The California Endowment teamed to bring Streetsblog’s coverage to a hyper-local level in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Recently, Sahra Sulaiman was promoted to Communities Editor for Streetsblog Los Angeles and will oversee work in South Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. Her work, that of our former Boyle Heights specific writer Kris Fortin and a team of freelancers can all be found here.

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Students Re-Envision Their Neighborhood Through Interactive Workshop

Roosevelt students looking for building materials Photo by James Rojas

Roosevelt students looking for building materials. Photo by James Rojas

“Mister, who’s coming to class today?” asked a curious student from Gene Dean’s 9th grade English class at Roosevelt High School.

As the rest of the class began to take their seats, they took notice of the two tables filled with a random assortment of trinkets and knick-knacks, prompting another student to ask, “Are those toys for kids?”

Enter urban planner James Rojas, who excitedly engaged the students by asking them if they knew what an urban planner did.

Although the answers might have fallen into the category of “kids say the darndest things,” the laughs broke up the awkwardness and allowed Rojas to introduce his interactive “Place It!” workshop. Three of Dean’s 9th grade English classes participated last Monday, a change from the normal routine of reading and essays that students clearly didn’t mind one bit.

Rojas describes his approach to workshops as one that offers “an opportunity for individuals to think critically about spatial organization and urban space and how it affects their everyday lives. The workshops are a means by which participants can imagine how their cities and neighborhoods could be organized differently.”

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop Photo by Erick Huerta

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop. Photo by Erick Huerta

Having participated in several of Rojas’ workshops before, I knew that while his methodology and execution are consistent, no two workshops are ever the same, and therein lies the beauty of the approach.

The workshops started simply enough, with Dean asking his students to write about a favorite childhood memory in their journals. Rojas followed up by having the kids build small-scale models of their memory, using materials found on the tables.

While some of the kids bemoaned that they didn’t have a favorite memory or that they couldn’t remember anything, none seemed to have any problem scrambling toward the tables to rummage around for items to build with.

From happier memories of going to Disneyland, weddings, and holiday celebrations to more somber ones of family separation and painful accidents, students neither held back nor limited themselves. Read more…

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Plea Deal for Drunk Driver that Killed Andy Garcia Does Little to Ease Pain of Victims, Friends, and Families

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in downtown L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by drunk driver Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in Downtown L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Even the judge looked confused when the plea deal offered to Wendy Villegas was read out in court, says a somber Mario Lopez.

Villegas could have been sentenced to up to 15 years for having come tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez drunk last September 14th, slamming into Luis “Andy” Garcia and dragging his bike under her car, launching both Lopez and Ulises Melgar into the air, and fleeing the scene.

Instead, she was offered a deal of 3 years and 8 months — a sentence that fit within the window of what she might have gotten just for driving drunk and leaving the scene of a crash. And, because she is young and has a clean record, she will likely only serve a portion of that time.

The deal makes it painfully clear to her victims and their friends and families that she will not be asked to atone for the human cost of the havoc she wreaked that September night. And, they are not happy about it.

“How did it end up wrapping up so fast like that?” asks Melgar.

It’s a good question.

The damage had been severe. Garcia died on the scene, while both Melgar and Lopez had ended up in the hospital. The compression fracture Lopez sustained in his lower back forced him to move back home with his parents and lose three months of work.

And, there was no shortage of evidence linking her to the crime, including a witness — “my personal hero,” as Lopez calls him — who saw what happened and followed Villegas as she weaved her way home that night. Because he had been able to get her license number, the police were to verify that she had been driving drunk when they booked her — still intoxicated — at 7:15 the next morning.

Yet, the young men were not consulted about the plea offer. Nor were Garcia’s parents. The only chance any of them had to participate in the legal process was to read out statements about how Villegas’ actions had affected their lives when she finally entered a “no contest” plea last month.

“It just infuriates me sometimes,” says Lopez, shaking his head over how effectively they’d been shut out of an opportunity to seek justice. “I’d be semi, semi-happy if she did 3 years and 8 months. But she’s not [going to].”

We are sitting in a largely empty IHOP in Downtown L.A. so, as Lopez put it, we could have “something sweet as we discuss[ed] something not so sweet.”

But the smiley-faced pancakes Lopez ordered do little to make the conversation easier as we turn to what life has been like for them since that night.

The first days had been hard, they agree.

