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South LA

In an effort to show how transportation, open space, planning and other issues impact the health and character 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. Sahra Sulaiman is the Communities Editor for Streetsblog Los Angeles and is leading our coverage efforts in these communities. This page serves as a place to read Sahra’s and all of Streetsblog’s coverage of issues in South L.A. Contact Sahra at sahra[at]streetsblog.org or on twitter: @sahrasulaiman.

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Justice-Oriented Mobility Advocates to “Untokenize” Active Transportation Movement at November Convening

spicy shoes

In lower-income communities of color in Los Angeles, cycling is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.

The Token One
He was so glad I had “talked about people of color committing violence against other people of color,” he gushed, shaking my hand.

My eyebrows shot up.

The focus of my talk at last October’s CalBike’s annual summit had been the extent to which the socio-economic and cultural landscapes of a community are inextricably intertwined with the physical one. Using the installation of amenities in a historically disenfranchised lower-income community of color as an example, I had explained how decades of disinvestment, discriminatory planning, suppressive policing, and denial of opportunity had generated chronic insecurity in the public space. And how, as a result, many residents were still unable to access these “improvements.” Our stories about mobility, I concluded, must therefore also engage questions of access, equity, justice, and a wider range of historical and contemporary barriers in order to be truly inclusive.

At no point did I ever offer support for the artificial and highly problematic construct of “black-on-black violence.”

And yet, here was this white gentleman in front of me, congratulating me for having done so.

The advocates of color I spoke with afterwards had understood exactly what I was going for. They got the placement of mobility in a community context. And they got the call to think beyond bicycles to the constraints contexts imposed on the actual bodies moving through space on those two wheels. These were frameworks they understood intuitively.

But much like the guy shaking my hand, many of the white advocates in the room had filtered the presentation through their own experiences. And what they had come away with was very different.

A few said they had never considered the idea that certain streets might not be accessible to some people for reasons that had nothing to do with cars. Was this really true? Others seemed to think certain communities were unapproachable. How would one even begin to engage people in such a community? How would you know who to talk to? some asked. It seemed so dangerous to some, but also kind of edgy and exciting to others. Are you giving tours?

I wasn’t sure I could have expected better.

Despite being spot-on-topic at the “Equity in Motion”-themed summit, my presentation had been a major outlier.

The panel had been focused on how to pitch stories about the positive aspects of cycling – the joy, sense of well-being, freedom, and links to community it can bring. But as a reporter whose beat is specifically tied to two transit-dependent and historically disenfranchised lower-income communities of color in Los Angeles, mobility meant something different to me.

And given the theme, I had argued to the panel organizer, it seemed appropriate to explore the extent to which a choice framework both excluded those who cycle out of need – largely lower-income people of color – and rendered important questions of accessibility to the margins.

The organizer and the other panelists were enthusiastic about including an equity perspective. But in the weeks leading up to the event, it was clear that being open to including equity and actually creating the space for that topic to be properly explored are two very different things. And the more I tried to explain my critical approach to the organizer, the longer and more involved my emails became, and the more consternation I felt I was causing.

People don’t like to be told what isn’t working, I was admonished at one point.

But I didn’t see where I had a choice.

I have to speak to current frameworks to be heard. And I have to spend most of my time deconstructing said frameworks just to explain why I should not be dismissed out of hand. And every single time I have to proceed this way – every time I post another 3,000 – 5,000 word story trying to justify the incorporation of marginalized voices and realities, compose yet another lengthy explanatory email, or look around the room where I am speaking – I wonder if this will be the last time I will be invited to opine on this topic.

The More Things Change, the More They Really Don’t
It’s an odd thing to observe that the more popular the topic of equity has become over the last few years, the less genuine space there is to truly address it in a meaningful way.

Read more…

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Metro Explores Alternative Rail-to-River Routes Through Southeast Cities

The Rail-to-River plan to put a bike path between the Crenshaw Line to the west and the L.A. River to the east just took another step forward. Source: Metro

The Rail-to-River plan to put a bike path between the Crenshaw Line to the west and the Blue Line to the east, along with the four options that could eventually connect the path with (or very close to) the L.A. River. Source: Metro

In thinking about the potential routes the eastern segment (B) of the Rail-to-River (R2R) active transportation corridor might take, stressed Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, it was important that the needs of workers, youth, and community members of the Southeast Cities be put front and center. Connectivity to job centers and schools should therefore be the first priority.

