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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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Reclaiming Public Space for Marginalized Communities: Bikes Don’t Fix Everything, But They Can Help

The next generation of riders takes to the streets of South L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The next generation of riders takes to the streets of South L.A. as part of a Unity ride on Sunday. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and here at home in South L.A. have served to underscore just how hostile the public space can be to people of color, particularly those of lesser means.

For those that live that reality day in and day out in Los Angeles, that is not news.

I’ve documented their frustration with law enforcement officers that would rather harass and arrest than protect and serve in a number of dedicated stories (here, here, here, here). More often, however, concerns about officer misbehavior are interwoven in stories on a wide range of topics simply because they are that much of a constant in the lives of the communities I cover (see here, here, or here).

And while some advocates might question the relevance of such concerns to the Livable Streets movement, I would argue that equal access to streets is a cornerstone of livability. There is no earthly reason that men of color should feel that the act of walking or riding a bicycle down the street is akin to extending an embossed invitation to police to stop, question, and frisk them, hand them bogus tickets (for not having bike lights in the day time, for example), or worse.

A young man is separated from his friends and questioned by Public Safety for skateboarding near USC. (photo courtesy of the young man in question)

A young man is separated from his friends, told to put his hands behind his back and face the fence, and questioned by Public Safety for skateboarding near USC. (Photo courtesy of the young man in question. His face was blurred because he feared retaliation for speaking up.)

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the problem.

Among many other things, the abuses of power by the police are facilitated by the de facto segregation of communities by race and/or class, narratives that criminalize members of marginalized communities, the effective disenfranchisement of those communities, and the years of neglect of the health and well-being of those populations.

The entrenched nature of these problems have forced activists to take matters into their own hands in order to chip away at the structures and narratives that have long been used against them.

In South L.A., for example, social justice non-profit Community Coalition worked to put an end to willful defiance suspensions in schools, just finished its third Freedom School summer program, and will host the third annual South L.A. Powerfest this Sept. 6th. In Boyle Heights, the non-profit visual arts center Self-Help Graphics has cultivated Latino and Chicano consciousness and creativity through its programming for 40 years, and just completed a summer session aimed at empowering youth to express their visions for their communities through art.

Other activists have taken to the streets.

Read more…

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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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South L.A. Park Has Great Potential, but Lacks Sidewalks That Would Make it Accessible to All

No sidewalks in sight. Jackie Tatum Harvard Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

No sidewalks in sight along 62nd St. at Jackie Tatum Harvard Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When people talk about park access, they usually are referring to whether or not people have a park near their homes.

In the case of the Jackie Tatum Harvard Recreation Center, you have a great park with some great new facilities in South L.A. — a traditionally park-poor area — but it isn’t that easy to access.

The reasons for this are many.

The park, located at 62nd and Denker and has traditionally been a hangout of the Harvard Park Brims (Bloods) sets that run in the area.

As HPB territory is surrounded on all four sides by Crip sets, it has historically been somewhat embattled. Long-time residents all have stories of how active the area and, in particular, the park used to be, both as a place for gang members to party and where daytime shootings were not out of the ordinary.

While things have gotten better of late, gang members can still limit park access; they apparently even temporarily chased out workers putting in the new skate park there just a few years ago. And, the fact that it is a known gang hangout endangers non-gang members, too. In 2012, Patrick Carruthers, a beloved nineteen-year-old park volunteer with a learning disability was shot in the back and killed in a middle-of-the-day walk-up while listening to music on a picnic bench.

Some attempts to manage the problem have been made with the (overdue) installation of cameras around the park last year that are monitored by the LAPD’s 77th Division. But, budget cuts have hurt the ability of parks in lower-income neighborhoods like this one to fill staff positions and offer classes to the community that might help keep youth engaged in healthy activities and out of trouble. And, because many in the area struggle financially, the park lacks the ability to charge fees for programs to cover some of their costs the way one in a wealthier community might be able to do.

No sidewalk here, either. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

No sidewalk here, either. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The other access issues should be more easily (and are long overdue to be) fixed.

While it may have nice tennis courts, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, an awesome water slide and aquatic center, several playing fields, beach volleyball pits, a playground for kids, and even horseshoe toss pits, if you’re disabled, pushing kids in a stroller, or just want to take a stroll around the park, you’re out of luck.

Somehow, the park has gone all this time without having sidewalks on three sides. Read more…

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Location, Location, Location: Contested Public Space Means Moving Watts School Could Deny Some Education

Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Carlos Penate speaks to the crowd of INSPIRE students about what the school means to him at a rally yesterday. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“They say they care about our safety, but they’re putting us in harm’s way!”

