Active Streets Participants Explore Vermont Square in South L.A.
4:10 PM PST on February 7, 2014
“This is such a pretty neighborhood!”
It was a comment I heard several times over the course of the Active Streets event held at Vermont Square park (48th and Budlong) last weekend.
For people unfamiliar with South L.A., the neighborhood appeared to have defied expectations. It certainly defied stereotypes -- the winter sky shimmered, the almost two-block-long park behind the homey library sparkled, people’s well-kept homes and yards looked inviting, and the streets were largely clean and peaceful.
It didn’t mean there weren’t issues, of course.
On the short walk the two dozen participants took around the neighborhood to document pedestrian issues, everyone stopped to snap photos of broken asphalt at the ends of driveways and alleys and the dislodged fire hydrant on a quiet corner that a drunk driver had likely slammed into.
The residents didn’t seem as taken with the state of the alleys as the non-residents did.
So many of the alleys have been gated for so long that, while they don't love them, neighbors don’t always notice them the way that they might be put out by the aggressive, in-your-face blight that is a vacant lot.
The gates obviously are symbolic of deeper problems – either the alleys played host to significant criminal activity at one point or they were focal points for dumping and other issues.
But people often associate the gates with a safer neighborhood, so they don’t necessarily miss having access to the alleys. And, they generally aren’t tempted to enter the ones that aren’t gated – the majority of those have degenerated to where they are little more than lumpy, tagged up, garbage-strewn dirt roads.
Even if the neighborhood is quieter now than it was in the past, people still tend to fear what they think could happen there (all of which should make the Trust for Public Land's project to convert a network of alleys near 52nd and Avalon into park/pedestrian spaces an interesting one to watch).
As the group turned the corner onto Vernon, the TRUST South L.A. intern I was chatting with and I were effectively silenced by the deafening roar of a truck rumbling by.
It shattered the peaceful bubble the side streets had lulled us into and we laughed at how startling an intrusion it was.
Ah, I thought, now this is the South L.A. we all know and love.
Although we only walked along Vernon a few hundred feet, it was a disquieting stretch.
The sidewalks felt too narrow -- they were liberally dotted with lamp posts (not a bad thing, per se, if you have enough room) and driveway dips. And, there was no parkway between the sidewalk and the curb, making you feel you were even closer to the cars than you actually were.
If you're walking by yourself, it's not that much of a problem.
But if you should be walking with your children, with strollers or pushing your laundry, or with all your friends after school, it is much less comfortable. And, kids old enough to go to and from school without parental accompaniment tend to favor the main streets over the side streets because that's where the buses run. (And that's also where the corner markets that sell Flaming Hot Cheetos are. But that's another problem for another day.)
So, while I genuinely appreciate the efforts of TRUST South L.A., the LACBC, and LADOT to activate the neighborhood streets by engaging communities around safe walking and bicycling routes to parks, schools, and local businesses, I hope that the powers that be in city will not forget that the busiest streets are still the ones that need the most help.
Just a few blocks over on Normandie, 16-year-old Nathaniel Mota was mowed down in a hit-and-run -- hit so hard he flew four car lengths -- after leaving church with his family last September. The family and church are lobbying for a light and a crosswalk at that intersection, but have been told it could take years and cost upwards of $200,000, according to the LA Times.
Needless to say, it was a relief to turn South onto Budlong and head back to the park.
We passed a lovely yard with gates adorned with hand-painted flowers where the family was outside working on the landscaping. The father told me he worked from 4 a.m. til 7 p.m. most days, but enjoyed working in his yard.
"It's your other job," I said in Spanish.
He clearly took pride in keeping his home beautiful. As did others in the area. Learning about how much people care about their neighborhoods is one of the nice things about events that make neighborhood walks a part of the program.
One of my favorite things is the 10th Wonder of the World, located at 62nd and Budlong.
Created out of trash dumped in alleys and elsewhere by brother and sister Lew and Dianne Harris, it is a testament to, well, I'm not sure quite what, actually. But it is definitely worth a visit.
Budlong has been identified as a potential candidate for bicycle-friendly treatments and is a nice quiet alternative to Vermont through much of South L.A. Take a ride on it on your own or get to know it through the Active Streets program.
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