They couldn’t accept what had happened, despite having seen it unfold in front of their eyes. Read more…

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Pondering Boyle Heights During This Weekend’s Tour de Co-Ops

The Tour de Co-Ops stops at Bici Libre, an LACBC sponsored co-op  located southwest of DTLA. Both images: Erick Huerta

The Tour de Co-Ops stops at BikeRoWave in West L.A. Both images: Erick Huerta

Bringing together seven different bicycle collectives, the Tour de Co-Ops was a half-day ride that celebrated the “do it yourself” (DIY) spirit of the Los Angeles cycling community. Split up into two separate routes, the ride acted as a fundraiser for the participating volunteer-operated co-operatives. In 2005, Los Angeles didn’t have any store-front bicycle co-ops.

The co-ops are not just a place where someone can get their bicycle fixed, but a place where one learns how to repair their own bicycle. It also becomes a social and advocacy center for Livable Streets Advocates inside of local communities.

After the Bike Kitchen moved from the community kitchen in the Eco-Village to Heliotrope and Melrose, Josef Bray-Ali in Northeast L.A. and Alex Thompson in West L.A./Santa Monica led the charge to create the Bike Oven and Bikerowave in their communities. By the time Streetfilms featured the co-ops in 2009, there were three store-front co-ops.

Now, it seems the co-ops are everywhere…or almost everywhere.

The northern route featured stops at the CSUN Bike Collective, Bikesan@s del Valle, and the Valley Bikery, while the southern route, the one I participated in, featured stops at the Bikerowave, Bici Libre and the Bike Oven. Both routes ended at the Bike Kitchen for a ride after party.

At each location, volunteers shared the history of the space, how they operate, communities they service, and programming offered. While no two co-ops are the same, they all shared the guiding principle of DIY, facilitating a learning process for all those that visit to familiarize them with tools, their bike, and the space.

Hearing about the different tribulations each co-op has gone through over the years made me realize that the Boyle Heights cycling community still has a ways to go before a co-op can be established here. Currently, the Ovarian Psyco-Cycles Bicycle Brigade is the only group that I know of actively working on setting one up in Boyle Heights. Read more…

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“I’m a Teacher, I’m Pregnant…I’m Worried”: Residents Fume Over Lead Contamination of Soil in their Neighborhoods

"I'm a teacher, I'm pregnant...I'm worried," a woman tells DTSC officials at a meeting regarding Exide's lead emissions. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“I’m a teacher, I’m pregnant…I’m worried,” a woman in hazmat gear tells DTSC officials at a meeting regarding Exide’s lead emissions. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“If you don’t shut it down, we’re going to shut you down!” shouted a woman dressed in hazmat gear (above, with skull on her back).

She had just angrily paraded in front of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) officials, representatives of the Department of Public Health (DPH), and the moderator with her daughter, proclaiming that children should not have to wear protective gear to play outside.

One of the women standing with her moved towards a DTSC official waving a lemon from her yard and telling him to go ahead and make lemonade out of it.

The nun sitting near me appeared to say a silent Hail Mary and make the sign of the cross.

A young woman watching me scribble all this down furiously asked if I was press. She worked for Exide, she said.

“I bet you’re popular tonight,” I said.

The meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to update the community on embattled Vernon battery recycler Exide‘s lead and arsenic emissions was packed to the brim with residents of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Vernon, Lynwood, and surrounding areas. All of whom wanted answers about the lead found at all of the 39 homes where soil was tested at depths of between zero and six inches for contaminants, and none of whom were happy.

The confirmation that the homes and schools tested both north and south of the Exide facility had levels of lead in the soil that exceeded 80 parts per million — levels high enough to trigger further testing — while daunting, was probably not surprising to most. Read more…

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YouthBuild Boyle Heights Students Launch Funding Campaign

A decade ago, when programs like Donors Choose first began creating forums for public school teachers to ask for funds for things like writing utensils, art materials, stools for students to sit on, or books, it was clear the public school system was in a bit of a crisis. I don’t know if it really hit home with me, though, until I started volunteering in the high schools around L.A. and saw just how few resources teachers had access to and what that meant for the kind of education they were able to give students.

The situation seems even more dire in continuation schools, which generally serve a population of at-risk youth who may already be supporting a child, are juggling jobs to help their families make ends meet, or are trying to re-establish their footing after having gotten in with the wrong crowd or in trouble with the law.

Because of the challenging circumstances most of the students come from, the stakes are even higher for them with regard to getting their high school degrees. For this reason, schools like YouthBuild (in Boyle Heights) often combine traditional coursework with leadership training, civic engagement, community service, and job skills training. They want to meet the wide range of needs and educational backgrounds of the students while preparing them to make positive contributions to their communities. The only problem is that they often have to do so with even fewer resources at their disposal.

Which is why it was not surprising to see one of YouthBuild’s highly dedicated teachers, Canek Pena-Vargas, put out an appeal for funding for their silk-screening program yesterday (see video above).

