If Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, Surely it Should Also be a Component of “Complete”-ness, No?

Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, trash grows... Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Bus stop, bus goes, trash stays, trash grows on Olympic Blvd.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As folks were preparing to cut the cake in honor of the Complete Streets Day motion put forth by Councilmember Jose Huizar at City Hall last week, I was getting geared up to volunteer at a high school located in his district, around which many of the streets are decidedly incomplete.

I had run into Roosevelt High School teacher extraordinaire Jorge Lopez a couple of weeks prior; students from his food justice class were helping give a tour of two corner markets that had received healthy makeovers courtesy of Public Matters. When he heard I was interested in interviewing the students involved in the project, he suggested I stop in his classroom instead and assist the students in reworking their own interviews with food activists and workers in the area into articles.

Hell, yes! I thought.

Teens — besides being inspiring to work with — are often incredible, unfiltered informants about the unique dynamics of their communities and how those dynamics impact mobility, health, and access to opportunity.

When I first worked with his English class two years ago, students were writing speeches about things they would like to see improved in their neighborhood. Given the myriad challenging circumstances that the youth came from, immigrant rights, living wages, affordable housing, protection from gang activity, and access to healthy food and other health resources unsurprisingly figured prominently into their discussions.

But, I was also struck that one of the recurring themes was an inferiority complex many expressed with regard to East L.A.

It was so much cleaner, they complained.

Complete Streets should also encompass clean streets. Couch on Rivera St. (just off 1st), a frequent dumping site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Complete Streets should also encompass clean streets. Couch on Rivera St. (just off 1st), a frequent dumping site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When we think of “Complete Streets,” we tend to focus on ways to facilitate mobility by “design[ing] and operat[ing streets] to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

But, for these students, it was clear that having streets that looked clean, inviting, and safe was important for mobility and access, too.

In comparing their neighborhoods to East L.A., many voiced a belief that people in East L.A. took more pride in their community because the sidewalks and streets there were well taken care of. Boyle Heights streets’, they said, felt run down and forgotten.

It was something that bothered them a lot.

They were writing the speeches just as their school was getting ready for the East L.A. Classic, the homecoming football game between their school and Garfield (in East L.A.). And, they were tired, they said, of feeling like people from East L.A. were looking down on them because their streets were so dirty.

Many of the problems they named then continue to plague the area today.

Like dumping, for instance.

Dumping on corners.

More dumping under the "no dumping" sign at 6th and Breed. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Dumping happens regularly under the “Dump No Rubbish” sign at 6th and Breed this past Saturday. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Dumping in front of homes.

A mattress is left on a lot in front of a home. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
A mattress is left on a lot in front of a home. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

And, dumping in combination with scraggly-looking parkway grass and curb areas that make it look like the street is in a perpetual state of disrepair.

And yet more sidewalk dumping. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Yet more sidewalk dumping along Chicago St. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Trash accumulating along vacant spaces, along sidewalks and curbs, or along underpasses is also a problem.

Trash accumulates in a vacant lot where dumping is discouraged by a sign. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Trash accumulates in a vacant lot where dumping is discouraged by a sign along Lorena (just south of 1st). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Trash collects along a vacant space on Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Trash collects along a vacant space on Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Trash accumulates under an underpass along Whittier Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Trash accumulates along an underpass along Whittier Blvd… Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
...And along the underpass. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
…alongside of it, and under the bridge, too. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The problem has gnawed at the community so long, in fact, that community activist and graduate student (in social work) Amanda Mejia finally got fed up and organized her own grassroots clean-up.

Dubbing her initiative “Boyle Heights Rising,” she managed to get friends, youth groups, church groups, independent do-gooder groups, and firemen (along with a yummy donation from Zamora Bros. Cantina) to come out in droves and spend their Saturday morning sweeping the sidewalks and picking up trash in the neighborhood of the Evergreen Cemetery.

