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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…

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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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Residents Rally Today to Protest Closure of Yet Another Grocery in South L.A.

While Central Ave. celebrates a ground-breaking ceremony for a new Northgate supermarket today, residents in another part of South L.A. will gather to protest the closing of yet another Ralph’s.

The shuttering of the supermarket located at King Blvd. and Western Ave., scheduled for June 21, marks the second loss of a Ralph’s in the area in just a few months’ time. Perhaps most maddeningly for residents, it came without much notice or effort to work with the community.

Where Ralph’s has held community meetings in other areas of town where stores were scheduled for closings, the only notice residents appeared to have was a sign on the store itself saying the doors would close for good at 6 p.m. on June 21st. There’s not even mention of it in the weekly circular ad particular to that store, despite the fact that the prices listed there are good til just two days prior to the closing.

This is not the first time Ralph’s has shown itself to be a poor neighbor, Jung Hee Choi of Community Coalition (one of the groups organizing the protest today) told me. Read more…

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Fight Fracking (today!), See the City Lites, Take a Nature Tour, and Play Kickball

Flyer for the bike tour of Willowbrook hosted by the United Riders of South L.A. on Sunday

As an NPR junkie, I have long been aware that the natural gas industry has been a sponsor of their programming for several years.

But I nearly spit my coffee out last week when I heard a brief spot extolling the virtues of having the gas industry drilling in one’s backyard.

Here in L.A., the drilling in our collective backyard, the Baldwin Hills area of the Inglewood Oil Field, has not been without controversy or consequences.

Today, organizations, public health professionals, farmers, and residents living near drilling operations will gather at noon outside Governor Brown’s Los Angeles office (300 S. Spring Street) with Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox to protest the practice. The protest will also mark the launch of Californians Against Fracking, a statewide coalition working to ban fracking in favor of protecting California’s air, water, wildlife, climate and public health. Fox will speak at the rally as his new fracking exposé, Gasland Part II, screens across the state, and participate in delivering a petition with 100,000 signatures to the governor’s office.

Member organizations of Californians Against Fracking include Food & Water Watch; the Center for Biological Diversity; Environment California; CREDO; Democracy for America; the California Nurses Association; Breast Cancer Action; the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment; Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community; Family Farm Defenders; and AFSCME Council 57.

Join in the march at 12 p.m., today, at 300 S. Spring St.

For details on screenings of the film, visit http://fwwat.ch/CAFGasland.

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Saturday, check out the City Lites Inner City Sports and Health Fair. Read more…