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Posts from the Building Healthy Communities South LA Category

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Community Services Unlimited Set to Launch Organic Market in South L.A.

Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU's urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU’s urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When talking with neighbors along south Vermont Ave. a few weeks ago about the potential redevelopment of the lots at Manchester, the amenity residents were most excited about was the arrival of a grocery store.

Having something within walking distance was one reason — most of the folks I spoke with struggled with finding transportation to get to the store and lacked the means to be able to stock up on groceries in bulk when they did make the trip. But the other reason was that they felt the nearest grocery stores tended to have poor produce on offer for unreasonably high prices. So much so that, when they had the opportunity, many would travel miles away to more well-to-do neighborhoods just to have access to better options.

That reality is just part of what will make Community Services Unlimited‘s (CSU) new venture such a welcome addition to the community.

The long-standing South L.A. food-justice organization recently put down an offer on the Paul Robeson Center building and, in line with their motto, “Serving the people, body and soul,” are looking to convert the historic space into a model of sustainability and a health hub for the community.

This weekend’s party/fundraiser is part of their effort to raise funds to cover the down payment and costs of building out the first floor of the building, according to Executive Director Neelam Sharma. Plans for the first phase include a grocery market space to sell organic produce, herbs, jams, and their line of Beyond Organic products, and a kitchen where they can prepare their produce bags and host cooking demonstrations.

Attendees at CSU's Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Attendees at CSU’s Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Other plans for the site include an urban farm (where they can continue offering free gardening workshops), solar panels on the roof, a rooftop garden, a community space to be activated with daily health and wellness activities, offices and a gathering space for the youth from their From the Ground Up internship program, a few rooms that could potentially be set aside to serve as shelter for youth in need of a temporary space to stay, and a café. Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Avalon and Gage Pocket Park is Now Open

New children's play area open at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

New children’s play area open at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Over the past year, I watched the Neighborhood Land Trust and Department of Parks and Recreation slowly transform a dumpy traffic island at Avalon and Gage into something families in the community could actually use and be proud of.

The transformation couldn’t come soon enough.

The island sits at a very busy intersection in a neighborhood whose environment is intensely impacted by the factories found on the east side of Avalon, along Gage, and the heavy and fast-moving traffic (especially truck traffic) the corridor sees.

The island from above. The central tree was removed after this 2012 image was made. (Google maps screen shot).

The island from above. It sits on the edge of an industrial zone (at right). (Google maps screen shot).

The section of Gage just east of Avalon. (Google map screen shot)

The section of Gage just east of Avalon. The new pocket park is at center left (A). Click to enlarge. (Google map screen shot)

The island, in its earlier iteration as a tiny and uninspiring oasis from the chaos, had never realized its full potential. Read more…

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South L.A. Power Fest Illustrates Successful Placemaking Requires Deep Community Roots

"We are only as strong as our weakest link." Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth at Community Coalition. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“We are only as strong as our weakest link.” Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth at Community Coalition. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“We are only as strong as our weakest link,” youth leader Alfonso Aguilar tells the youth participating in the South Central Youth Empowered through Action (SCYEA) program at Community Coalition (CoCo).

“So, if you’re feeling weak, step into the center of the circle.”

Much to my surprise, a dozen students ranging from 14 to 18 years old move into a huddle in the middle and immediately link arms. Those left on the outside circle cheer them on and pledge their support before the circle collapses in a massive group hug.

It was an uplifting way to end what had been a long day for them — it was now well after 7 p.m. and the youth had come to CoCo directly after school so they could get a snack, do their homework, and pound the pavement in the surrounding neighborhoods to promote this weekend’s South L.A. Power Fest at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park.

I was there because I had wanted to do the door-knocking outreach with the SCYEA youth.

Much like when Erick Huerta and I assisted CicLAvia with door-knocking in Boyle Heights, I was looking to hear directly from community members about how they saw their neighborhood and their relationship with the public space. I spend enough time in South L.A. to feel like I know the needs and concerns pretty well, but its important to continue to check in and listen, especially as the area grows and changes.

It seems even more important to listen to the youth from the area — like those CoCo had tasked with doing the outreach as part of their leadership training — who often feel constraints on their mobility in the public space most acutely.

So, I was thrilled when CoCo gave me the OK to tag along with their door-knockers last week.

Doing outreach with Community Coalition youth Raymond and Antoine. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Doing outreach with Community Coalition youth Raymond Davis and Antoine Johnson. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Besides being really cool youth, it was clear that they knew the issues well, cared about engaging neighbors, and were sincere in wanting residents to come out to the event.

