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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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Exide’s Third Application for Permit to Handle Hazardous Waste Found Deficient

"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 Exide didn’t shower them in lead and arsenic. I’m just sayin’… Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Just after I got word yesterday that the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) had determined that Exide Technologies’ third application for a formal permit to handle hazardous waste at their lead-acid battery recycling facility in Vernon was deficient, an email popped into my inbox from State Senator Ricardo Lara’s office.

Lara’s press release touted yesterday’s advancement of his bill, SB 712, from the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. The bill requires that Exide, which has operated in Vernon for 14 years with an interim permit from the DTSC, achieve compliance with federal and state hazardous waste laws by December 31, 2015 or be shut down.

The need for such a bill seemed strange — did we really need a bill to ask a corporation to comply with laws already on the books?

According to Lara, yes.

In the bill first presented before the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality this past January, he notes that, “There appear to be no repercussions for a facility that does not have a current and up-to-date permit [to handle hazardous waste] in place. In fact, there seem to be advantages to the facility by having the process continued for as long as possible under an interim or previous permit because a new permit is likely to require more stringent conditions and/or mitigation measures.”

It’s hard to argue with that reasoning.

Exide took over operations at the Vernon site from Gould-National Battery (GNB) in 2000, but apparently didn’t begin to draft an application for a formal permit until 2006. Meanwhile, they had already been fined by the DTSC in 2003 and 2004 for improper storage of the batteries, a lead-contaminated drainage channel, and failing to clean up public areas (sidewalks, etc.).

And, while their draft permit application seemingly went nowhere until it was submitted in 2011, Exide continued to violate air quality and other standards, even being charged with “contribut[ing] through deposition approximately 424 lbs. of lead in both 2004 and 2005, and 712 lbs. of lead in 2006 to the watershed.” Read more…

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Gentri-flyer Opens One Hell of a Conversation. Now What?

Boyle Heights residents gather at Prospect Park for the Primavera Festival and a talking circle on gentrification. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Boyle Heights residents gather at Prospect Park for the Primavera Festival and a talking circle on gentrification. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Gentrification.*

Much like pornography, everybody is pretty sure they know what it is when they see it, and almost everyone has an opinion about it.

But, nailing down a set of defining principles everyone can agree on so we can sit down and have a discussion about it is easier said than done.

For one, communities change. Teasing out whether that change was catalyzed by gentrification, community-led development efforts, or the normal growth and change neighborhoods undergo as cities grow and change can be a challenge. Especially while a community is in the early stages of that transformation.

And, keeping conversations from getting heated, as they did when the gentri-flyer heard ’round the world (below) hit the Internets last Monday, is no small task. While many people do finally seem to understand that any benefits the influx of investment bring won’t “trickle-down” until well after many of the lower-income residents have long-since been displaced (assuming such benefits even exist), questions about the significance of social impacts can get very contentious.

With good reason.

The gentri-flyer. (Photo source unknown)

Behold: the gentri-flyer. Touting Boyle Heights as a “charming, historic, walkable, and bikeable neighborhood” where you could put down “as little as $40K with decent credit,” it invited Arts District neighbors to join in on a (free!) hour bike tour followed by a discussion and artisanal snacks. (Original  photo source unknown, click to enlarge)

It can be hard for those in communities undergoing gentrification to speak about issues that profoundly affect them — social marginalization, the criminalization of minority youth, feelings of vulnerability at the possibility of losing one’s family home, the trauma of displacement, or the loss of a cultural community, shared history, and/or social networks — without implying that someone is to blame.

Meanwhile, those looking for an affordable place to live who get labeled as “gentrifiers” often wonder what exactly they were supposed to do differently and see it as unfair that they, as individuals, are being blamed for a process that they feel they had little control over.

That is, if they are even cognizant of having a role in a larger process at all. Many may not be. Or, they may instead see themselves as part of a different process altogether, one in which they are the brave “pioneers,” rescuing homes, businesses, and neighborhoods from disrepair and contributing to the betterment and vibrancy of an “up-and-coming” community.

All of which makes figuring out what to do about gentrification — or even coming to a consensus about whether anything should be done at all — even tougher.

In the case of the “gentri-flyer,” no sooner had residents of Boyle Heights and other minority communities begun to express concern over the predatory tone of the flyer, than all hell had broken loose.

Read more…

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Folleto desencadena polémica en Boyle Heights a través de los redes sociales

El folleto más inadecuado y polémico de la historia (Foto publicada en varias páginas de Facebook. Haga clic aquí para agrandar el tamaño).

El folleto más inadecuado y polémico de la historia (Foto publicada en varias páginas de Facebook. Haga clic aquí para agrandar el tamaño).

