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South LA

In an effort to show how transportation, open space, planning and other issues impact the health and character of a community, Streetsblog and The California Endowment teamed to bring Streetsblog’s coverage to a hyper-local level in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman is the Communities Editor for Streetsblog Los Angeles and is leading our coverage efforts in these communities. This page serves as a place to read Sulaiman’s and all of Streetsblog’s coverage of issues in South L.A.

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Dead Spaces Make for Dead (and Unwalkable) Places

Mirror, mirror along the wall of a vacant lot... 43rd. and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…of a vacant lot. 43rd. and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

I’m feeling sorta trashy.

Not in that way.

I’ve just had trash on the brain lately.

Even as L.A. is celebrated for moving toward being more walkable and livable, trash seems to be the one constant, particularly in lower-income areas.

One of the reasons is that there is a lot of dead space in places like South L.A.

Vacant lots, alleys, under- and overpasses, foreclosed homes/properties, and streets running alongside freeways all lack someone to watch over and take responsibility for them on a regular basis.

Which means we get this:

Piles of random clothing and issues of the National Enquirer from the year 2000 (at the overpass at 52nd and Broadway) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Piles of random clothing and issues of the National Enquirer from the year 2000 (at the overpass at 52nd and Broadway) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Piles of random clothing, instruction manuals for jurassic technology, handwritten correspondence from the 90s, and issues of the National Enquirer dating back over a decade.

All piled up on the overpass the corner of 52nd and Broadway.

The mess stretches the entire overpass, actually.

Looking west on 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Looking west on 52nd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

It’s on the north side of the overpass, too.

More piles of crap. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

More piles of garbage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

And, it’s around the corner, all up and down Grand, the street running along the east side of the freeway. Read more…

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I See London, I See France. I See L.A.’s Dirty Underpass(es).

The burned-out mess along Venice Blvd. under the 110 Freeway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The burned-out mess along Venice Blvd. under the 110 Freeway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

A few weeks ago, a significant hullabaloo was raised when developer Geoffrey Palmer proposed a walkway over the 110 Freeway that would allow residents of his apartment complex to walk between the buildings without having to traverse the underpass and the homeless encampment there.

Some were angered by the overt vilification of the homeless — the developer wrote of fears that building residents would be targeted for crime — and the very real squeezing out of the poor as the downtown area becomes more “livable” for those who can afford it.

Others argued that a walkway would harm the vibrancy of urban pedestrian life by preventing the activation of the underpass.

Whatever your take on the need for the walkway, it is hard to argue with the notion that underpasses generally suck for pedestrians.

Dark and neglected, they often feel like filthy, trash-filled no-man’s lands.

And, their isolation from the “eyes on the street” that businesses, residences, and other active structures/spaces offer can give them a creepy aura. The greater the accumulation of trash (and, in particular, human waste and other mysterious fluid trails on the pavement), the greater the sense of invisibility, and, for some, the greater the fear that something could happen to you there and that nobody would ever know.

Even as a cyclist who moves rather quickly through underpasses, I can’t say I love them.

I often fear I am less visible as a driver’s eyes adjust to the darkness from bright sunlight. And, the enclosed nature of an underpass makes me feel (irrationally, I am aware) like I have fewer places to escape to, should a car come at me.

But, few things have made an underpass feel quite so inhospitable as the torched homeless encampments along Venice Blvd., underneath the 110 Freeway (pictured above).

Over the winter, it served as shelter for a number of homeless people.

At some point between then and spring, their encampments appear to have been set on fire. Read more…

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Weekend Memorial Events Highlight Continued Vulnerability of Cyclists

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather around the ghost bike put up at 47th and Normandie in South LA. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather around the ghost bike put up at 47th and Normandie in South LA. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

For those of us who pay attention to such things, it was a terribly mournful weekend.

Friday night, friends and family gathered at 47th and Normandie to witness the installation of a ghost bike in honor of hit-and-run victim Oscar Toledo, Jr., at the growing memorial there.

His youth and the freshness of the event meant that emotions were running high. When I spotted Toledo’s girlfriend, she threw herself into my arms, her body shaking with sobs.

“IT’S BEEN THREE FUCKING DAYS!” she wailed in disbelief.

