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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.


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…

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Hearing For One Hit-and-Run is Rescheduled While Another Takes the Life of a Young Man in Watts

21-year-old Wendy Villegas, charged with a DUI, vehicular manslaughter, and a felonly hit-and-run at her pre-trial hearing yesterday. (Screengrab, KTLA)

21-year-old Wendy Villegas, charged with a DUI, vehicular manslaughter, and a felonly hit-and-run at her pre-trial hearing yesterday. (Screengrab, KTLA)

When a female (who may or may not have been walking her bicycle) was hit and killed by a bus on Slauson in South L.A. last month, I got a few phone calls from friends in the area.

“Was it you?”

“No,” I reassured them. “I’m still here.”

I was surprised they had heard about it. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. It feels like more mainstream attention is being given to incidents on the road that result in the death or serious injury of pedestrians and cyclists of late, and it actually feels like people are paying attention. Or, at least starting to see these preventable tragedies — particularly hit-and-runs — as a problem.

It has been incredibly heartening, for example, to see KTLA take an interest in ghost bikes (and the work of the activists who put up the memorials) and show up yesterday to cover the Ride for Justice for Andy Garcia. Garcia was the young man killed in a hit-and-run last September when an intoxicated 21-year-old named Wendy Villegas slammed into him and dragged his bike under her car several hundred feet up the Cesar Chavez bridge.

KTLA met the riders at the starting point in Bell Gardens, interviewed Garcia’s mother, Carmen Tellez, who was riding with the group, and then stayed to cover the hearing.

Their presence was also an opportunity, notes Tellez, for her to educate the reporters about just how many cyclists are regularly killed on the road, something she felt they are still only just beginning to understand.

But, for all the attention to and education around the problem, the carnage continues.

Just last night, a 19-year-old man was killed in a horrific hit-and-run in Watts.

Jerry Arredondo had stopped by a friend’s place on 105th and was crossing the otherwise quiet street when a (possibly drunk) driver came screaming down the block at between 80 and 100 mph, hit a dip in the road, went airborne, and slammed into him, apparently launching Arredondo 20 ft. into the air and 40 ft. forward. The car then continued on down the street, smashing into seven other parked cars, finally stopping after losing a wheel.

The driver then got out of the destroyed rental car and into a BMW, apparently driven by an acquaintance who thought it prudent to help the first driver get away from the mayhem he had just created.

A search is currently underway for both drivers.

Even when drivers are found, the wheels of justice turn very slowly, as Garcia’s family can attest. Read more…

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A Hearing and a Meeting on Boyle Heights Streets This Week

Streets slated for enhancement around the USC Campus near Hazard Park.

Streets slated for enhancement around the USC Campus near Hazard Park (faintly visible to the south of Norfolk St.). One note – the extension of the improvements along Norfolk have been taken off the table — the street will be connected with Soto via another route, but the drawings have not been updated to reflect that yet. (Click to enlarge/for sharper resolution)

The Boyle Heights/El Sereno/Lincoln Heights communities logged a victory last fall when USC decided that they would not only reroute a road originally planned to connect Norfolk St. with Soto through Hazard Park (left), but that they would also vacate claims to that portion of the land by handing it over to the Dept. of Parks and Rec. and forgoing future development on that parcel.

It was a unique gesture of goodwill on the part of USC.

The parcel of land in question (the section of Norfolk between Playground St. and Soto, below) was not originally part of the park. But, it had been absorbed into the park by default over the years and handball courts were built on a portion of it.

So, when USC met with the community last year to announce planned improvements, including the construction of a new clinic building, student housing, and a hotel on the health sciences campus (HSC), and that development of a parcel of land along Soto would trigger a mandatory extension of Norfolk through the handball courts, the community decried what they felt was a land grab.