Cuando ayer por la mañana vi por primera vez el folleto a la izquierda en mis redes sociales, pensé que se trataba de una broma.

Promocionaba a Boyle Heights como un “vecindario encantador, histórico, accesible para peatones y ciclistas” donde uno puede hacer una entrega inicial “tan baja como de 40 mil dólares y tener acceso a una línea de crédito decente” e invitaba a los vecinos del Distrito de las Artes a participar de un recorrido (gratuito) en bicicleta seguido de una conversación con refrigerios artesanales.

Nadie que conozca un poco sobre Boyle Heights —una comunidad obrera predominantemente mexicana-estadounidense con una larga historia de activismo político y social— puede pensar que esto es una buena idea, ¿no?

De un solo plumazo, este folleto representa el temor de todos los residentes: una horda de extraños de onda que buscan casas para reclamar mientras disfrutan de refrigerios artesanales ya que las especialidades que se ofrecen en Boyle Heights no les resultan compatibles con sus sensibilidades más refinadas.

Pocas cosas han logrado gritar a los cuatro vientos: “¡No me interesa conocer esta comunidad!” con tanta eficacia.

Y no ayudó que los folletos fueran distribuidos solamente en el Distrito de las Artes (al otro lado del río de Boyle Heights), lo que significa que los residentes se enteraban de segunda mano y por lo tanto, fueron libres de construir sus propios relatos sobre las motivos detrás del folleto.

Esperando entender de qué se trataba realmente esta historia, me comuniqué de inmediato con Adaptive Realty y hablé con Bana Haffar, agente inmobiliaria y organizadora del evento.

Si bien hablamos antes del mediodía, ya entonces había recibido oposición y comentarios negativos sobre el evento. Read more…

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Gentri-flyer Sets Off Social Media Storm in Boyle Heights

Behold: the most tone-deaf flyer in the history of man. (Photo seen on several facebook pages).

Behold: the most tone-deaf gentri-flyer in the history of man. (Photo seen on several Facebook pages. Click to enlarge).

When I first saw the flyer at left pop up in my social media feeds yesterday morning, I actually thought it was a joke.

Touting Boyle Heights as a “charming, historic, walkable, and bikeable neighborhood” where you could put down “as little as $40K with decent credit,” it invited Arts District neighbors to join in on a (free!) hour bike tour followed by a discussion and artisanal snacks.

No one who knew anything about Boyle Heights — a predominantly Mexican-American working-class community with a long history of political and social activism — could possibly think this was a good idea, right?

In one fell swoop, the flyer embodies every single one of residents’ worst fears: a passel of hipster outsiders coming in to stake their claims while munching on “artisanal” snacks because Boyle Heights’ own offerings did not appeal to their more refined sensibilities.

Few things have ever screamed, “I have no interest in getting to know this community!” quite so effectively.

And, it didn’t help that the flyers had only been distributed in the Arts District (just across the river from Boyle Heights), meaning that residents were finding out about it secondhand and thus left to construct their own narratives about who was behind it and what their intentions were.

Hoping to figure out what the story was, I immediately reached out to Adaptive Realty and spoke with Bana Haffar, a realtor and the organizer of the event.

It was before noon when we spoke, but she was already getting pushback about the event.

The negativity seemed to have taken her by surprise. She had looked at a tour in a community she liked as a positive thing. And, as an immigrant from an embattled community herself, she felt she understood the value of community, being a good neighbor, and not pushing others out.

And, she noted, she was only tapping into a reality that is already well underway — property values are on the rise and turnover has been happening in the area for some time. Boyle Heights is no longer just an Ellis Island for new immigrants. Beyond acting as a refuge for those looking to escape high rents elsewhere around the city, it is also serving as that first gateway for transplants to L.A. I just met four of them on the train this weekend, incidentally. They knew so little about the community that they had convinced themselves that their pad near Mariachi Plaza was in the heart of East L.A.

As part of a small real estate group dealing in smaller holdings, Haffar seemed to believe they might be able to help make positive contributions to the area (i.e. being better landlords to local renters) and bring in people who also were interested in building community.

I spoke to her at length about some of the changes that the area had undergone in recent years and where people’s concerns, at least as I understood them, lay. We talked about the challenge of ensuring a community benefited from changes it was undergoing. Then I connected her with a few people I felt she might benefit from hearing from about those issues, if she were serious about the notion of being a more conscious neighbor.

Watching the debate evolve on social media, I saw that many of Boyle Heights’ residents were grappling with some of the same questions we had discussed: Who is a gentrifier? Do outsiders sometimes bring positive change? What is the cost of them doing so? Must it always be a loss for the community? How can we make it a positive thing? What can we do better than outsiders? Are we doing enough of it? How can we do more?