As we canvassed an area near Manual Arts High School on 41st St., Raymond Davis (above, left) would announce he was a sophomore there, that he knew the concerns of the community, and that he wanted a place for kids to be able to play where parents wouldn’t have to be fearful for their safety.

The festival would have something for everyone, he would continue, including a job and other resources tent, information on healthcare enrollment, cooking demonstrations, food trucks, music, zumba, and an artivist (artists + activism) tent where local artists will share their work and contributions to social justice.

“I don’t like that park,” one man said, scowling as he turned the event flyer over in his fingers. Read more…

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St. John’s New Health and Wellness Campus Promises Good Things for South L.A.

St. John's Well Child and Family Center celebrated the grand opening of a new Health and Wellness Campus across the street from its current facility at 57th and Hoover. The expanded facilities should serve as many as 30,000 new patients. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

St. John’s Well Child and Family Center celebrated the grand opening of a new Health and Wellness Campus across the street from its current facility at 58th and Hoover. The expanded facilities should serve as many as 30,000 new patients. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Is that yours?” a surprised 9-year old had asked me as I had unlocked my bike from a post at the Martin Luther King Jr. Rec Center in South L.A. last weekend.

“Yes,” I had said. “Girls ride bikes, too.”

He gave me a high five and flashed me a toothy grin.

Much to my horror, I saw that at least five of his front teeth were completely capped in silver.

He’s not the first kid I’ve come across with a mouth full of silver baby teeth. Dental hygiene is a significant issue in lower-income communities like South L.A.

Which is why it was wonderful to see the grand opening of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center’s new Health and Wellness Campus yesterday. The new site, located across the street from their existing clinic on 58th and Hoover, will not only be meeting the medical needs of as many as 30,000 new patients, but will also offer dental care for young children.

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were both on hand to celebrate the grand opening of the new center, encourage people to enroll in Covered California, and underscore the notion that health care is a right, not a privilege.

What I believe makes St. John’s an important community center, however, is not that they can serve so many patients. It is how they do it.

They have built important partnerships with community organizations active in the area.

Yesterday, for example, you could get help signing up for health insurance with Community Coalition, an organization that has actively worked to educate hard-to-reach populations about the Affordable Health Care Act.

If you wanted to learn about bike safety, staff from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) were there. Colin Bogart, LACBC Education Director, had also recently dropped off a donation of several bikes to the center, as they are looking to launch a bike club for their patients. (If you’re interested in volunteering to help out with monthly maintenance of the bikes, please contact Colin at colin(at)

Community Services Unlimited was also there, offering healthy produce for sale. They normally have a stand there Monday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., providing patients with a reliable source of organic produce and offering them the potential of attending gardening and cooking workshops.

Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce at St. John's every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce and smiles at St. John’s every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Beyond the partnerships, the way St. John’s works to treat the whole patient is key in a community where understanding residents’ daily struggles is important to addressing the root causes of their health problems. Read more…

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Community Services Unlimited Can Help You Get a Jump On Your New Year’s Resolution to Garden and Eat Healthy

CSU's produce stand outside their urban farm in Exposition Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

CSU’s produce stand outside their urban farm in Exposition Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Every time an email from Community Services Unlimited (CSU) lands in my inbox, I am always inspired by how much a handful of people can accomplish when they are dedicated to the cause.

Whether it is stocking corner markets with produce, hosting food justice conferences, or building gardens, running classes, and celebrating the environment at local schools, or putting together a new program with Hunger Action LA to reach those who are dependent on government assistance, they have rolled up their sleeves and gotten down to work.

Instead of complaining about the lack of grocery stores (although they do that, too), for example, they set up several produce stands in under-served areas of the city.

Depending on the day of the week, you can find them peddling in-season fruits and vegetables sourced from local farmers and their “Beyond Organic” products at Exposition Park, St. John’s Clinic, the Magnolia Place Family Center, LAC USC Medical Center, or, my personal favorite, the parking lot of a liquor store on Western adjacent to the Ralph’s that recently vacated the neighborhood.