She was heartened to see that there was less trash around the cemetery jogging path than there had been when they did their first clean-up a few months ago, she said, but there was still much left to be done.

Amanda Mejia (center, in shorts) and the women and girls who participated in the clean-up. The roses were donated by Raquel Zamora in honor of International Women's Day. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Amanda Mejia (center, in shorts) and the women and girls who participated in the clean-up. The roses were donated by Raquel Zamora in honor of International Women’s Day. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Of course, that doesn’t mean that more traditional Complete Streets concerns are not also an issue here.

After leaving the clean-up, I rode up and down Lorena, a main street that cuts north-south across Boyle Heights.

Just a handful of blocks from Roosevelt High School, it is one that I have seen many students cross or walk along on their way to and from school. And, it is truly a wonder that they haven’t been killed in the process.

While there is some bike infrastructure north of 3rd, when Lorena approaches the underpass at 4th St., everything changes for the worse. Lorena narrows, the bike lane disappears, and there is no good way for a pedestrian moving along 4th (which crosses over it) to be able to connect with west side of Lorena.

First, there is no curb cut at the end of the bridge sidewalk along 4th, and the drop to the street is rather steep.

But, that is pretty minor in comparison to the absence of crosswalks on Lorena for nearly 1000 ft. south of 4th.

There are no crosswalks for almost 1000 ft. for someone heading south onto Lorena from 4th St. Sahra Sulaiman
There are no crosswalks for almost 1000 ft. and the curves and hill make visibility a challenge. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Most looking to cross do what the woman above did, which was to cross at the peak of the hill, where cars are just starting to move up or down the hill under the bridge.

The problem (besides the obvious) is that the street is curved at such an angle that it is hard for a pedestrian or cyclist at the top of the hill to see southbound traffic coming (or vice versa). So, where she is crossing — the point at which cars are usually moving at their fastest — actually turns out to be the “safest” place to cross.

On the north side of 4th, there is a staircase a pedestrian could walk down, if they preferred to try their luck walking along under the bridge.

But, the sidewalk along the underpass, at least on the east side, is incredibly narrow.

The sidewalk on the west side is better but, again, it isn’t easy to get there. Unless, that is, you head down the stairs a block west at Bernal, and then trek your way under the bridge to Lorena, as that’s the only connection between the two streets for 1200+ ft.

All of this assumes, of course, that you can manage stairs (i.e. are not pushing a stroller or are otherwise impaired).

On the north side of 4th, a pedestrian could take the stairs and head underneath the bridge, but the sidewalk there is very narrow and there is still no way to cross to the west side once you make it under the underpass.
On the north side of 4th, a pedestrian could take the stairs and head underneath the bridge, but the sidewalk there is very narrow and there is still no way to cross to the west side once you make it out of the underpass.

Recently, Huizar nominated Lorena as a Great Streets candidate, along with Cesar Chavez Ave. (I’ve documented some problems here), East 1st St., East 4th St., Mission Rd., Olympic Blvd. (documented here), Whittier Blvd., and Soto St. And, Lorena is slated to get bike lanes between Cesar Chavez and Grande Vista (south of Olympic) at some point before 2016.

The improvements couldn’t come soon enough for neighbors in the area.

There are the abysmal sidewalks. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Maybe they could fix the sidewalk while they’re at it…The tree on the west side of Lorena is wonderful, but it has done quite a number on the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

When they do arrive — which likely won’t be for some time, unfortunately — the improvements need to come in the form of both infrastructure and upkeep.

Each of the Great Streets candidates Huizar named, besides lacking things like sufficient pedestrian lighting, adequate crosswalks, or level sidewalks, also boast abandoned shopping carts, trash lining the curbs, dumped furniture, struggling greenery, or some combination thereof which make the streets feel even more unfriendly.

The poor conditions of the streets create a bleak environment for youth who are growing up in a community already burdened with a number of challenges.

Unsafe crossings, like those at Lorena, can present a very real danger and communicate to them, and to all residents, that the city does not care about their well-being.