And, as the very notion of gentrification never fails to stir up intense passions, I also watched with some amusement as the troops rallied and people discussed plans to crash the tour or call upon their homeboys to stand around and look menacing.

Sometime in the afternoon (I didn’t spot it til late), however, things took a turn. Read more…

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A Walking Tour of Boyle Heights with El Random Hero

Sign on the Window of Espacio 1839

Sign on the window of Espacio 1839.

What started out as a casual conversation over drinks and food turned into me leading a tour of Boyle Heights for my friend’s Spanish class.

The tour gave his students, many of whom were visiting BH for the first time, the opportunity to explore the rich diversity the community has to offer.

I’ve had the privilege of calling BH my adoptive home since I was 7 years old. And, while I’ve also lived in other great cities like Compton, Watts, Inglewood, and Pico Union, I’ve always had that connection to BH, no matter how far away I might be.

Los Angeles is a city that forgets (or glosses over) its past at times, creating a disconnect and misconceptions of what truly makes a neighborhood a community.

And while, within historic neighborhoods like BH, that past is alive and well, unless you know its people, you may never get the full story.

Boyle Heights Tour

Walking past Self Help Graphics & Art and their history in the community.

So, while I may have technically been the guide, I was merely sharing what has been shared with me over the years. I’ve accumulated a small wealth of knowledge about the neighborhood I grew to love because others from the community have the same passion and love for it that I do.

That same passion, for better or worse, sometimes leads me to knee-jerk reactions in calling out what I perceive as gentrification and labeling any and all outsiders as “hipsters.” I’ve seen tours of Boyle Heights and have always been curious about their intentions and level of connection because the tours are almost always led by outsiders to the community. While the participants seem to genuinely want to learn more about the neighborhood, I wonder if they are getting a full picture of what once was and how it came to be what it is now.

Boyle Heights Tour

Looking at the temporarily-closed Self Help Graphics & Art as they undergo renovations.

Historical information on when landmarks or events took place were easy enough to find through resources like the Boyle Heights Historical Society or the Los Angeles Public Library, but few can contextualize the past with the present. During the tour, I referred to BH as the Ellis Island of the West Coast because historically, BH has always had those ties to immigrants. Whether it was Irish Immigrant Andrew Boyle, who the neighborhood was named after, or my own personal immigrant experience coming to the United States as a seven-year-old and having BH be the first community I lived in (and still do).

Only someone from the neighborhood would be able to describe the significance of the demolition and rebuilding of the Aliso Village developments — something that displaced more than two thirds of residents — and link it to the redevelopment Wyvernwood might undergo. Read more…

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Exide Cited for String of Lead Emissions Violations by EPA

"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

Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren’t regularly showered in lead and arsenic. I’m just sayin’…  Exide Vernon Facility, Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

I receive my fair share of press releases regarding environmental happenings and community events, but few are more morbidly amusing than Exide Technologies’ efforts to paint itself as the good guy every time it is slammed with a massive violation.

The most recent one from the embattled Vernon lead-acid battery recycler is in response to an Environmental Protection Agency notice that Exide was in violation of lead emissions standards more than 30 times since September of last year and that it may be forced to pay fines of up to $37,500 per day/violation or be potentially subject to criminal penalties, should there be continued willful violations (below). [NOV Exide 05-22-2014 w Company Letter by jedskimkpcc]

A normal person might find the string of violations troubling, particularly since the plant ceased normal recycling operations in mid-March and the only on-site activity has been related to maintenance or upgrades to equipment. [Apparently, the maintenance efforts managed to kick up so much lead dust that the facility was a source of excessive lead emissions every single day between March 22nd and April 19th.]

Not Exide.

Taking a subtle dig at the EPA in its response to the report, the press statement noted that Exide was “dedicated [to] investing the time and money needed to improve the Vernon facility so it can resume recycling more than 9 million batteries per year while complying with the strictest emissions standards in the nation.”

As always, at the bottom of the statement, the company reminds readers of the “important role” Exide has played in “fostering California’s green economy and promoting environmental sustainability,” as one of only two west coast plants that recycles car batteries.

True as it may be that lead-acid battery recycling is incredibly important — approximately 97% of battery lead gets recycled — Exide’s claims to be preventing materials from being “disposed of in harmful ways or shipped overseas where regulations are lacking” ring a little hollow considering its recent track record. Read more…

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The Other Lesson of Our #LA2050 Listens Events. We Need to Get Younger People More Involved.

Scarlet models her favorite childhood memory, which inspired her complete street view program for North Figueroa.

Scarlet models her favorite childhood memory, which inspired her complete street view program for North Figueroa.

Wider sidewalks, bike paths, fewer car lanes, park space.