At the Expo stand or the newly created Grand and 3rd St. site downtown, you can stop by to pick up your weekly pre-ordered produce bag. The subscribers’ bags, filled with seasonal fruits, veggies, and herbs sourced from local farmers and CSU’s own urban farm, are a really good deal, according to USC business students. (see schedules/locations here)

Comparing the local “Beyond Organic” carrots, ginger, apples, cabbage, grapes, red onion, and asparagus found in the $10/$12 CSU bag with that of the same, but non-organic/corporate-farmed products at local Superior, Ralph’s and Fresh & Easy markets, the students found that the chain grocers were generally more expensive. While a comparable bag at Superior came in under $10 at $9.67, a similar bag at Ralph’s cost $10.36, while one at Fresh & Easy cost $14.14. And none of the chains do what CSU does, which is turn around and use the revenue to hire local youth to work on the urban farm and learn how to run a small market.

This weekend, they will be holding the last Garden Gateway workshop of the year, where they will teach participants basic organic techniques, prepare a healthy dish using some of the produce featured in the workshop, and send you home with gardening supplies and produce to get you started.

The class is free and runs from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday, December 14th at the CSU Urban Farm, located at 3980 S. Bill Robertson Lane. For more information, please RSVP or contact:


Weekend Events Prove South L.A. Can Be an Amazing Destination, While Also Highlighting the Challenges that Remain to be Overcome

A girl at the Watts Day of the Drum festival. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As I walked toward the new garden beds at the West Athens Victory Garden, I felt a little tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see a young boy of 10 or 12 standing there.

He wrapped his skinny arms around me in a big hug.

“Well, thanks for that!” I said, surprised.

I was attending the first of three community events in South L.A. that day, and it was kind of nice to be getting random hugs so early on in the process.

“What was the hug for?”

“You’re leaving,” he said.

Looking at me again, now a little less sure of himself, he pointed to the corner of the garden and said, “You just interviewed me over there…?”

“Hmm. No, that wasn’t me,” I told him. “But, that’s OK because it means I get to interview you now, right?”

It turned out that he was one of the many young kids that had come to celebrate the new garden launched this past Saturday at 105th and Normandie as part of the Little Green Fingers initiative, a collaborative of the L.A. Conservation Corps, the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, the Better World Group, and several consultants, architects, and educators, and funded by First 5 L.A.

As we walked around examining the plants, he explained his family didn’t have a garden bed there but that he liked to come by and hang out. It was a nice, quiet place to play and he didn’t have too many other places he could go.

He wasn’t kidding.

If you live near the 110/105 interchange in South L.A., besides the vacant lots, there is almost nothing in the way of publicly accessible greenspace in the 3 1/2 miles that lie between Jesse Owens and Ted Watkins parks. I’m aware of one other garden, located at 104th and Vermont, that is always locked and isn’t kid-friendly, and that’s about it.

In case you wanted the visual: A is Jesse Owens park, B is the new garden, and C is Ted Watkins park. There is only one other small garden at Vermont and 104th (that is always locked up every time I go by it) that qualifies as publicly accessible greenspace in that entire area south of Century. (Google Maps)

Other residents had said the same thing. A man walking around the beds with his adorable two year-old was so pleased to see such an asset in his neighborhood that he asked if he could sign up to volunteer there. He had grown up in housing projects and had been limited in his mobility as a kid. He was going to school and wanted something better for his son. And a more positive memory of his neighborhood than the large, tagged-up vacant lot that sat just down the street. Read more…


Got Justice?: Observations on a Food Justice Youth Summit and Food as a Means to Youth and Community Empowerment

Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When speaking with a major non-profit about their decision to put gardens in South Los Angeles, Garrett Broad says he was struck by their declaration that, after running the data, “it just so happen[ed]” that the highest incidences of heart disease, diabetes, and other health risk factors were found there.

Broad, a recent Ph.D. and volunteer with Community Services Unlimited (CSU), felt the statement was very telling of the divide within the food “movement.”

“You would never hear anyone here use that phrase,” he said gesturing towards the 150 food activists from around the country that had spent the week participating in Rooted in Community‘s (RIC) Youth Leadership Summit hosted by CSU.

Instead, the youth and their adult allies — the majority of whom were African-American or Latino and from more marginalized communities — were looking at food through a justice lens. To them, the lack of access to nutritious offerings in their communities wasn’t something that “just so happened.” It was a by-product of the injustices they saw as inherent in an increasingly globalized food system and exacerbated by being set within a context of deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities.

That meant that, although they cared about things more commonly discussed by more mainstream activists, such as having more gardens, farmers’ markets, nutritious school lunches, or home-cooked meals (see the Youth Food Bill of Rights), they understood that the solution did not lie in simply placing more such things in communities. It lay, instead, in addressing the root causes underlying the access issues.