Through that lens, Lopez said, the bike path project could offer momentum for the creation of other potential “job trails” EYCEJ had already been thinking about, including connections to Vernon, and Commerce, a path along Slauson that would facilitate connections across the L.A. River and the 710 Freeway to the Bell Cheli Industrial area, and routes enhancing greater access to the river and green spaces like Riverfront Park.

A snapshot of Randolph street from above (center, running left to right). The ROW runs down the middle of the street, and could be made into a protected bikeway and pedestrian path. Source: Google maps.

A rail right-of-way runs down the middle of Randolph Street and could be made into a protected bikeway and pedestrian path. Source: Google maps. Click to enlarge.

I had reached out to Lopez for feedback after attending Metro’s mid-afternoon session on the R2R project held last Wednesday in Huntington Park. The R2R project – a dedicated bike and pedestrian path that will stretch between the Crenshaw and Blue Lines, and to (or through) the Southeast cities to the east – is much-needed in the park-poor and truck-dominated corridors of the communities of South Central and Southeast Los Angeles.

Class i bike facilities. Source: Feasibility Study

Class I bike facilities separate and protect cyclists from cars. Source: Feasibility Study

But many of the participants, I realized as we gathered around the tables to decide how to serve Southeast residents’ needs best, were not from the area and/or not very familiar with where people worked or how they got there. All of which made speaking to Metro’s purpose for the meeting – discussing and ranking the four alternatives for Segment B of the active transportation corridor – somewhat difficult.

Metro’s own 2014 feasibility study had determined that the Randolph Street option should be prioritized. It would not necessarily be the easiest choice – the rail right-of-way (ROW) is owned by Union Pacific, meaning that the cost of acquisition could be quite high and the negotiations involved in acquiring the ROW could take some time. But factors in its favor included the length the route would cover (4.34 miles), user experience, connectivity, safety, transit connections, ease of implementation (see p. 76), and the fact that it would allow cyclists to continue on a dedicated Class I bike path (a separated and protected path, at right). And because the ROW is as wide as 60′ in some sections, it would allow for the inclusion of many or more of the amenities present on the western and central segments of the path.

Users would not have to move back and forth between busy streets and dedicated Class I facilities or lose the bike and pedestrian paths altogether, as they would with the Utility Corridor or Slauson routes. It would also offer users a safe, protected, and lengthy east-west connection through a densely populated and semi-industrial section of Los Angeles usually dominated by heavy traffic and large trucks.

Although, like Randolph Street, the Malabar route would be able to provide users with a dedicated and protected path, it narrows considerably (which would push pedestrians aside) as it makes its way north toward Washington Blvd. It would also move users through less secure industrial areas with fewer connections to transit, residential neighborhoods, commercial corridors, or educational centers. Also, as in the case of Randolph Street, the use of the Malabar Yards ROW would require negotiations with BNSF to get it to abandon its rights to the ROW east of Santa Fe Ave.

The Malabar route would move users north toward (but not reaching) the river through Vernon. Source: Feasibility Study

The Malabar route would move users north toward (but not reaching) the river through Vernon. Source: Feasibility Study

All that said, it was still not 100 per cent clear to me which route would better connect residents with their jobs. Read more…

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Vision Zero: LADOT, Focus Group Have Same Goals, Different Ideas About How to Reach Them

Detail of Vision Zero High Injury Network as it overlaps with equity indicators. Many of the streets highlighted in South L.A. are prioritized for potential safety interventions. Source: Vision Zero

Detail of Vision Zero High Injury Network as it overlaps with equity indicators. Many of the streets highlighted in South L.A. are prioritized for potential safety interventions. Source: Vision Zero

“Remember, the end goal is to get to 20% reduction [in traffic-related deaths] by next year, and then zero by 2025,” said MIG Consultant Esmeralda Garcia of the city’s effort to put together an action plan to implement Vision Zero.

Gesturing toward another consultant and Brian Oh of the L.A. Department of Transportation (LADOT), she told the ten attendees (myself included) at the South Los Angeles focus group meeting last Thursday, “Anything that will help [us] to get to that goal – that’s why we need to hear from you. That’s why this conversation is important.”

The statement made me feel very important indeed.

Then I remembered that I had not been invited to attend this gathering.

