The Boyle Heights neighborhood, once heavily Jewish and now primarily Latino, is a fascinating, multicultural community – just east of downtown Los Angeles – with a rich, American history. A landing and jumping off place for immigrants over the years, it’s still full of vibrant mom and pop shops. “Not your typical cookie cutter neighborhood,” explains Carlos Velásquez, Programs Committee Member with Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM), a local advocacy organization.
For many like Velásquez, the neighborhood holds a very special meaning. “Because of the place it holds in my Mexican immigrant history, it feels like a place that you want to go back to, a place you have a connection to,” he explains. “That’s very common for a lot of young people in my age group, where you have parents who might have come from Latin America. A lot of our parents went to that area first, and then left. So you kind of have that connection. It’s kind of nice to go back and help make it a much better place than it is now.”
Velásquez emphasizes that the work he and his colleagues are doing in the neighborhood is not about that flashy, in vogue “R” word: revitalization. “It’s more that it needs improvements here and there,” he explains. “Every shop is full!” What’s need, then, in lieu of “revitalization,” is much more of the kind of outreach that knows that any changes made to Cesar Chavez must be informed primarily by those who live in Boyle Heights.
“It’s really the lack of quality outreach,” explains Velásquez. In the course of the last 2-3 years, for example, several bike lanes have popped up in Boyle Heights, courtesy of the city. That’s wonderful news, of course; there are many in Boyle Heights who cycle because they have to. “You see a lot of young people riding bikes because it’s cool, because it’s good for the environment,” explains Velásquez. “These are people who ride bikes because they have to; that’s their only means of transportation. For them, it’s paramount.”
But the way those bike lanes came to be was troubling for Velásquez and his colleagues. “From speaking with people in the neighborhood,” he says, “they just kind of popped up.” Some residents continued to ride their bikes on the sidewalks, because no outreach had been done to let them know what regulations, if any, came with the new lanes. There was a sense in the community that they should have been consulted before this (albeit nice) thing had been done for them. That they should have been an integral part of the process.
Velásquez and his colleagues want those voices heard, next time around. To that end, this winter or early spring will see a big demonstration on Cesar Chavez Avenue, between Evergreen and St. Louis Streets. Event details will be in place once extensive research and outreach – MCM will be hosting sidewalk workshops with residents, businesses, community members – has been conducted in the neighborhood. What do residents need? What do they believe would make the street safer? What measures would reduce conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians? What kinds of new public spaces would improve the area and encourage community-building? Would a pop-up park be an interesting experiment? How about a protected bike lane? What roles will food, music, and public art play in the event?
The demonstration day itself will function essentially as a huge experiment, designed to invite the community’s reactions, feedback, and ideas for more permanent changes that might be made to Cesar Chavez Ave. “It’s much easier for people to comment on something that’s already there, than to give them a blank piece of paper,” says Velásquez.
What is set in stone at this point is the truly awesome roster of partners coming together to work on the project. Teaming up with MCM are YouthBuild, a fabulous local charter school with deep roots in community action, and Lot to Spot, an organization that works magic to empower neighborhoods, one vacant lot at a time.
The project has already earned a whopping $10,000 in grant money via Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative, and citizen donations have started rolling in on their ioby campaign page, which you can check out here.