The extension of Norfolk St. would have passed between the cones on the sidewalk and the fence on the hillside on the left, requiring the removal of the handball courts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The extension of Norfolk St. would have passed between the cones on the sidewalk and the fence on the hillside on the left, requiring the removal of the handball courts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Promises of new handball courts and other improvements did little to assuage people’s outrage, fears of excessive traffic along Soto’s already busy corridor, and worries about the encroachment of students (and their cars) into the residential areas across the way from the campus complex.

Seemingly dedicated to being better neighbors, USC has since committed to providing Hazard Park with a new jogging path, new outdoor fitness equipment, a new toddler play area, additional security lighting, $50,000 to support the park’s youth sports programs, and upgrades to the park gym, outdoor basketball and tennis courts, and restrooms. They have also committed to constructing 1,500 new parking spaces within the campus and working with the CD 14 office to secure additional metered parking for park-goers over the next several years.

This Friday, February 7th, the process will take another step forward with a hearing before the Hearing Officer on behalf of the City Planning Commission at City Hall regarding the redesignation of the street classifications of San Pablo, Alcazar, Eastlake, Norfolk, Playground, and Biggy Streets (to facilitate beautification) and the streetscape improvements planned for each. Read more…

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“Nothing Brings Me Comfort”: Family of Hit-and-Run Victim Plan to Hold Ride to Driver’s Hearing


Andy Garcia, center, with some of his riding buddies. Photo courtesy of Carmen Tellez

What goes through the mind of a drunk driver who senselessly mows people down?

It’s a question the family and friends of Luis “Andy” Garcia are still waiting for answers to.

Garcia, an experienced cyclist and recent transplant to L.A., was riding home with friends on the night of September 14th, 2013, when 21 year-old Wendy Villegas came tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez, slamming into him and dragging his bike under her car for several hundred feet. She also knocked aside Mario Lopez, sending him into the pavement hard and breaking his back, and launched Ule Melgar so high into the air that he almost sailed over the railing to the river below.

Seemingly unaware of the havoc she had wreaked, she kept going.

Thanks to the help of a driver that witnessed the incident and got her license plate, police were able to track her down. She was still intoxicated when they took her into custody at seven in the morning.

The family, Garcia’s mother tells me, is still waiting for some expression of remorse from her.

According to those present at her arraignment last October, her lawyer suggested that wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor both alcohol intake and movement would be inconvenient to a young, working student as well as a challenge for her to pair it properly with the variety of shoes she wears.

For Mario Lopez, still in pain, struggling with mobility, unable to work, and dealing with both anxiety and feelings of helplessness, it was too much.

He said that, at that moment, he thought, “Well, what about Andy? [Andy] was a full time student in college. He had responsibilities. But yet, he can’t and will never be able to fulfill them…And she is worried about her fashion sense! What about the inconvenience she brought upon his family and friends?”

For Garcia’s family, her concerns about the bracelet left them cold.

“I understand that it is her attorney’s job to work and manipulate the legal system to her benefit. However, what I can’t understand is how she has not shown one ounce of remorse,” writes Garcia’s mother. “Her behavior in the courtroom demonstrates her lack of compassion towards human life. Her nonchalant demeanor is extremely offensive to me. It is like her having to appear in court is a mere inconvenience in her life. She has yet to look me in the eye, much less [offer] some sort of apology.”

Several months on, the family continues to mourn as they await justice. Read more…


How Will Helicopter Noise Relief Act Help Those in Heavily Policed Communities?

Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association gave out these stickers at the helicopter activity town hall meeting yesterday. Kris Fortin/LAStreetsblog

The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association gave out stickers at a town hall meeting in 2012. That meeting was one of several that led to the creation of Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act. (Kris Fortin/LA Streetsblog)

If you live in an area with a lot of police helicopter activity, it can be very frustrating.

Not just because it can wake you up in the middle of the night, rattling your windows, shaking your walls, or occasionally even shining a spotlight inside your apartment.

But also because you rarely learn why it was there in the first place or whether it actually helped resolve a crime.

Questions like that have led many to wonder if their use is excessive.