As Joe Linton noted in his coverage of Vision Zero’s first real stab at community engagement, the fact that it all seems to be happening rather quietly and out of public view is both odd and very much by design. Focus group attendees were nominated by a process that still remains somewhat shrouded in smoggy mystery. And the Vision Zero Alliance (LA0) – a diverse coalition of organizations explicitly formed to partner with the city on shaping policy and communications around safe and equitable streets – appears not to have been brought on early enough in the process to play a significant role in setting up the meetings.

LADOT will likely dispute this last point, having reassured me that all proper protocols were followed with partners. Still, I think we can all agree that there are more efficient ways for the city to get feedback from its partners besides having them show up to focus group meetings at random locations around town. If only because when half of the attendees at a meeting are tied to the LA0 organizations already said to be in regular communication with LADOT, then LADOT is wasting its time getting redundant feedback while also not hearing from the wider community it is purporting to engage.

These concerns aside, the questions I found myself pondering had more to do with the purpose of the meeting and how any feedback gathered might actually be used.

To the best of my understanding, the purpose of the meeting was to support LADOT in its effort to develop an action plan governing the drive to reduce traffic-related deaths by 20 percent in the next year and a half. KPCC called the approach a “fine-tuning” of a plan that should be finished by September.

Except we were not presented with a formal plan.

Instead, we got: a) a good overview of what the crash data told the Vision Zero team; b) a look at the issues being considered and where those issues intersected with the many prioritized corridors in South Los Angeles; and c) suggestions regarding potential solutions to reduce fatalities using engineering, education, and enforcement.

Then, after each topic, we were asked for feedback: Did we get the data right? What are the highest priority traffic safety issues in your community? Will the sample solutions work in your community? What might be more effective? And, finally, how can the city “make it easier for you to engage on traffic safety?” and how can non-profits and individuals promote safety?

Those talk-back periods were where it became clear (to me, at least) that, while the city and the attendees were ultimately focused on the same outcome, they sometimes appeared to be envisioning deeply divergent ways to get there. Read more…

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Bike Talk: What Bike Advocacy Needs to Understand about South Central

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“What is the situation in South L.A.?” is the question Colin Bogart, Education Director at the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, posed to launch our discussion of the removal of a 7.2 mile bike lane planned for Central Avenue from the Mobility Plan 2035.

Both Malcolm Harris, Director of Programs and Organizing from TRUST South L.A., and I had to laugh.

“Alright…” I said, “You said an hour? We have an hour…?”

The question was posed half-jokingly, of course.

But, as you will hear over the hour-long conversation that unfolds, understanding the history of South Los Angeles, who comprised the community back in the day (and why), who comprises it now (and why), and what folks’ histories and relationships are with each other, the city, advocates, and law enforcement are all essential to understanding how the area responds to efforts to implement active transportation infrastructure there now. [If the link below doesn’t work, please click here.]

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As both Harris and I argue, too often mobility advocates coming into the community are unfamiliar with the history of the area, the racial, cultural, and socio-economic dynamics that define the community, or the variety of barriers that can constrain mobility there. And the local advocates and actors who do have that knowledge are generally not brought in until way too late in the process – long after planning, design, branding, and engagement around plans are already well underway – limiting their contributions to a rubber-stamp approval.

As a result, mainstream mobility advocates are often unable to speak to members of the community in terms that resonate with those stakeholders’ realities. Worse still, the language used to promote active transportation can be deeply alienating. Narratives about the benefits of bicycling, the extent to which “bikes mean business,” and exhortations for people to see their “streets as sites of recreation” border on insulting in neighborhoods where the presence of bikes signals a lack of resources and a history of insecurity in the public space forced people to look to private spaces to build community.

That disconnect between the approach mainstream advocates tend to take and the lived experiences of people in lower-income communities of color is what helps breed distrust of the city’s intentions. And with new infrastructure seeming to accompany new developments making incursions into historically neglected neighborhoods, both Harris and I explain, it is no wonder the first question we often hear from folks is, “Who is this bike lane really for?”
Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Another Green Alley to Open Soon in South L.A.

Coming soon! A green alley in South L.A. near 52nd and Avalon. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Coming soon! A green alley in South L.A. near 52nd and Avalon. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The hundreds of miles of alleys that run through South Los Angeles often look more like dirty dumping grounds than inviting places to stroll.

Littered with furniture and other debris, overgrown with vegetation, lacking pedestrian lighting or other amenities, and occasionally gated off to limit nuisance activities, they generally feel isolated and unwelcoming.