She wasn’t the only one in tears. As the group gathered in a circle to hold hands and say a few words about Toledo, people cried openly and cursed both the unfairness of their loss and the person who had done this to someone they had loved.

The mood was more subdued Saturday afternoon for the Memorial Ride for Benjamin Torres, killed in an early morning hit-and-run in Gardena.

When the East Side Riders — now, in conjunction with Los Ryderz and the team from Ghost Bike Documentary — promised to do a monthly ride to honor Torres until justice was finally served, I don’t know if they realized justice would seem more elusive than ever two years on.

We had all hoped someone would come forward or have a change of heart and accept responsibility for the deed. Instead, the family has had to find solace in their memories and the ever-growing network of families and friends whose loved ones have been left to die in the streets.

But, even when the perpetrator is known, there is a limit to the comfort that knowledge and the extended bike family can offer, as was evident at Sunday’s memorial ride and vigil for Phillip O’Neill.

The case against the driver Jose Gonzales, charged with manslaughter for striking O’Neill from behind and killing him, is currently making its way through the court system. Unfortunately, as the friends and family of September hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia know all too well, Gonzales’ prosecution will neither bring O’Neill back nor fill the void his loss created.

Read more…

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“What Happened to Human Decency?”: Friends and Family of South L.A. Hit-and-Run Victim Seek Answers

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather to mourn at the site where he was killed by a hit-and-run driver near 47th and Normandie in South L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather to mourn at the site where he was killed by a hit-and-run driver near 47th and Normandie in South L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“I know it wasn’t even his fuckin’ fault!” railed Daniela, 19.

She was unsuccessfully fighting back tears yesterday as she stood alongside the light pole serving as the unofficial memorial site for bicyclist Oscar Toledo, Jr., killed in a hit-and-run at 47th and Normandie in South L.A. less than 24 hours earlier.

Toledo had “always [been] chillin’ on his mountain bike; always safe,” she said. And, because he had grown up on the streets and had always had to watch his back, he was hyper-aware of what was around him, careful about safety, and “always on his toes.”

So, when she got the call from Toledo’s younger brother at 3 a.m. Thursday morning, she couldn’t believe it.

He had just been at her house earlier that night. She had just seen him — it didn’t make any sense.

She and Toledo’s best friend agreed to go to the hospital first thing in the morning to “see if it was real.”

Seeing him laying there, bloody and hooked up to so many tubes had been overwhelming. It denied her one last chance to hold him in her arms.

“I told him, ‘I really couldn’t imagine life without you,’” she said of a recent conversation they had had.

Hugging herself, she leaned against the exterior of a building and stared at the small memorial they had set up.

“Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Read more…

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Leimert Park Invites You to Participate in Preparations for the Festival of Ancestors

Mask festival procession in honor of the ancestors in Leimert Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Mask festival procession in honor of the ancestors in Leimert Park. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

For those of you following our community coverage, “gentrification” is definitely the buzzword of the moment around these parts, it seems.

It should be no surprise — I’d hardly expect Boyle Heights or Leimert Park, two of L.A.’s more historic and vocal communities, to not speak up about the changes their neighborhoods are experiencing.

But, this piece is not about gentrification, per se. I’m going to let KCET be the one to cover that this week (they’ll be airing a look at how Leimert Park is weathering the spectre of gentrification in tomorrow night).

Instead, this is an invitation Angelenos to participate in an ongoing series of workshops in Leimert Park that might help them see why carving out space for cultural communities is so important to so many.

Every June, in conjunction with the anniversary of the founding of the art walk, Leimert plays host to a day-long celebration of masks, processions, dance, and art in honor of their ancestors.

In the weeks leading up to it, they hold free mask-making and other workshops every Saturday from 2 – 4 p.m. at the KAOS Network. The goal is to help community members and those interested in learning about the area connect with the traditions of the African Diaspora.

This year, the 4th Annual Day of Ancestors: Festival of Masks will kick off around noon on June 29th with a procession. Drummers will lead dancers wearing traditional masks and dress around the village and back to the park, where the dancing and drumming will continue all afternoon. 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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Gentri-flyer Sets Off Social Media Storm in Boyle Heights

Behold: the most tone-deaf flyer in the history of man. (Photo seen on several facebook pages).