For folks living in areas like South L.A. and Boyle Heights, the “ghetto birds” are, as Boyle Heights’ blogger Erick Huerta told Warren Olney during a Which Way, L.A.? segment on the topic this week, as ubiquitous as “mockingbirds or sparrows or anything else that’s around the neighborhood. On any given night, you’ll hear the bird up there, twirling around maybe 30, 40 minutes, and then flashing their lights into everybody’s houses.”

It’s so routine, in fact, that the presence of helicopters serve as a signal for he and other residents to take to social media to try to find out what’s the latest happening in the area.

For others in South L.A., they can provide a grim backdrop to the soundtrack of the neighborhood and a sense of being under constant surveillance. One youth told me he wears headphones to bed at night in order to drown out the sounds of the helicopters.

“Do you…and people in your neighborhood agree [the presence of helicopters] is a necessary thing?” Olney asked Huerta.

They were discussing the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act, which was included in the omnibus spending bill by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Schiff. Directed primarily at news choppers and those offering aerial tours through the Hollywood Hills and other well-to-do communities, the legislation “would require the FAA to develop regulations related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life of L.A. County residents within one year…and encourages the FAA to act independently of legislation to reduce helicopter noise in Los Angeles.”

Unusually, the legislation does not carry an exemption for helicopter use by law enforcement or fire fighters.

While some might see that as problematic, given that many feel helicopters are a necessary tool in fighting both crime and fires, it could also be a good thing. It might finally prompt more in-depth studies regarding the effectiveness of helicopters in reducing or resolving crime.

The last comprehensive study appears to have been done in 1998, comparing helicopter usage in Miami-Dade and Baltimore counties. That study, while not particularly conclusive, did find that they could be rather effective as backup in pursuits of stolen vehicles.

Sixteen years later, the role of helicopters has greatly expanded. Read more…

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Photo Exhibit Brings Human-Scale Public Art to Olympic Blvd. in Boyle Heights

The second installment of the Reflejos y Regalos de East Los art project at Costello Park in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The second installment of the Reflejos y Regalos de East Los art project at Costello Park in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Take a ride along Olympic Blvd. in Boyle Heights, and you will be struck by how unwelcoming it can feel to humans.

The street is quite wide and busy at certain times of the day, often supporting heavy truck traffic. The industrial sites that populate the area are generally windowless and sometimes rather noisy. At night, the road is quite dark and the area can feel empty, save for a few food trucks and vendors that draw small crowds. The sidewalks are often strewn with garbage (especially adjacent to vacated sites). And, along certain sections of the boulevard, you get a nice view overlooking Vernon and all the smokestacks sending pollution your way.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t people there — indeed, there are a lot. And there’s art, too. It comes in the form of a cluster of more than 50 historically significant murals depicting Chicano themes, history, and traditions in the housing development of Estrada Courts (for more see here and here).

But, it’s not enough to make the street feel human-scale.

Much of Olympic is populated with windowless industrial spaces and unkempt sidewalks. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Much of Olympic is populated with windowless industrial spaces and unkempt sidewalks. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Which is why it was so exciting to see a photo exhibit go up on the chain-link fence at Costello Park on Jan. 17th.

The temporary installation, a photo mural comprised of images of community members, is the second such installation in the Reflejos y Regalos de East Los (Reflections and Gifts of East Los) site-specific art project.

In celebration of their 40th anniversary, Boyle Heights’ socially conscious and community-oriented arts center Self Help Graphics & Art teamed up with photographer Rafael Cardenas (with support from the Pasadena Art Alliance and the NEA) to create a participatory project that would both engage the community and reflect the community back to itself.

Inspired by a cache of old black and white photos found buried in a box, says Evonne Gallardo, Executive Director at SHG, they set up pop-up photo booths in Mariachi Plaza, Costello Park, and Hollenbeck Park and invited people gathered there to sit for portraits. Read more…


As 1st St. Undergoes Transformation, Pedestrians in Other Areas of Boyle Heights Wonder When Their Moment Will Come

A man and his child navigate the construction along 1st St. in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

A man and his child navigate the construction along 1st St. in Boyle Heights. The mural on Eastside Luv is by Robert Vargas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Are you just visiting?” a woman asked as she watched me take pictures of a decrepit bench on Cesar Chavez.