Although they currently do some silk-screening on borrowed equipment, a recent trip to a local print shop inspired students to create a plan to build a permanent studio. It would be a great artistic outlet for youth, they say in their project video, and it would also help create income-generating opportunities for the students while teaching them valuable entrepreneurial skills.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why I have put this in a post, given that struggling schools are not considered a typical “livable streets” sort of issue.

I can tell you it came to mind today because of two quasi-related things. Read more…

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If Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, Surely it Should Also be a Component of “Complete”-ness, No?

Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, trash grows... Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Bus stop, bus goes, trash stays, trash grows on Olympic Blvd.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As folks were preparing to cut the cake in honor of the Complete Streets Day motion put forth by Councilmember Jose Huizar at City Hall last week, I was getting geared up to volunteer at a high school located in his district, around which many of the streets are decidedly incomplete.

I had run into Roosevelt High School teacher extraordinaire Jorge Lopez a couple of weeks prior; students from his food justice class were helping give a tour of two corner markets that had received healthy makeovers courtesy of Public Matters. When he heard I was interested in interviewing the students involved in the project, he suggested I stop in his classroom instead and assist the students in reworking their own interviews with food activists and workers in the area into articles.

Hell, yes! I thought.

Teens — besides being inspiring to work with — are often incredible, unfiltered informants about the unique dynamics of their communities and how those dynamics impact mobility, health, and access to opportunity.

When I first worked with his English class two years ago, students were writing speeches about things they would like to see improved in their neighborhood. Given the myriad challenging circumstances that the youth came from, immigrant rights, living wages, affordable housing, protection from gang activity, and access to healthy food and other health resources unsurprisingly figured prominently into their discussions.

But, I was also struck that one of the recurring themes was an inferiority complex many expressed with regard to East L.A.

It was so much cleaner, they complained.

Complete Streets should also encompass clean streets. Couch on Rivera St. (just off 1st), a frequent dumping site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Complete Streets should also encompass clean streets. Couch on Rivera St. (just off 1st), a frequent dumping site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When we think of “Complete Streets,” we tend to focus on ways to facilitate mobility by “design[ing] and operat[ing streets] to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

But, for these students, it was clear that having streets that looked clean, inviting, and safe was important for mobility and access, too.

In comparing their neighborhoods to East L.A., many voiced a belief that people in East L.A. took more pride in their community because the sidewalks and streets there were well taken care of. Boyle Heights streets’, they said, felt run down and forgotten.

It was something that bothered them a lot. Read more…

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The Wheels of Justice Slowly Begin to Turn in the Hit-and-Run that Killed Andy Garcia

She made the decision to drink. She ran over me and my two friends, and she fled. She killed a friend of mine. My back and other bones were broken, and I was out of work for three months, recounted Mario Lopez (in Spanish, above), to a reporter from Canal 22 yesterday.

He was one of several victims hit by 21-year-old Wendy Villegas in the incident that killed Luis “Andy” Garcia last September.

Villegas had come flying up the bridge on Cesar Chavez that fateful night, knocking Lopez aside, slamming into Garcia and dragging his bike several hundred feet underneath her car, and launching Ulises Melgar into the air so high he nearly flew over the bridge railing to the river below, all while friends Richie Berumen and Jose Vasquez watched helplessly.

But, I am going to keep fighting, Lopez continued, and I am going to campaign so that people know that we are here and we are going to achieve justice for Andy.

And, with that, the riders that had gathered at dawn at Montebello City Park pedaled off toward the courthouse in downtown L.A. to confront Villegas once again.

It was about time.

Garcia’s family had flown in from Texas last month only to see the preliminary hearing postponed for the second time.

New evidence had been entered that both parties needed to review, Garcia’s mother had explained.

At the time, she also said that, while she understood that this was how the justice system worked, it was still very painful. Not least because they had seen no expression of remorse from Villegas. In fact, the only regret they heard from her seemed to be linked to the requirement that she wear an ankle monitor; her lawyer had complained this was a hardship — sartorial and otherwise — for a young college student to endure.

Thursday’s hearing brought hope that Garcia’s family and friends might finally see justice. Read more…

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Boyle Heights Forum Tonight: Neighborhood Land Trust Seeks to Help Communities Take Charge of Blight

The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' Constituent Service Center. photo: sahra.

The sun sets on one of two massive vacant lots along Vermont, just north of Manchester. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Vacant lots constitute a huge thorn in the side of communities around Los Angeles.

It isn’t just because they are ugly or represent missed opportunities.

As I noted in yesterday’s piece, Blight Begets Blight, by embodying what appears to be the city’s disinterest in the upkeep of a neighborhood, vacant lots become magnets for trash and illegal dumping. In so doing, they remind residents that they really have little ownership over the health and well-being of their own neighborhoods.