A demonstration project helmed by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and in partnership with the City of L.A., the Council for Watershed Health, the Coalition for Responsible Community Development and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps aims to change that by converting a network of alleys into green walkways.

The Avalon Green Alley Network (below) is retrofitting two alleys with permeable pavement to infiltrate and clean approximately two million gallons of rainwater a year. They and the remaining five alleys will be spruced up with gardens, new street trees (and fruit trees), art, and lighting. Area crosswalks will also be improved.

The network of alleys to be converted. The red box marks the alley set to open. The orange alley at left is already open. Source: TPL

The network of alleys to be converted. The red box marks the alley set to open. The orange alley linking to the Food4Less is already open. Source: SALT Landscape Architects

Once complete, the alley network squeezed between South Park and the South Los Angeles Watershed Park should help make it easier for youth and families to move more easily and safely between home, two schools, the grocery store, and the two parks.

Read more…

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Filed Under: “Do You Need a Patch?”

Ade Neff of the Ride On! bike co-op puts his bike up on the stand at the repair station outside the KAOS Network in Leimert Park as members of Black Kids on Bikes gather for their monthly ride. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Ade Neff of the Ride On! bike co-op puts his bike up on the stand at the repair station outside the KAOS Network in Leimert Park as members of Black Kids on Bikes gather for their monthly ride. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Six months ago he had been hit by a car on Rodeo Road, the young man told me. He was laid up for seventeen days. Now he had a metal rod in his back.

It wasn’t a story that made the news. And it wasn’t a hit-and-run – the driver actually stopped to help the downed cyclist. But it was awful all the same.

It was also the first I had heard about it.

And I only got to hear it because I had stopped to help the young man fix a flat tire on his BMX. I had seen him holding a lighter up to a DIY duct tape patch on an inner tube at the bicycle repair station at Leimert Park’s People St Plaza and figured he could use a hand.

“Do you need a patch?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said, pointing at the tape. “This here’s what we call a ‘ghetto fix.'”

As I pulled the tape off, I saw the tube was pretty torn up – something in the rim had done the damage.

I explained this to him and we checked the rim.

Like on a lot of the second- or third-hand bikes I tend to see lower-income folks riding in the area, the inside of the rim was a hot mess of spiky spoke ends and worn-through rim tape. And information about all the different things he could do to keep his bike in better working order wasn’t going to be much help to him. He rarely had much in the way of disposable cash.

Instead, we used the duct tape patch to cover up some of the sharpest spots inside the rim and got to work trying to make a pair of patches cover the damaged surface of the tube.

The BMX wasn’t his regular bike, he said. That bike had been totaled when he had been hit from behind in that 4 a.m. crash. He had tried suing the driver for his medical expenses, he said, but never saw any of the settlement. He figured the lawyer ended up with the money.

“But, it’s not cheap to get a rod put in your back…?” I ventured.

“Whatever,” he waved, shrugging it off. “It’s done now.”

The bills, he seemed to be indicating, had gone unpaid. And he couldn’t do much about that, even if he wanted to. So he stopped worrying about it.

Usually when I write up an encounter like this for Streetsblog, this is the point at which I segue into a discussion of what this story means in a larger context. And the case of this indigent and occasionally homeless young man is certainly not lacking for larger contexts. Read more…

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Amendments to Remove Central, Westwood Bike Lanes from Mobility Plan, Add Substitutes Move Through Planning Commission

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Listening to the City Planning Commission vote in favor – albeit somewhat reluctantly – of moving forward on the regressive amendments to the Mobility Plan 2035 this morning, I felt my heart sink.

With recommendations the City Council approve amendments that a) remove Westwood Boulevard (between LeConte and Ohio) and approximately seven miles of Central Avenue from the Bicycle Enhanced Network (BEN), b) substitute those routes with less direct and less-likely-to-be-used parallel streets (Gayley and Midvale in Westwood and Avalon and San Pedro in South L.A.), and c) allow for more north-south corridor substitutions in the future, where deemed prudent, the city of Los Angeles officially moved closer to taking a significant step back from its commitment to building a safer and more accessible city for all. [See the CPC agenda and staff report.]

The amendments to the Mobility Plan that the City Planning Commission recommended the City Council adopt.

The amendments to the Mobility Plan that the City Planning Commission recommended the City Council adopt.