I had to laugh — I suppose I could have been mistaken for a misguided tourist taking photos of exotic oddities. It is not all that unusual to find out-of-towners lurking around Boyle Heights, cameras in hand, hoping to supplement their photos of historic murals with tidbits of local culture.

No, I explained, I was documenting some of the disconnect between the investment along 1st Street (as part of the Eastside Access project) and the neglect of some of the other important streets in the area.

“Oh!” she grabbed my hand. “I have a story for you.”

She had been walking with her children along Marengo St., near LAC USC, when she came to an intersection where there was no curb ramp — only a steep drop to the road. She had to look down at the road in order to navigate that drop with her son’s stroller, she said, “and that’s when my two girls were hit by a car.”

I looked at her girls. They were so tiny — maybe 5 and 7 years old.

“Were they hurt?” I asked.

They ended up being OK, she said, but it was maddening that poor infrastructure could make the streets that much more dangerous.

I nodded. That whole area around the hospital is really unpleasant to walk around, and I could see how it could make things very difficult for the community. Along Cesar Chavez alone, within just 15 minutes time, I had come across four people in wheelchairs, three elderly people with walkers, and numerous families with small children in strollers.

It wasn’t just up that way, she continued. So many of the side streets were missing curb ramps that it was hard for families to get around their own neighborhoods.

“I hope you can write about that,” she said. “That really needs to change.” Read more…

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Governing Board of the AQMD Adopts Amendment Imposing Stricter Emissions Controls on Lead-Acid Battery Recyclers

Concerned citizens, representatives of elected officials, steelworkers, and Exide spokespeople packed the last public hearing on Exide before the AQMD governing board. (webcast screenshot)

Concerned citizens, representatives of elected officials, steelworkers, and Exide spokespeople packed today’s hearing before the AQMD governing board. (webcast screenshot)

Se me murió mi señora, se me murió mi cuñado… yo no quiero que muera más gente. Esto es lo que pido de ustedes.”

“I have lost my wife and my brother-in-law… I don’t want more people to die. This is what I ask of you.”

The statement came from a visibly unwell Maywood resident named Marcelo Hernández.

Hernández was one of the many concerned citizens from Maywood, Vernon, Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, and surrounding communities who attributed their cancers, asthma, learning disabilities, auto-immune diseases, and other chronic health problems to Exide’s history of excessive toxic emissions.

They, together with a number of representatives of elected officials and non-profit organizations, had traveled to Diamond Bar today to ask the Governing Board of the AQMD to both vote in favor of an amendment directed at curbing emissions from lead-acid battery recycling plants and shut the the plant down.

Some did it more humorously, with one man saying he was willing to take his clothes off to demonstrate just how ill his body was (Board Chair Dr. William Burke politely declined). Others pointed at the 14 emissions and notification violations Exide has had over the past 10 months — including the most recent one just last week which forced the plant to curb production yesterday — and asked if it was fair that they should have to endure those toxins on top of all the other pollution their communities already had to absorb. Almost all implored the Board to think about the health of the children and other vulnerable populations.

It appears they needn’t have worried. Read more…

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Holiday Food for Thought: A Better Way to Bike Share?

Colin Bogart (LACBC) and Diego Binatena, an Eagle Scout who put together a bikeshare program for two residential facilities for the homeless, stand next to the newly donated bikes at PATH in Hollywood. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Colin Bogart (LACBC) and Diego Binatena, an Eagle Scout and Olympic cycling hopeful who put together a bike share program for two residential facilities for the homeless, stand next to the newly donated bikes at PATH in Hollywood. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Gesturing toward the new bicycles that he and Eagle Scout Diego Binatena had just locked up to the rack at one of PATH‘s residential facilities, the LACBC‘s Colin Bogart noted that the bikes represented the ultimate in self-sufficiency.