Their work in food, therefore, tends to promote individual and community empowerment through the creation of a healthier environment (physically and spiritually), inclusive economic development, the reclaiming of blighted and abandoned lands for cultivation, the celebration of culturally-affirming farming practices and foods, increased access to leadership training and education, and/or the enhancement of food security through greater self-sufficiency.

Devonna Brown (on the floor) and other RIC participants put on a skit about how youth can lobby against vested interests for better school lunches. In this scene, she and her “classmates” have just suffered an attack of indigestion after eating a regular school lunch. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As if to drive that point home, Devonna Brown, an 11th grader from Philadelphia’s Urban Nutrition Initiative (AUNI), asked to be interviewed and wasted no time in informing me of her displeasure at the fact that her food dollars did not “bounce” in her community. Read more…

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TONIGHT: the Crenshaw Line, Fracking, and Bike Ambassador Meetings! And Much, Much More

Drum Circle at Leimert Park Artwalk (photo: sahra)

TONIGHT! The Crenshaw Line, Neighborhood Bike Ambassadors, and Fracking — way too much fun for one person to handle!

Interested in seeing bike lanes come to your favorite street? Want to help educate the community about why they should ride and how to ride safely? Would you like to connect with other people in the community that care about making the area safer and more bike-friendly? Join the South L.A. Neighborhood Bike Ambassadors tonight at 6 pm at 8475 South Vermont Avenue (the Council District 8 Constituent Service Center). Need more convincing? Check out this article about a previous meeting with city planning staff.

Want to learn the latest on the Crenshaw Line and take a virtual tour of the LAX Transit Corridor Project? Hear more about the construction schedule, the work of the CLC’s Transit Safety discussion group or  the Project Labor Agreement and Construction Careers Policy? Then join neighbors, local business owners, and community leaders for the Quarterly Meeting of the Metro Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project Community Leadership Council (CLC) tonight, between 6 and 8 pm at the First Church of God, 9550 Crenshaw Boulevard, Inglewood, CA 90305. Meetings are open to the public and they are invited to speak on agenda items discussed during the meeting. To RSVP or find out more, please contact Donald Taylor, CLC Lead Consultant, by phone at (310) 308-2136 or via email at

Finally, on tap tonight: Fracking. The Community Advisory Panel (CAP), established to foster productive communication between the community, the County, and PXP (the corporation drilling and fracking in the Inglewood Oilfield), meets on the fourth Thursday of every month at the Kenneth Hahn Recreational Area Community Center, located about a mile inside the park from the 4100 S. La Cienega Blvd. entrance. Tonight’s meeting will run from 7 – 9 pm. Members of the public are welcome to attend. If you have some free time on your hands and would like to immerse yourself in the issue, please visit their documents page to catch up on the latest regarding health surveys, noise complaints, drilling plans, and responses to public comments.

ONGOING (but starting today is recommended): What would you ask the mayoral candidates? Read more…

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Extend Your Hours of Cyclo-topia: Start CicLAvia in South L.A.

The CicLAvia feeder ride from South L.A. led by the East Side Riders (photo: sahra)

Just one week after Angelenos proved they could happily bike and walk their way through Carmageddon, they get to put their freshly honed skills to the test at the nation’s biggest car-free festival.

CicLAvia‘s back, y’all!

Grab your bike, your family, and/or some friends and experience almost ten miles of cyclo-topia in the heart of L.A. this Sunday. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., road closures will allow you (and probably more than 100,000 of your neighbors) to carlessly explore the neighborhoods surrounding Exposition Park, Macarthur Park, downtown, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights.

What more could you want?

Well, Angelenos in the know will stretch out their hours of cyclo-fun by waking at dawn and starting their day in South L.A.

At 8:30 a.m., much of the South L.A. riding family will be gathering at the WLCAC in Watts to prepare to ride to CicLAvia’s southern hub. Consider yourself cordially invited to join supporters of the CicLAvia South East effort and Los Ryderz as we ride north to Exposition Park, ably led by the East Side Riders.

The approximately 7.5 mile jaunt to the South Hub along the sunny, sleepy streets of South L.A. was a lot of fun last April. Curious and smiling passersby wanted to know where we were headed and why. A rib shack owner even offered to open up shop and feed us.

There’s a secret added bonus for those who, like me, will have to ride through the central part of the city at dawn to get to Watts: you’ll be able to ride some of the empty streets of the official CicLAvia route before the masses descend upon it.

That’s right. It’s just like that ancient proverb says: the early-rising biker gets to have all the fun.

Or…something like that. I think that is the rough translation.

Shh. Don’t tell anyone. Let that be our secret. Read more…