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A Pocket Park Begins to Take Shape in South L.A.

A parklet under construction. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

A pocket park under construction. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

My, my, what have we here?

I pulled up at Avalon and Gage to survey the change happening at what I had always considered a terribly depressing island with great potential.

In case you’re not sure what that category of traffic island looks like, here’s the “before” shot:

The previous configuration of the island at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The previous configuration of the island at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The intersection is one that marks the boundary between the industrial and residential sections of Gage.

It’s a busy transit stop, with bus stops on both Avalon and Gage. And there had clearly been an attempt made to create pleasant environment by putting in nice seating areas featuring tables with checkerboard tops.

But the lack of shade, empty tree boxes, and removal of the tree at the center of the island (made worse by the fact that the stump was left behind, as if the tree had been decapitated), meant that people tended to eschew the seating areas in order to take refuge from the sun alongside telephone poles.

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

The island from above. Gage runs east-west. The central tree, visible here, was removed some time after this 2012 image was made. (Google maps screen shot).

Thankfully, that’s all about to change. 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)la-bike.org)

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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Dear Santa, Please Bring Us an Active Transportation Corridor Along Slauson. But Don’t Forget the Community in the Process.

The Slauson corridor that runs through South L.A. is not as empty as we imagine. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Slauson corridor that runs through South L.A. is nowhere near as empty as people passing through might imagine. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

If you’ve ever driven or ridden the bus along Slauson Ave., you are familiar with how much of a wasteland the corridor appears to be.

Flanked by industry or warehouses on either side for much of its trajectory, and running parallel to defunct and unkempt railroad tracks that are liberally adorned with debris, graffiti, and enormous mud puddles when it rains, it doesn’t seem like the most human-friendly place.

And, if you’ve ever felt reckless enough to ride the street on your bike, you would probably attest to that observation. There is no shoulder, traffic moves fast, regardless of the time of day, and on the north side (along the tracks), the road can be rough on your tires and quite dark at night.

Empty and desolate as it may appear to be, however, Slauson actually slashes its way through a series of neighborhoods that are chock full of families. You just don’t see much evidence of them thanks to the 30,000+ cars, buses, and trucks that rumble through there daily, lack of mid-block crossings and other pedestrian infrastructure, poor lighting, graffiti, and general filthiness of the corridor. The unhealthy and unsafe conditions serve as yet one more strike against community cohesiveness by discouraging residents from being out and about in their neighborhoods.

The bike and pedestrian paths would run along the Harbor Subdivision tracks, starting just north of Vernon, at Washington, heading south parallel to Santa Fe, heading west at Slauson, and taking a turn southward near Western. It would end at the Crenshaw Line stop at Florence. (map taken from 2008 Harbor Division study)

The bike and pedestrian paths would run along the Harbor Subdivision tracks (in black), starting at Washington, heading south parallel to Santa Fe, turning west at Slauson, and taking a turn southward near Western. They would end at the Crenshaw Line stop at Florence (map taken from 2008 Harbor Subivision study).

So, it is incredibly exciting to know that plans are slowly moving forward on the proposal of County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina to convert the 8.3 mile corridor between Huntington Park and Crenshaw into an active transportation corridor.

Not just because transforming the right-of-way along the tracks into bike and pedestrian paths would make passage safer for the thousands of people who want to connect to transit in the area (i.e. the Vermont/Slauson stops see more than 3700 boardings per day).

But because, if built with the surrounding community in mind, it could be a tremendous boon to those who must traverse the corridor on a regular basis and who have few safe and welcoming recreational spaces available to them.

With those aspirations in mind, I attended the first public briefing announcing Metro’s feasibility study for the project last Thursday.

I came away with somewhat mixed feelings. 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: Heather@csuinc.org.

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Gardening Students in South L.A. Use Their Skills to Build Garden Beds for Local Families

The students' garden classroom at All Peoples Community Center. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Sandwiched between 110 fwy on the west, the 10 fwy and the Blue Line tracks to the north, and an industrial area to the east, the All Peoples Community Center sits in a densely packed neighborhood in Historic South Central that seems to have been forgotten by the city. You know things can’t be great when a gang can take the liberty of drawing enormous hand signs in the middle of an intersection (below), for the benefit of anyone in doubt about whose territory they are in. And, every time I roll through there, I feel like I and everything around me are being liberally coated in layers of grime.