Unclean streets, in addition to being unsightly and unwelcoming, serve to chip away at youths’ self-esteem while reinforcing more jaded residents’ beliefs that the unsafe crossings are not a fluke.

“You’ve wondered if the poor infrastructure meant the city really didn’t care about you,” piles of trash seem to say to residents. “We’ve sat here, festering, untouched for months, just so that you weren’t left with any doubts.”


  • DJ

    Excellent points. Moreover, poor infrastructure and uncleanliness create a negative feedback loop when it comes to creating a healthy community: the more difficult and unpleasant it is to walk, the less active people will be. And less people walking around means less eyes on the street.

  • JB

    I live in Pico-Union and similar conditions exist. Certainly there’s a lack of neglect on the part of the city — as there could be more trash cans, and attention paid to sidewalk repair, tree pruning, etc. However, there also appears to be a cultural element where people just don’t give a f’ about littering. I’m flabbergasted about how much trash ends up on my residential street every day. My neighbors and I regularly pick it up, and then the next day there’s more trash — plates from the taco stand, napkins, empty cups, hotdog wrappers, soda cans…everywhere. It’s disgusting.

    That’s heartening that the youth and in Boyle Heights want to make a change, and perhaps the change has to start with them. But clearly there needs to be some sort of public awareness campaign – and outreach to community leaders to spread the word – that littering is bad. In the U.S. we’re indoctrinated from an early age to “not be a litter bug”, and that it’s rude and inconsiderate to litter. I can only assume that in the home countries of many immigrants, there wasn’t this same indoctrination that took place? I’m not trying to bash folks in my community — immigrants are a critical part of our economy, tax base, culture and what makes Los Angeles one of the most lively, diverse and interesting places on the earth! But in addition to policy changes on behalf of the city, I also think there could be some cultural change that could happen as well.

  • sahra

    There was definitely some recognition among the clean-up crew that a lot of the problem begins at home. But, the truth is the problem has several layers… you have folks that come explicitly to areas of the community with their crap to dump it. They may not even be from BH. It happens in Watts all the time. That requires a more top-down solution from the city. In other cases, like with the shopping carts, you have people who have to walk their groceries long distances and then can’t or are unwilling to walk the carts the mile or two back to el Super. The solution there might be transportation services/shuttles from the grocery stores. Older immigrants may not realize you can call the city for bulky items. In your cases of general littering, people just seem not to care or be educated or there may not be enough trash receptacles (or they may not be cleaned regularly enough). Some of that can be fixed with the campaigns and educational approaches you suggest. Taco stands/trucks where people are likely to stand around and leave garbage might be one place to start cleanliness campaigns with fun posters or funky receptacles…

    I do find that the 311 feature the city has been pushing has not trickled down to the lower-income communities just yet. So, the city still has some work to do with getting their message out about how to keep communities clean.

  • Sonia

    OUR people Need to be educated of the importance… of having our neighborhood streets clean and uncluttered. .. Our drain system carries trash to our Ocean…. WE NEED TO STOP pointing fingers that it is someone else’s job to clean up…It starts at Home! We need to take Pride, Be Proactive and need to give Value to our communities. We have a Reputation that Dirty East L.A…City Terrace…EL Sereno ….that all our county has dirty…streets. We should adopt cleaning and sweeping in the Early Morning ..Just like in Mexico.in small towns and Ranchos. ….Ladies and young girls sweeping in Front of the house…sprinkling water with their hands…so that the dirt won’t fly up in the air. JUST because we are a Minority it doesn’t mean we can’t Have Clean Streets Like Beverly Hills 90210…. The Back Of Business’s and Factories in 90063 area… Are NOT Dumping Grounds. THE city or County Need to have the trash trucks that pick up furniture by appointments -also pick up side trash they pass by..even if it doesn’t have an appointment .Appointment service furniture pick up is aforever process and wait. Just let them pick up…if they are driving by…!!!



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