Worse still, it was all happening in the guise of greater “safety” and mobility as defined by people who appeared to care very little about either for people other than themselves or their own narrow interests.

That hypocrisy was perhaps best exemplified by the Westwood contingent of homeowners who now were masquerading as bus huggers. Which was truly bizarre, considering that just last year, when Fix the City and their Westside supporters launched their lawsuit against the Mobility Plan, they were decidedly anti-transit and anti-options in their approach. The group’s president had ranted about how the city “want[ed] to make driving our cars unbearable by stealing traffic lanes from us on major streets and giving those stolen lanes to bike riders and buses.” Laura Lake, the group’s secretary, had told the L.A. Times that safer streets and more transportation options could only lead to greater tailpipe emissions, greater congestion, first responders getting trapped in traffic more often (implying more death and destruction), and greater sacrifices made by people whose schedules would be so disrupted that they would lose untold hours that would otherwise have been spent working or with their families.

Today, Lake had completely changed her tune. Now she was telling the commissioners that she was deeply concerned about the more than 900 buses traveling along Westwood every day. If those buses were to get stuck behind a bicyclist, she posited, thousands of bus riders could be impeded from getting to work or school.

Clearly unencumbered by the idea that the whole point of having separate lanes for bikes and buses is to keep them from having to cross each others’ paths and that the only ones blocking buses in such a scenario would be private vehicles, she declared she only hoped to benefit “the greater good.”

Other Westwood advocates that stood to speak took their lead from the backwards logic regularly deployed by Councilmember Paul Koretz regarding bike lanes, arguing busy streets with no bike infrastructure were dangerous for cyclists and therefore better infrastructure must be avoided at all costs.

“It’s really simple,” declared Stephen Resnick, president of the Westwood Homeowners Association. Substituting the less-busy Gayley and Midvale streets for Westwood on the bicycle network was about nothing more than “safety” and “transportation.”

Barbara Broide, another Westwood HOA president, argued bikes on Westwood would deter people trying to connect to the Expo Line via bus and wondered how people could possibly feel safe riding bikes alongside hundreds of buses anyways (which of course they don’t, which is why they have clamored for the bike lane). Stakeholder Debbie Nussbaum warned against bike lanes on busy streets in general, proclaiming they ran the risk of giving people a false sense of security. Read more…

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Jobs or Housing? Historic South Central Residents Decry Feeling Asked to Choose by Billion Dollar Reef Project

Curren Price turned the town hall over to union representatives and representatives of the Reef after his opening remarks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Ninth District Councilmember Curren Price (standing center left, brownish jacket) turned the packed-to-the-hilt town hall over to union representatives and representatives of the “creative habitat” known as the Reef after his opening remarks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

THE NUMBER ONE THING that representatives from the “creative habitat” known as the Reef felt they had learned from engaging the community, the speaker told the more than 600 town hall attendees this past May 5, was that Historic South Central was “lacking a sense of place.”

To give the community that sense of place it was lacking, the Reef representative continued, the Reef’s developers were looking forward to providing South Central residents with places to go get dinner with the family or to have a cup of coffee. Important amenities like a grocery store, pharmacy, and bank. A bike hub that the community could access. Investment in a new DASH bus route and bike infrastructure on adjacent streets to enhance overall mobility. A plaza area that could host performances and be a place to hang out. An art gallery that would showcase art from local kids because “kids love to see their work” up on walls.

These amenities would “create a sense of place for the people in this room…” he reiterated, “for all of us to belong to.”

Place vs. Place-making
About half the people in that room – members of the South Central-based United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) Coalition and their supporters – collectively shook their heads in dismay and, in some cases, disgust. This was language that danced around their concerns about displacement and the disruption of the networks that comprised the social and economic foundation of their community. It was also language that suggested the Reef would now be the one to define what “community” and “place” meant for the historic neighborhood they were moving into, not the other way around.

Worse still, these words were being spoken to members of a community that might just have the most powerful sense of place of anyone in the city, perhaps with the exception of Watts and Boyle Heights. True, they might be profoundly disappointed with the city’s long-standing neglect of their environs. But they have no shortage of pride in the neighborhood and the ability of its people to elevate culture, family, heritage, and community in the face of great disparity. That pride and the deep and enduring commitment so many in the room had to raising the community up from within is what has made South Central the unique place it is.