It is a refrain I’ve heard several times over the last month from students of INSPIRE Research Academy, a state-subsidized continuation school based at YO! Watts that offers 17-24-year-olds a free education and a rare second chance to get their high school diplomas.

The students are referring to Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s bid to take over the city-owned YO! Watts building (housing the offices and staff of YO! Watts and INSPIRE), and possibly the old library on the same lot (currently utilized as a rec center, classroom, all-purpose community room, and storage area for the bike program’s bicycles) and Firehouse 65 (a building attached to YO! Watts that is structurally sound but which has been boarded up for the last several years).*

His offices are currently located next door, in the Chase Bank Building, where the city pays $126,000 in rent.** The potential sale of that building and the desire of the councilmember to lay the foundation for the re-creation of the Watts Civic Center, find a home for Operation Progress, and offer the community more services from a city-owned building where rent would be minimal are all behind the decision to relocate.

The rec center (old library) is at left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilman's current office is located. (Google maps)

The rec center (old library) is at top, left. The YO! Watts building is at center, left (the right portion of the building is a boarded up firehouse). At right, is the Chase Bank Bldg., where the councilmember’s office is currently located. (Google maps)

However, a move into the YO! Watts complex would necessitate the displacement of all or part of INSPIRE, and possibly that of the Youth Opportunities program that has offered at-risk teens and young adults a vocational, educational, career, and social support system in the form of job readiness training, GED/college/SAT preparation, paid internships, occupational skills training, tutoring, life-skills training, and mentoring at that site for over a decade.

Perhaps cognizant of what a blow this might be in an area with tremendous need but precious few resources for older teens, both Buscaino and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Jacob Haik, suggested to Fox 11 in April that a move would offer the school the much-needed opportunity to grow and flourish.

Citing “keep[ing] student safety as a primary concern” and “provid[ing] them with a solid, safe learning environment” as being among their priorities, they claimed that the school had outgrown its facilities when enrollment jumped from 25 to 200 in just two years.

And, despite efforts by INSPIRE staff to set the record straight about enrollment – it has never exceeded 150 and currently stands at 121 – Buscaino’s office has continued to make the case that the buildings are overcrowded, that students packed into the basement set of offices and computer center in YO! Watts constitute a fire hazard, that the YO! Watts building may not even be up to code, and that the current set-up in the rec center – where heavy draperies are all that mark the partitions between class “rooms” – constitute a less-than-ideal learning environment.

While it is true that the school’s facilities are far from ideal on paper, current students, INSPIRE staff, and those speaking off the record from YO! Watts (who have been told not to speak on the matter by the city) question the extent to which youth welfare is a genuine concern of the the councilmember’s office and whether any solutions they offer will be truly attuned to the youths’ needs.

This is due, in part, to the condescension with which they believe they have been treated. Read more…

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Got the Munchies?: South L.A. Market Conversion Project Takes Unique Approach to Health

Nelson Garcia outside his newly transformed corner store, Alba Snacks & Services. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Nelson Garcia outside his newly transformed corner store, Alba Snacks & Services. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

I first met Nelson Garcia almost two years ago at an L.A. Food Policy Council (LAFPC) training event for small business owners looking to transform their stores into healthier community resources.

He did not remember this when I mentioned it to him at the grand re-opening of his newly renamed Alba Snacks & Services store at 60th and Vermont in South L.A. last week.

That’s not surprising.

I had attended the training to familiarize myself with the corner market landscape. He had attended because his businesses are his life.

He, like many there that day, had been focused on absorbing as much information as possible from the variety of presentations aimed at walking business owners through the steps of the market makeover process. And, in the debriefing session at the end of the day with LAFPC Director of Policy and Innovation Clare Fox, he had been eager to speak about the hurdles he faced making the suggested investments in his store.

The permitting process to sell produce was lengthy and expensive, he and others had lamented. The Department of Public Health (DPH) required that they have certain equipment in order to properly store produce, and the costs of acquiring it (plus the permits) were often more than owners in low-income communities could scrape together at once.

Or, as another owner complained, the interface with DPH could be confusing. They might hear from one inspector that they needed a particular piece of equipment, only to purchase it and later hear from another that it was the wrong one or that they had been misinformed about proper placement/spacing of equipment within the storage area.

It was a lot of trouble to go through for a product with a very limited shelf life and profit margin, and which begins to lose value the moment it goes out on the floor.

Their conclusions were disheartening to hear — Garcia and the other participants clearly had the desire to sell something better than flaming hot finger snacks to the good people of their communities. But it was also clear that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get from A to B on their own. 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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To Be or Not To Be a Gang-Banger: Is That Really The Question?