Behold: the most tone-deaf gentri-flyer in the history of man. (Photo seen on several Facebook pages. Click to enlarge).

When I first saw the flyer at left pop up in my social media feeds yesterday morning, I actually thought it was a joke.

Touting Boyle Heights as a “charming, historic, walkable, and bikeable neighborhood” where you could put down “as little as $40K with decent credit,” it invited Arts District neighbors to join in on a (free!) hour bike tour followed by a discussion and artisanal snacks.

No one who knew anything about Boyle Heights — a predominantly Mexican-American working-class community with a long history of political and social activism — could possibly think this was a good idea, right?

In one fell swoop, the flyer embodies every single one of residents’ worst fears: a passel of hipster outsiders coming in to stake their claims while munching on “artisanal” snacks because Boyle Heights’ own offerings did not appeal to their more refined sensibilities.

Few things have ever screamed, “I have no interest in getting to know this community!” quite so effectively.

And, it didn’t help that the flyers had only been distributed in the Arts District (just across the river from Boyle Heights), meaning that residents were finding out about it secondhand and thus left to construct their own narratives about who was behind it and what their intentions were.

Hoping to figure out what the story was, I immediately reached out to Adaptive Realty and spoke with Bana Haffar, a realtor and the organizer of the event.

It was before noon when we spoke, but she was already getting pushback about the event.

The negativity seemed to have taken her by surprise. She had looked at a tour in a community she liked as a positive thing. And, as an immigrant from an embattled community herself, she felt she understood the value of community, being a good neighbor, and not pushing others out.

And, she noted, she was only tapping into a reality that is already well underway — property values are on the rise and turnover has been happening in the area for some time. Boyle Heights is no longer just an Ellis Island for new immigrants. Beyond acting as a refuge for those looking to escape high rents elsewhere around the city, it is also serving as that first gateway for transplants to L.A. I just met four of them on the train this weekend, incidentally. They knew so little about the community that they had convinced themselves that their pad near Mariachi Plaza was in the heart of East L.A.

As part of a small real estate group dealing in smaller holdings, Haffar seemed to believe they might be able to help make positive contributions to the area (i.e. being better landlords to local renters) and bring in people who also were interested in building community.

I spoke to her at length about some of the changes that the area had undergone in recent years and where people’s concerns, at least as I understood them, lay. We talked about the challenge of ensuring a community benefited from changes it was undergoing. Then I connected her with a few people I felt she might benefit from hearing from about those issues, if she were serious about the notion of being a more conscious neighbor.

Watching the debate evolve on social media, I saw that many of Boyle Heights’ residents were grappling with some of the same questions we had discussed: Who is a gentrifier? Do outsiders sometimes bring positive change? What is the cost of them doing so? Must it always be a loss for the community? How can we make it a positive thing? What can we do better than outsiders? Are we doing enough of it? How can we do more?

And, as the very notion of gentrification never fails to stir up intense passions, I also watched with some amusement as the troops rallied and people discussed plans to crash the tour or call upon their homeboys to stand around and look menacing.

Sometime in the afternoon (I didn’t spot it til late), however, things took a turn. Read more…

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Empowering Communities to See Streets as Sites of Recreation: What does it Take?

Sin and redemption. Despite it's long-standing status as a stroll, Western Ave. has at least two churches on almost every block. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Sin and redemption. Despite it’s long-standing status as a stroll, Western Ave. has at least two churches on almost every block. A passerby teased the elderly gentleman at the corner who had just left the church by suggesting he was hanging out along Western for other-than-godly reasons. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“We need to empower people to see their streets as sites of recreation.”

It’s somewhat of a city planner mantra.

And, it tends to drive me crazy.

Part of it has to do with my having been an academic in my previous life, where I spent years observing efforts to “empower” refugees, displaced persons, sex trafficking victims, genocide survivors, and the desperately poor to take charge of their circumstances. The focus on modifying individual behaviors precluded dialogue on the mix of structural and individual interventions that might have yielded more comprehensive solutions to what were, essentially, deeply-rooted structural problems. As a result, outcomes were often superficial and/or unsustainable at best and irreparably damaging to people’s livelihoods at worst.*

Yet “empower” soldiers on, both abroad and right here at home.