These were some of the ideas that Scarlet, a participant in James Rojas’ interactive workshop focused on thinking of a new design for North Figueroa Street, presented to the group. The eight-year-old was the team leader for one of two tables set up for the workshop, which happened to include me and local bike-celebrity, Josef Bray-Ali. By the time we were done, we had designed a street for 2050 that was much smaller than the current five-lane mini-freeway that exists today.

At the same time advocates and residents were engaging with Rojas and Scarlet, Councilmember Gil Cedillo was working away at an alternative to the LADOT’s previously-approved proposal to both put North Figueroa on a road diet and add more road diets. Cedillo’s plan calls for Sharrows to be placed on side streets and minor improvements to the crosswalk design on North Figueroa.

The contrast between what we’ll call the Cedillo Plan and the Scarlet Plan couldn’t be more stark.

Students at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights placed as much space on the side of the traffic lanes as in the traffic lanes on Soto Street.

Students at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights placed as much space on the side of the traffic lanes as in the traffic lanes on Soto Street.

This is an ongoing theme of Rojas’ workshops when the participants are high-school aged or younger. They want to see a transportation network that provides safe and attractive options for all road users. When politicians think of transportation planning, too often they still think of how to best move the most cars as quickly as possible.

The April 26 “Fig4All Interactive Planning Workshop” was the last of ten workshops conducted by the Southern California Streets Initiative and Place It! throughout the month. The other events, held at Roosevelt High School and in Pacoima with super-group Pacoima Beautiful, were designed to help the Goldhirsh Foundation get feedback for on its Goals for #LA2050.

These goals include:

  • LA is the Best Place to Learn
  • LA is the Best Place to Create
  • LA is the Best Place to Play
  • LA is the Best Place to Connect
  • LA is the Healthiest Place to Live

There was a lot of enthusiasm from all participants for a plan that includes placing more emphasis on after-school programs, clean air, safer streets, more open space, and more transportation options. The workshops focused on the street designs, so we received the most feedback related to complete streets, open space and public safety.

Not one person of any age argued that Los Angeles needed more space for cars, wider streets, or faster car commute times. Not. One.

Of course, these are near-universal truths. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not a member of the Los Angeles City Council who thinks we need fewer transit options, and even then it’s hard to imagine someone opposing after-school programs.

So, the lesson learned wasn’t just that young people want better, safer, streets that support the environment, mobility, and having places to come together…but that there’s a strong disconnect between young people and these goals and some of our decision makers.

In Pacoima, the workshops were open to anyone attending the Bradley Street Plaza festival...but it was younger attendees that  mostly took part.

In Pacoima, the workshops were open to anyone attending the Bradley Street Plaza festival…but it was younger attendees that mostly took part.

I’m not saying that we need to hand over planning decisions to our children, but there’s clearly a major gap between what future generations want and what we’re planning to leave them. Building the city of the future necessitates inclusion of the voices of today’s younger residents, tomorrow’s city dwellers.

How to best do that is the million dollar question.

In Boyle Heights, City Planning’s David Somers attended a second set of workshops on April 25. After the workshop, Somers and teacher Gene Dean discussed the possibility of having both he and two of his students participate in the city-sponsored roundtable regarding the future of Soto Street. Sahra Sulaiman will have more on the second set of workshops later this week.

If you can think of a better plan, leave it in the comments section.

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Judge to Hit-and-Run Perpetrator: Don’t Do it Again or it Will Be Considered Murder

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim, speaks to local news outlets following the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia, tells local news outlets she is disappointed with the outcome of the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“If you drink and drive and kill someone again, [this time] it will carry a charge of murder with a minimum sentence of 15 years,” the judge told 21-year-old Wendy Villegas at her sentencing hearing. “Do you understand?”*

Her words had been meant to admonish Villegas — to convey the idea that slamming into a group of cyclists, killing Luis “Andy” Garcia and leaving Mario Lopez and Ulises Melgar for dead, was a very serious offense.

Unfortunately, the judge’s warning that the book would be thrown at her next time only served to underscore the fact that our laws do not yet take drunk driving or hit-and-runs seriously enough.

Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a party at USC, and you’ll get forty years to life.** Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is legally classifiable as a homicide.

From where I and 40 other members of Garcia’s family and friends sat, staring at the back of Villegas’ head, it was hard to tell if the judge’s words — or anything else, for that matter — made an impression on her.

She never met anyone’s gaze as she walked in and out of the sentencing hearing, never turned to look at anyone as she sat facing the judge, never appeared to show any emotion, and never uttered a word, other than to answer the judge’s direct yes-or-no questions.

It drove Garcia’s friends and family crazy. Read more…

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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…