A tattoo warns against crossing...  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Tattoos — symbols of the struggle of his earlier years — warn you against crossing a former gang member. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

*This story features interviews with a number of youth. Some are named. Others requested they remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information divulged. This story is the second in a six-part series on the impact of community violence and potential ways forward. The first, “Death and All His Friends,” can be found here.

AS WE CONCLUDE our conversation, he takes a deep breath, adjusts his belt, and asks – this time, I think, as a person and not a police officer – if I really believed kids in Watts didn’t have much choice about whether or not to get involved with gangs.

I have a sudden desire to pull out all my hair.

We had just spent the last forty-five minutes trading observations on the variety of factors that impact the safety, security, and mobility of kids in the area, all while seated next to a playground that – despite being situated in a housing development teeming with young children – is almost always empty, even on the most beautiful of summer afternoons.

“That’s a tough question to answer,” I say slowly. He grew up not too far from here and I do not want to diminish the effort that I know he must have made to leave his own hardscrabble background behind. “Technically, they do have a choice…”

But, as he was well aware, I tell him, it isn’t easy.

Ticking off a list of everything we had just discussed – the drive-bys, violence in schools and the public space, various forms of abuse in the home, grooming by gang-bangers, profiling by law enforcement, intense poverty, trauma, and a lack of exposure to positive environments and role models – I suggest it’s an awful lot to expect an eight- or ten-year-old to transcend.

Even for those who realize they do want something else for themselves, once they’ve started down a certain path, desisting, or walking away from gang life, can be extremely challenging.

Especially if they are still young.

Most can’t afford to move or find trying to navigate the politics of a new neighborhood to not be worth the risk. Staying where they are can be just as hazardous – they no longer have protection from former rivals who don’t know or don’t care that they’re out or from former homies that feel disrespected and want to settle scores.

Without a strong support system, job, and/or educational program they can lean on, they’re in danger of getting sucked back in. Or worse.

“The odds,” I say to the officer, throwing my hands wide, “are not in their favor.”

I Was Just a Kid. I Didn’t Know What Was Happening.”

“Middle school is when everything changed,” says Delfino, a shy but friendly and thoughtful young man finishing his high school degree at a continuation school in Watts.

From the very first day, he says, he was acutely aware that there were a lot of gang members at his school (which held grades 5 through 9) because they enjoyed picking on him.

“They would always ask me, ‘Where you from?’”

He pauses.

“I didn’t know the meaning of that,” he laughs, as if he still can’t believe he had once been so innocent.

I can’t believe it, either.

He had grown up around 92nd St., an area where gang activity is prevalent and his solid build should have made him a prime recruit.

The kid who was harassing him apparently also thought Delfino was bluffing because he got annoyed and asked, “You wanna catch my fade?” (take a beating) 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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Death and All His Friends Cast Long Shadows When They Make Regular Appearances in the Public Space

Sherika Simms holds the last photo taken of her brother, Maurio Proctor, outside one of their childhood apartments in Jordan Downs. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“I went crazy,” Sherika Simms says quietly of the realization that she would be unable to help her brother.

Twenty-two-year-old Maurio Proctor, two years her junior but more like her twin – the boy that had followed her everywhere she went as a child and wanted to do everything she did – had been gunned down in front of her and all she could do was watch his killers drive away.

When the Impala had first rolled through Jordan Downs around 1 p.m. that afternoon, they hadn’t thought much about it.

“We were mourning the loss of someone we grew up with…” she tells me. “We’re not thinking we’re in harm’s way.”

That ”someone” was 25-year-old Branden “B.L.” Bullard – a major player in the East Side Grape Street Watts (Crip) gang based in Jordan Downs. Twelve hours earlier a shooter(s) – presumably from the rival East Coast Crips – had sprayed a party where people from several neighborhoods had gathered, wounding seven and killing Bullard.

He had been something of a larger-than-life figure for having survived a shot to the face 3 years prior in retaliation for the wounding of a Bounty Hunter (Bloods from Nickerson Gardens). That 2005 event sparked six weeks of tit-for-tat carnage that left nine dead, twenty-six wounded, and the whole of Watts paralyzed as the battle played out in the public space.

Although the incident that finally killed Bullard in the wee hours of Sunday, January 27, 2008, may have been sparked by a fight between women, the damage had been done. As dawn broke, warning shots were already being fired in areas frequented by Grape Street’s rivals.

Perhaps because Grape Street hadn’t landed a kill, the community did not expect a retaliatory attack.

Whatever the reason, when the Impala made a U-turn and came slowly back around, nobody bothered to look up, Sherika says.

Until all hell broke loose. Read more…