It hurts a community’s self-esteem and can impact economic development as well.

For the guys that sit outside their barbershop and stare across the street at the two block-long lots that adorn Vermont Ave. just north of Manchester (pictured above and below, at right), it’s downright depressing. No amount of advertising or sprucing up of their storefront is going to convince anyone from outside the community that their shop and community constitute a great destination.

Vacant lots on the scale of those along Vermont make economic development challenging. (Google map screen shot)

Vacant lots on the scale of those along Vermont make economic development challenging. (Google map screen shot)

What organizers Israel Cruz and Fernando Mejia from the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) are finding, however, is that while everybody unequivocally wants to see vacant lots transformed, each community has a different vision for the possibilities of those spaces.

They’ve been taking note of these visions over the past few months at the community forums they’ve held around the city in support of the LANLT’s TILL program.

TILL — Transforming Inner-City Lost Lots — is a project dedicated to cataloging vacant and surplus land within the city’s portfolio and identifying approximately 15 parcels that could be re-purposed to provide gardens and green space access to communities.

The visions they’ve gathered at the forums will be incorporated into the development of an urban greening toolkit and website which will serve as resources for residents and community organizations looking to work with the city to take ownership of and transform the parcels.

The unique visions and needs of each community has made creating a universal toolkit somewhat complicated. Read more…

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Second Time is Not a Charm: Community Still Vociferously Opposed to Plans for Lorena Plaza in Boyle Heights

The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to el Mercado de Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to el Mercado de Los Angeles and across the street from the Everbrown, er, Evergreen Cemetery. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

What had ever happened to the plans to turn the space on the corner of Lorena and 1st St. into a fitness parklet?

Many of those gathered this past Wednesday evening at the second informational meeting regarding the plans for the site were still feeling burned by the promise they believed Metro had reneged on to put a park there.

At another meeting on the subject back in December of 2012, Metro had essentially told the community it had chosen a mixed-use development project because it was working toward enhancing transit quality and was not in the business of building parks. Last week’s informational meeting on the plans for the site had only reaffirmed that the park plans were out of the question.

Still, it wasn’t a dream people were willing to give up on just yet.

A mini fitness park would have been a wonderful addition to the jogging path that runs around the (not so) Evergreen cemetery across the street, lamented Rita Govea Rodriguez, a long-time Boyle Heights community stakeholder. Citing other examples of well-used fitness zones from around the city, she said it was something that her community would really have benefited from.

We were discussing the progress of A Community of Friends’ (ACOF) plans to build a four-story building containing 49 affordable housing units — half of which would be reserved for people with special needs (e.g. the homeless or mentally ill) — and approximately 7000 sq. ft. of retail space at the Lorena site.

The $23.1 million project cleared its last hurdle last March, when the Metro Board voted 10 – 1 to begin negotiations with ACOF regarding the development.

Jose Huizar, Councilmember for the 14th District and (now a former) Metro Board member, was the lone dissenting vote at the time. He was concerned that the drastic reduction in retail and parking space from the original 2006 proposal would heavily curtail the boost in economic activity the project was expected to have generated in the surrounding areas. Read more…

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Vernon Battery Recycling Plant Sues to Overturn New Air Quality Rule

"God Bless America"? Really, Exide? Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren't showered in lead and arsenic. I'm just sayin'... Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“God Bless America”? Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren’t showered in lead and arsenic. I’m just sayin’… Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Exide Technologies – the embattled battery recycling facility in Vernon — has been given a lot of breaks over the years, but apparently they feel they haven’t had it easy enough.

Last Friday, they filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court asking a judge to set aside the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s (SCAQMD’s) recent amendments to Rule 1420.1. They were particularly concerned about their ability to comply with new rules governing arsenic emissions.

Specifically, new amendments to rule 1420.1 establish requirements for the reduction of arsenic emissions and other key toxic air contaminant emissions, set requirements for ambient air concentration limits for arsenic, as well as hourly emission limits of arsenic, benzene, and 1,3-butadiene (all known carcinogens), and contain additional administrative, monitoring, and source testing requirements for stack emissions at lead-acid battery recycling facilities.

The Governing Board of SCAQMD voted 10 – 0 in favor of these amendments this past January 10th in response to concerns over Exide’s repeated violations of emissions limits and the potential damage the exposure to the toxins could cause for more than 100,000 residents of Boyle Heights and surrounding communities.

The ruling came the same week that Exide both sent put out a press release boasting of a 95% drop in arsenic emissions and compliance with other air contaminant rule limits and was forced to cut production because it had once again exceeded lead emissions – the third such violation within 12 months.

Interestingly, Quemetco (located in the City of Industry), the other battery recycler affected by these amendments, has not contested the stricter regulations. Read more…