I hear it all the time.

I heard it most recently at the well-attended Community Planning Forum held at Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Center on Western Ave. in South L.A. at the end of March.

It was all I could do to keep myself from dragging the poor person outside to show them the street was already very heavily used for recreation. Just the wrong kind.

There are a few sections of Western — including areas in close proximity to the park — known as “strolls.”

Day or night, rain or shine, you can find a girl on the street that can help meet your “needs” for a few dollars.

They sit at bus stops, stand on corners, walk up and down the block, dance by themselves on quiet side streets just out of the glare of the main drag, brazenly post up like sentries at the driveway entrance of the Mustang Motel — they are ubiquitous.

While a number of them are older and may be working independently and/or feeding drug habits (especially north of King Blvd., according to some residents), many are just teens, coerced into the trade by men claiming to be their boyfriends, rapists that abused them and turned them out, or their own history of sexual abuse and neglect. The hold their pimps have on them can be tremendous. It is not unusual for girls show up in juvenile detention centers with their pimps’ names tattooed onto their ribs and so thoroughly victimized that they fight anyone trying to help them get out of the trade. Some don’t believe they could ever be valued for anything other than their bodies, especially after being abused. Others believe their pimps love them and refuse to say anything that would incriminate them.

But, the pimps clearly do not love them.

Spend any time along Western and you’ll see them, stationed in parked cars at corners (and, occasionally, on mountain bikes), perfectly positioned so that they can see everything happening on the street. They are ready to menace their girls or anyone who takes too much of an other-than-recreational interest in their charge(s) at a moment’s notice.

The intense level of neglect a street — and, indeed, a community — must experience (this was the stomping ground of the Grim Sleeper, after all) for it to be able to function so openly as a market facilitates other forms of unhealthy activity, too. While long-time residents tell me that things are much better than they used to be, gang activity and substance abuse, particularly that of those living on (or making a living on) the street, are still major issues in the area.

Dumping is a common occurrence along Western Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Dumping is a common occurrence along Western Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The combination of these factors can make locals paranoid about interacting with outsiders for fear of being seen as snitching.

And, it can certainly go a long way in keeping a family from feeling comfortable about taking a stroll through the neighborhood, waiting at bus stops, getting to know their neighbors along the Western corridor, or being outside too late in the evening. 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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Kickball to the Rescue!: How Active Programming in Parks Makes Communities Safer

Championship game of the kickball tournament held this past Sat. at Ted Watkins Park in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Championship game of the kickball tournament held this past Sat. at Ted Watkins Park in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When I first visited Ted Watkins Park at 103rd and Central in 2001, I didn’t stay very long.

I was exploring the community with my boyfriend of the time, who happened to be white, and we caused quite a stir. A few people even jeered at us, with one asking if we had “come down from the hills” to grace Watts with our presence.

Despite it being one of the few “neutral” sites everyone could access (not located within a housing development or claimed by a gang), the 27-acre park itself didn’t seem particularly welcoming, either. The equipment and facilities were in bad shape and the place felt rather dirty. There wasn’t really much of a picnic area where we could sit down and take everything in, and my ex was pretty sure no one wanted us to do that anyways.

Fast forward a decade and a $6.8 million renovation later, and Ted Watkins Park is a totally different place.

Bright and colorful, nicely landscaped, chock-full of picnic tables, playing fields and handball courts, and peppered with fitness equipment along the west side, it is a jewel of the community.

Jimmy and his daughter take a break from the kickball game. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Jimmy and his daughter take a break from the sun and the kickball game. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

During daylight hours, you can find many people working out on the equipment and jogging or walking around the outer edge of the park (there is even a path through the tree-lined fitness area on the west side, so folks don’t have to make their way past the guys selling used cars along the park’s edge on Central). The handball courts, skate area, and children’s play area are also always bustling with activity.

With regard to programming, the Watts farmers’ market can be found there Saturday mornings (10 a.m. – 2 p.m.), there are often formal soccer games or informal practices and games happening at one or more of the playing fields, and, in summer, the Parks After Dark program lets people enjoy the park until late into the evening.

While both the renovations and programming play an important role in the park’s success, my observation is that programming plays a bigger role than you might imagine. Read more…