A clique marks its territory in the middle of the street. The signs have been there in various incarnations for years. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Yet, the hardworking folks at All Peoples have somehow managed to bring a bit of green hope to the area.

Last February, I stopped by the center to learn more about their garden projects. With the help of Crystal Gonzalez, a Peace Education Coordinator from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), youth at the center’s continuation high school and parents of kids in the center’s after-school programs built two small gardens. One is a learning site for students of the gardening and cooking class and the other has plots which are allotted to parents on a rotating basis. Students reported feeling like they had managed to create a little oasis in their neighborhood and parents enjoyed being able to share recipes with others and teach their children about health and where their food came from.

All Peoples sits in a densely populated area surrounded by freeways, trains, and industry. (Google map screen shot)

So, I was really excited when Crystal got in touch to tell me that students from the gardening class would be spending the morning building raised garden beds in the homes of two families in the neighborhood. The recipients were parents who had spent a year picking up gardening techniques at the center and who would now be turning their garden beds there over to a new set of parents so the cycle of learning could continue.

It wasn’t all going quite as planned, Crystal told me when I arrived to meet the students this morning. They didn’t have the key to access the room where the soil they had purchased for the project was being stored and police were hanging around one of the home sites, apparently looking for the male friend of a neighbor.

Undaunted, Crystal and the other mentors split the students into two groups and we all headed out.

My group, consisting of Austin (an intern with AFSC), Cathy (a former teacher and volunteer), and students Oscar, Melissa, Luk, and Leslie, walked about 5 blocks east over to Doña Mari’s home.

As we walked, we talked about what might have brought the police poking around so early in the morning. Oscar declared he was tired of being harassed by the police.

Gangs were obviously a problem in the area, he noted, but not everybody was a gangster and the police needed to do better than stop and hassle people like him all the time. He especially didn’t like them getting intrusive and asking him to lift up his shirt so they could check him for tattoos.

“Oh, yeah!” Melissa chimed in, saying that the same thing happened to her friend a lot, too.

Doña Mari, at right, looks on as students work in her new garden and teacher Elly drills holes in the lumber. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

So, it was a relief to find the only people waiting for us at the house were Doña Mari and her one-year old son, Elly (the gardening teacher), and Jorge (a volunteer and former student) who were busy preparing the lumber for the beds.

As Elly put the students to work leveling the soil, I sidled up to Doña Mari to get her thoughts on the project. Read more…

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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…

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How Green is Your Thumb?: L.A. Community Garden Council May Want you to Make a Presentation at Annual Gathering of Community Gardens

Edgar Flores from the LACGC led a gardening workshop at a new garden site in Florence-Firestone last spring. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

You’re a gardening whiz.

You do magical things with compost.

Maybe you’ve got some special chicken-wrangling skills.

Or you spread the gospel of organic tomatoes like nobody’s business.

Or you’ve worked with neighbors to transform a local school or vacant lot.

Whatever your unique talent, the Los Angeles Community Garden Council (LACGC) — an organization that works to build healthier communities by facilitating the creation of community gardens — is interested in hearing about your work.

On Saturday, October 19, they will host the 7th Annual Gathering of Community Gardens at the 24th Street Garden Classroom at 2055 West 24th Street and they are looking for presenters for the day-long conference.

The conference itself will bring together hundreds of gardeners and urban farmers from around the L.A. area for hands-on workshops, a moderated panel discussion, keynote speakers, an exhibition area, and a networking lunch.

To make it all work, they are looking for a diverse group of advocates to host information booths in the exhibition area or make engaging, hands-on, and/or experiential presentations for conference-goers. Translation will be available for those who wish to present in Spanish.

Whether you are a food security activist, horticultural therapist, forester, artist, educator, or landscape designer, you probably have something to teach fellow advocates. You are invited to fill out an application and send a proposal (by 5 p.m. this Friday!) to tweybright@gmail.com detailing your presentation, its relevance to community gardening or developing green space, and its practical application.