In describing the community by the sum of its amenities, or lack thereof, the representatives of the Reef managed to underscore how disconnected they and the project were from the neighborhood itself.

It wasn’t the smartest way to kick off a nearly three-hour public meeting.

"No nos moverán" translates as "We will not move." The slogan was one of several held up by members of the UNIDAD Coalition who were concerned about the project's potential for displacement. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“No nos moverán” translates as “We will not move.” The slogan was one of several held up by members of the UNIDAD Coalition who were concerned about the project’s potential for displacement. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

But it was, at least, consistent.

Despite the approximately 100 meetings the Reef says it has held with members of the community, the line of thinking laid out at the town hall appears unchanged from when news of the $1 billion mixed-use project first hit the cyberwaves two years ago.

“SoLA Village [the project’s controversial name at the time] will be about place-making,” Ava Bromberg, head of operations for the Reef, had told the L.A. Times in 2014 about the 1,444 residential units, 208-room hotel, 67,702 square feet of retail/restaurant use, a 29,255 square foot grocery store, 17,507 square foot gallery, and 7,879 square foot fitness center planned for the 1933 S. Broadway site. “With the Reef, we are turning creative space into more of a community and connecting that community to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

South Central was an area not generally “seen” by investors, she had continued, but perceptions about its creative potential could change, much like they had around Chelsea in New York or the now-thriving South of Market tech hub in San Francisco.

Source: Gensler + P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, July 2015 DEIR

Rendering of the project as it would sit at the corner of Broadway and Washington in South Central, Los Angeles. Behind it lies the most overcrowded neighborhood in the country–Historic South Central. Source: Gensler + P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, July 2015 DEIR

To an urbanist or a livability advocate, that approach might sound like it hits all the right notes: increased density via the transformation of surface parking lots, improved walkability and bikeability, transit orientation (the Reef also sits adjacent to a Blue Line station), “place-making,” a rebranding that encapsulates a future vision for the area, space for the creative economy to grow, an underlying goal of community-building – the works. Not to mention the project proposes constructing a significant amount of housing at a time when Los Angeles absolutely cannot build it fast enough.

But to a lower-income black or Latino resident of Historic South Central – a historically disadvantaged community with the distinction of having the most overcrowded housing in the country – that approach and its potential ripple effects present a much more complicated and far less rosy picture. Read more…

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South L.A. Celebrates Slate-Z’s Promise Zone Designation; Prepares to Roll up Sleeves and Get to Work

The area of South Los Angeles designated as a Promise Zone encompasses Historic South Central, moves east along important rail and bus corridors to the Crenshaw District. Source: Slate Z

The area of South Los Angeles designated as a Promise Zone encompasses Historic South Central, moves east along important rail and bus corridors to the Crenshaw District. Source: Slate-Z

If at first you don’t succeed in winning the Promise Zone designation from the Obama administration, try, try again.

Wait – scratch that.

If at first you don’t succeed, take the initiative to change the federal government’s understanding of urban poverty. And along the way, commit to laying the foundation for long-term cross-sector collaboration on behalf of your community, regardless of whether you win the grant.

Yes, that’s much better.

And it’s a winning formula, if the announcement that South Los Angeles was named one of five urban Promise Zones yesterday is anything to go by.

The designation is a game-changer with regard to a community’s ability to access federal funding. While it does not come with an outright guarantee of federal money, it makes the process of accessing aid much easier by boosting the competitiveness of grantees’ funding applications. The added preference points given to applications from 2014 Promise Zone awardees Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Pico-Union, and Westlake have yielded 42 new grants for a total of $162 million over the past two years. And by feeding into a coalition of cross-sector community-based organizations, educational institutions, and city agencies working together to tackle the root causes of multi-faceted problems, the wisdom goes, the dollars will bounce a little harder within the community and make the social infrastructure a little more sustainable.

A Promise Zone designation also comes with a dedicated federal staffer that will help a grantee navigate the grant funding landscape. Because HUD works in partnership with 17 other agencies on Promise Zone programs, that staffer is essential in making grantees aware of the opportunities for funding that are out there and sorting out which will help the grantee further its goals for the community. Five full-time AmeriCorps VISTA members will also be assigned to the grantee to offer technical assistance and build capacity.

Although it is a federal program, Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Nani Coloretti told the slew of elected officials, educators, and non-profit representatives gathered at Los Angeles Trade Tech (LATTC) for a breakfast celebration of the announcement Monday morning, the Promise Zone program aims to take its cues from communities.