For the recipients of the new bikes they may be that and much, much more.

Megan Colvard, Associate Director of Community Engagement at PATH — the largest provider of permanent supportive housing and other services to the homeless — looked at the bikes as a way to help mitigate the social isolation that those they serve often experience. Eric Hubbard, Development Director at Jovenes Inc. — one of the few organizations in the region that focuses on helping homeless youth access supportive housing, skills training, and employment support — felt the bikes could be one more tool in helping their youth go from Invisible to Invincible.

In addition to all that, I realized, Diego Binatena, the 17-year-old Eagle Scout who had put together the mini-bike share programs for PATH and Jovenes, may have come up with a more manageable and easily replicable approach to bike share than any of the proposals we’ve seen so far.

I looked at the gangly Olympic hopeful and wondered if he really grasped the extent of what he had just done.

It’s entirely possible that he did.

A Scout since first grade and son of Santa Monica Housing Authority Administrator Julie Lansing, community service and helping those in need had always been an important part of his life. So had biking. Just this year, he won a number of races, including the California Junior State Road Championships and was recruited by the USA Cycling National Team to race in Europe.

When it came time for him to do his Eagle Scout Service Project — a project intended to deliver benefits of some significance to the community while demonstrating the Scout’s ability for leadership — marrying his love for bicycles with his desire to help the homeless in a bike share program seemed like a good way forward.

After hearing that the LACBC had bikes they might be able to donate to his project, he headed for the drawing board. Read more…


Public Briefing on Sixth Street Viaduct Highlights Need to Remember Bridges are about Connecting People

A bus crosses the 6th St. Bridge. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

A bus crosses the 6th St. Bridge. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Wow, it’s dark,” I thought as I rode across the 6th Street bridge the other night. “Why are all the lights off?”

I had just left the public briefing on the 6th Street Viaduct Replacement Project where representatives from the Bureau of Engineering (BOE), the contractors Skanska & Stacy/Witbeck, and the Public Arts Advisory Committee (PAAC) had offered an update on design and construction dates and I wanted to contemplate some of what I had heard while crossing the structure itself.

It’s my favorite bridge in the city. The 3500 ft. span, beautiful views, and overall spaciousness have a unique way of opening up all the doors and windows in my brain and letting fresh thoughts blow through.

The eerie atmosphere created by the unexpected blackout, however, seemed somehow portentous.

“Change is definitely in the air,” I thought.

And, not everybody is happy about it.

For the most part, people seem to understand that the bridge needs to be demolished and rebuilt.

Indeed it does. The alkali mixed in the concrete, when exposed to moisture, triggered an alkali-silica reaction that has been eating away at the strength of the bridge almost since the moment construction was completed in 1932. The deterioration was so rapid, in fact, that it necessitated the removal of two large decorative pylons in the 1940s, the stripping of the asphalt and recoating of the underlying concrete in the 1980s, and multiple epoxy patch jobs in recent years. Estimates that the bridge has a 70% probability of collapsing in a major earthquake are also rather persuasive in that regard.

And, many (not all, of course) seem to appreciate that the city is treating the bridge as an iconic structure and looking to replace it with one that will be equally iconic.

Not bad, right? Mock-up of the bridge from where it begins in the east, straddling the 101 fwy. Source: Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project

Not bad, right? Mock-up of the bridge from where it begins in the east, straddling the 101 fwy. Source: Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project (click for more renderings)

What people are having more trouble with, however, are the details of how (and using which guidelines), construction will be undertaken and, much like in the case of the Glendale-Hyperion bridge, the seeming reluctance of the city to think of a bridge as more than a stand-alone entity.

With regard to the question of details, a number of attendees raised questions about the fact that the contractors were working from an EIR completed in 2006.

Much has changed on both sides of the bridge since then. There is much greater residential density on the downtown side, in addition to a number of new businesses and art spaces that both serve that new population and draw people from all over the city. Read more…