According to their flyer, some of the themes they are looking to address include: Read more…

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As City Considers Removing Ban on Parkway Vegetable Gardens, Some Communities Continue Planting

Photo from this weekend's 58th Street Dig In via St. Johns Community Health Center.

Later this morning, the Los Angeles City Council will consider a motion to formally halt the ticketing of individuals who plant vegetable gardens in the curb strips in front of their residences. Wesson promised the motion in 2011, after a Steve Lopez column in the Los Angeles Times told the story of one resident who planted such a garden, shared healthy food with his neighborhood, and was promptly ticketed by the city.

Wesson’s motion is a temporary one, while the Board of Public Works and city departments prepare a more detailed plan for permitting these gardens. But if the Council decides to grant a reprieve on ticketing, it sends a clear message that the city considers these gardens a public good, and not any sort of menace.

While the city waits for the Wesson ordinance and the Board of Public Works to work, many are not waiting for the bureaucracy to make changes in their cityscape.

Last Saturday, St. Johns Community Health Center, Enrich L.A. and the Los Angeles Community Garden Council teamed with the local community to create a parkways garden along 58th St. between Hoover and Vermont. According to flyers sent to the community, the garden project is about more than just healthy food.

The garden gateway is part of a larger vision to foster community interaction, increase access to healthy food and nutrition information, and help community members take active roles in managing diseases like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. It will serve as a living education and organizing tool – and will hopefully be the first of many. Read more…

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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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South L.A. Happenings: Anti-Fracking Concerts, Farmers’ Markets, Sports Fairs and Runs, Bike Rides for Justice, and Detoxes

TONIGHT
Sitting in a room full of California journalists and their editors last week as part of my training for a journalism fellowship, I was incredibly surprised to learn that few of them knew that fracking was going on in L.A.’s back yard. The lack of awareness has been of great concern to many of the local environmental organizations because it makes it harder for them to gather support to counter powerful lobbies in favor of the practice. It is one of the reasons representatives from a number of the organizations have gathered this weekend for a California Fracking Summit; they hope to cobble out a common position against regulations proposed by the Department of Oil And Gas (DOGGR) and decide upon strategies that will facilitate their fight. While the summit itself is closed to the public, the festivities of the evening are not.

Join activists tonight at the Concert to Ban Fracking in California, presented by Food & Water Watch.

The concert, held at The Joint from 7:30 – 11 p.m., will feature music from the Make Peace Brothers, Dúo del Sol, and Magnolia Memoir. Tickets are $10 online and at the door. The Joint is located at 8771 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035. (Ok, so that’s not technically South L.A., but drilling in the Inglewood Oil Fields affects its inhabitants.)
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TOMORROW: Farmers’ Markets, Free Yoga, Garden Workshops, and Bike Rides for Justice
With the recent conversion of an Albertson’s into a Superior Foods, the impending closure of the Ralph’s on at Rodeo and Crenshaw, and the uncertainty of the future of the few Fresh & Easy stores in the area, fresh, healthier fare is getting harder and harder to come by in South L.A.

Enter the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. While “the mall” may not be the first place you think of when you ask yourself where you can go to get healthy, the plaza owners are trying to change that. Every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., more than 30 farmers participate in the Certified Crenshaw Farmers’ Market, located on the outside lower Sears level of the mall. Recipes are available at their information booth, and there is often entertainment to accompany as you peruse the produce.

But, wait! There’s more. You can also participate in a free Yoga class while you are there. They are held every Saturday, from 10 – 11 a.m., on the Macy’s Bridge. The yoga classes join the already super-popular free Zumba classes held every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., and free Cardio Kick classes held every Thursday at 7 p.m. Classes are free as part of their Bfit Club, but they request that you sign up to get a key tag and spread the word about getting healthy via social media. Signing up isn’t mandatory, however, and classes will only cost you a dollar if you decline membership. For more information, click here.
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If you’d rather grow your own food, no worries. We’ve got you covered. Read more…