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Oct. 9, South L.A. Advocates Discuss Civic Action and Community Voice in South L.A. on Visions and Voices Panel at USC

Flier for the October 9th Visions and Voices event at USC focusing on South L.A.

Flier for the October 9th Visions and Voices event at USC focusing on South L.A. Click to enlarge.

This coming October 9, at 6 p.m., I will be participating in a panel on Civic Action and Community Voice in South L.A. as part of USC’s Visions and Voices series.

Visions and Voices is the dynamic arts and humanities initiative established in 2006. The goal was to feature critically acclaimed artists and distinguished speakers, theatrical productions, music and dance performances, film screenings, lectures, and workshops on a variety of themes to challenge the USC community to expand their perspectives, become world-class citizens, and make a positive impact throughout the world.

Given the changes sparked by USC’s expansion of its physical footprint in South L.A. and how the desire for a secure campus has exacerbated tensions between the campus community and the longer-term residents in the process (see here, here, here), it seems like an appropriate moment for the program to take a closer look at its relationship with the community it calls home.

The organizers — Annenberg professors Alison Trope and Robeson Taj Frazier and post-doctoral scholar George Villanueva — have put together three events on South L.A. for the 2014-15 season.

The first will look at community building in and around USC and South Los Angeles, with a focus on movements and organizations that are responding to the disparities and injustices that structure life in South L.A. Speakers will include Alberto Retana, the Executive Vice President of grassroots organization extraordinaire Community Coalition (see our recent coverage of them here), Francisco Ortega, the immigration-policy advisor and South L.A. policy advisor for the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, Erin Aubry Kaplan, a journalist and columnist who writes about African American life in Los Angeles for a variety of outlets, and me, the Communities Editor for South L.A. and Boyle Heights here at Streetsblog L.A. 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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Am I Hallucinating?: Public Art Pieces Appear in South L.A.

Public art makes people happy. So do Rubik's Cubes. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Public art makes people happy. So do Rubik’s Cubes. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

After a depressing day of photographing South L.A.’s trashed streets, I thought I was hallucinating when I stumbled across a man-sized Rubik’s Cube.

It seemed to have come out of nowhere.

And, it didn’t do anything special besides sit on a corner.

But, it seemed to have had an impact on the atmosphere around it.

In an area where gang activity can be quite intense (the LAPD just arrested over 50 people in a gang sweep a few blocks north of there) and people are often wary about being too open with each other in the streets, the art gave them something neutral they could get goofy with for a moment.

It did cause a bit of a spectacle when they first put that and the kinetic bird sculpture in (around the corner, below), Chris Conant from the design-build company Conant-Moran told me. Read more…

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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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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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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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CicLAvia Highlights Need for Better Bike Infrastructure for Cycling to Grow as a Transportation Option

Rides at CicLAvia along Wilshire Blvd. (from last year. I took zero pictures this year). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Riders at CicLAvia (2013) along Wilshire Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Stay to the right!” rang out over the megaphone from a passing police car. “That means you, young lady!”

As CicLAvia came to a close and streets were being re-opened to cars, well-meaning police officers did their best to warn folks on bikes that their two-wheeled utopia was subsisting on borrowed time.

And, while I was flattered that they thought I was young, I was rather flummoxed at the notion that they would have directed me to move from an empty eastbound lane of Wilshire to the right side of the dozen or so cars queuing up to turn right onto Hoover.

Who told them it was a good idea to run cyclists in front of cars turning right? I wondered.

This moment — the instant that the streets re-open to motorized traffic — is both the most informative part of CicLAvia and the most depressing.

It’s informative in that you immediately get a sense of how well-equipped your average person is to navigate traffic on a bike and your average police officer to help them do so. And, it’s depressing because the answer to both of those questions is “not very.”

At Hoover, the officers’ admonitions directing bikes heading east along Wilshire to stay to the far right were entirely counterproductive (and dangerous). Those that took those directions as gospel headed straight for the gutter, hugging the curb as closely as possible. But, because there was no room to ride in the car-occupied lane, many soon moved up onto the narrow sidewalk, where they had to walk their bikes.

All those now-pedestrians crossed through the intersection on foot, creating a tremendous bottleneck along Wilshire. Meanwhile, police continued to direct people to ride to the right of the growing line of cars waiting to turn right, despite the fact that the eastbound lanes remained almost entirely car-free.

Along other sections of Wilshire that had been re-opened to cars, some people chose to ride on the sidewalks, wanting no part of car traffic. Others continued to brave it out in the gutters, slowly battling and weaving their way up hills, sometimes completely oblivious to — or utterly panicked by — the line of cars forming behind them. Still others, apparently lost in the bike-fest bubble, merrily blew through red lights with their children in tow.

This is madness, I thought.

Not necessarily because all these inexperienced people were out on the streets — although that can be problematic, too — but because they were there and they were not protected by better infrastructure.

Earlier in the day, I had been talking with cycling advocate friends about the next steps forward from CicLAvia. Read more…

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Make a Little Noise, Get a Little Bus Stop Love: Random Thoughts on Mobility

A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Oh, honey, no… I thought as I watched the obviously strung-out woman yank up her miniskirt and gesture insistently that passersby partake of her unkempt lady offerings.

It is not unusual to see ladies (and girls, unfortunately) of the evening working the streets on weekend mornings along S. Figueroa. It is also not unusual for them to be in questionable states of un/dress. But this level of desperation was a little out of the ordinary.

Ever the nerd, I wondered where curbing prostitution fit into the currently-open-for-public-review Mobility Element and Plan for a Healthy L.A.

Odd as that may sound, those two things were the reason I was out biking up and down South L.A.’s streets that morning. I had to be at a grand re-opening of a now-much-healthier convenience store on S. Vermont (story later this week) and decided a refresher tour of some of South L.A.’s main streets would help me put those plans into context.

As I’ve written many times before (basically, anything listed here), a neighborhood’s context is often more of a deterrent to mobility and health than whether or not the street has a bike lane. Not that infrastructure isn’t important — it absolutely is. But, if you see semi-naked ladies strolling up and down next to your school, rec center, grocery store, or home, all the bike lanes in the world won’t make you feel comfortable letting your kids — especially girls –  near those streets.

And, if they’re seated at the bus stops with their pimps, as several were this past Saturday, you may not feel comfortable letting your child take transit. While the ladies themselves can be quite friendly, their pimps can be volatile and the johns quite reckless. One nearly ran me over as he backed up at full speed without warning to get to a girl he had passed moments before.

All that said, things have apparently gotten better of late, according to one neighbor.

“It used to be like a drive-through here,” he said of the otherwise quiet stretch of 92nd St. in front of his home, where girls used to gather to avoid being seen getting into cars.

Some beautification efforts at the corner and a watchful neighbor who called the police any time he saw girls on the street, coupled with more regular patrols and the efforts of a nearby hall to ensure its parties weeded out the prostitutes that tried to mix in with the crowds has helped to limit unsavory activity in the area.

Which was good to hear, but rather depressing, considering how many girls you still see out and about at any given hour of any given day.

As I write this, I realize that these musings on prostitution don’t actually have that much to do with the reason I sat down to pen this article, which was to tout the fixing of a problem we highlighted last December — the lack of any bus infrastructure at a stop at Vermont and Gage. Read more…