It’s a claim that seems to have been borne out in this latest round of applications.

When members of the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z) collaborative sat down to ask themselves why they had been passed over as a Promise Zone in 2015, they were prepared to believe the problem originated on their end. Many had been bitter about South L.A. being ineligible to participate in the first round of competition for a Promise Zone designation the year before* and, in response, had declared they would aggressively pursue the designation in the second round. They submitted a strong proposal that year, but it still failed to score very highly with HUD. Was the proposal lacking focus? Had they been unable to convince HUD that South L.A. could thrive? Was it that HUD was reluctant to award a second Promise Zone to L.A. – a designation that lasts ten years – so soon after awarding the first?

Nope, the collaborative members were shocked to learn when they came together for a debrief. The fault seemed to lie with the way the federal government conceptualized urban poverty.

South L.A.’s own brand of poverty, marked by overcrowded housing, underemployment, and high rates of homelessness, apparently wasn’t scoring well when held up against expectations modeled on poverty seen in cities like Detroit (where high vacancy rates and high levels of unemployment are the norm). Out of five possible points on the housing section of the application, South L.A. had scored a “1.” The same was true with jobs.

The information galvanized the collaborative. Read more…

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A Year after Breaking Ground at Vermont and Manchester, Major Shopping Center Project Appears to Have Stalled

Scaffolding set up around the perimeter of the lot near Vermont and Manchester doubles as clothing racks for vendors on the weekends. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Scaffolding set up around the perimeter of the lot near Vermont and Manchester doubles as clothing racks for vendors on the weekends. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Last year, on the 23rd anniversary of the 1992 riots, then-councilmember Bernard Parks held a groundbreaking ceremony with developer Eli Sasson and a host of local dignitaries at the site of the proposed Vermont Entertainment Village. The shiny new open-air mall, Parks and others claimed, would anchor positive growth in the South Los Angeles neighborhoods around Vermont and Manchester and transform them into a destination.

According to documents the Sassony Group filed with the city in 2014, the project was to be a “two- to three-story, approximately 127,000 square foot retail shopping and entertainment center” with a central courtyard for cultural programming and public entertainment (below).

Local residents had been thrilled at the announcement there would be a full-service grocery store and that local hire would be considered “mandatory,” with regard to construction.

Their optimism had been further fueled by Parks’ announcement in a Facebook post (which was removed very shortly afterward) that he had been talking with major (unnamed) retailers who were interested in the space. His claims had made the projected completion date of winter 2016 seem like it might be feasible.

The performance space planned for the Vermont Entertainment Village. Source: Sassony Group

The performance space planned for the Vermont Entertainment Village. Rendering: Architecture Refined Corporation

But residents would have settled for a less flashy project, too. Not because they were particularly concerned about gentrification, per se, they just wanted to see something positive happen on the site after so many years of neglect.

The lots at Vermont and Manchester effectively constitute one of the most glaring visual reminders of how the hardest-hit neighborhood in South Los Angeles had been left to fend for itself after the riots [see the burnt-out swap meet that sat on the site, here]. Covering two full city blocks and sitting directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Constituent Service Center, the blighted space has thumbed its nose at local officials and area residents for more than two decades, an unhappy homage to all of the city’s broken promises to rebuild and revitalize.

The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' Constituent Service Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Constituent Service Center. The lot is one of two block-long lots owned by Eli Sasson. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Resident Dana Gilbert, fearful that the community was being sold yet more horse manure, showed up to last year’s groundbreaking carrying an image of himself walking the lot with then-Mayor Tom Bradley 23 years earlier. He was unlikely to get the job he had been promised back then, he knew, but he wanted reassurances that area youth would now have a chance to find steady work.

Those in power, he said, shouldn’t get away with false promises and “building [the community] up if you’re just gonna tear them down again.”

At yesterday's groundbreaking, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild the vacant lots at Manchester and Vermont and the jobs the effort would bring to the area. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Gilbert showed up to ask for the job he was promised 23 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

At the groundbreaking for the Vermont Entertainment Village, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild the vacant lots at Manchester and Vermont and the jobs the effort would bring to the area. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Gilbert showed up to ask about the job he was promised 24 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Unfortunately, the project appears to have stalled almost immediately after the hoopla of last year’s groundbreaking. Read more…