Monday, August 6, 2007

Gail Goldberg visits Boyle Heights!

Keeping her promise to engage the residents of Boyle Heights in our neighborhood’s planning process, Planning Director Gayle Goldberg appeared last Saturday (August 4) at a community forum organized by Unión de Vecinos (UV) and the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC). Over a hundred people showed up for the Spanish-language event at the Puente Learning Center on Boyle Ave, welcoming Ms. Goldberg with a slide show depicting life and art in the barrio, small mementos presented by children, and a brief explanation of both organizations’ efforts to secure affordable housing here and make other quality-of-life improvements. For her part, Ms. Goldberg’s opening remarks included acknowledgement of the acute housing shortage we are experiencing east of the Los Angeles River, a crisis that has sent many working-class families to relocate to Ontario, San Bernardino and other Inland Empire cities even while their jobs and hearts remain in Boyle Heights.

Unsurprisingly, the questions, concerns and visions for the future of Boyle Heights expressed by the attendees—overwhelmingly middle-aged señoras, most of whom were wearing either UV’s black-and-orange tee shirts or ELACC’s dark green tees—mainly revolved around the need for building more (affordable) housing, which would effectively require increasing the neighborhood’s density. Other points raised, however, included the need for more parks and other public spaces, improving public transit, economic development, better enforcement of housing codes and tenant protections, and improving street and sidewalk maintenance—all issues pertinent to the well-being of families growing up here and areas in which we are severely lacking.

One question for Ms. Goldberg was put forth by a young man wearing a name tag reading “Jesús” (strikingly handsome, he!) who said he was a tenant in Boyle Heights’s huge Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, one of the largest private housing tracts in the country with 1175 units and about six thousand residents. Wyvernwood’s owners, said Jesús, are planning to convert the complex into high-end condos and rentals as their way to “rescue the community from blight.” But all his neighbors know, he said, that the landlord’s plans would only push them out of area and, ultimately, the city, because the new housing would be too expensive for them. Most of Wyvernwood’s residents, like most people in Boyle Heights, earn fairly low wages. Aside from their banishment, Jesús pointed out, the city would be losing precious rental housing stock governed by the rent-stabilization ordinance that only covers structures built before 1978.

The forum was a success, if you consider the importance of providing local residents—largely immigrants and with little or no tradition of civic participation—the opportunity to speak to high-level policymaking officials in this city. On the other hand, while immigrant mothers and grandmothers were present, the men of Boyle Heights were conspicuously absent, as were Chicanos and young people to quite an extent. Also, as a couple of organizers noted afterwards, there is still a need to cultivate leadership in the community and encouraging participants to articulate their own ideas: More than a few of the women who took the microphone to speak to Ms. Goldberg read off a piece of paper words that appeared to have been written by someone else in English and translated for them into Spanish.

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