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Going Green, the South L.A. Way

Community Services Unlimited's fresh produce stand was one of the booths at this year's Earth Day South L.A. festival near Exposition Park.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

The month of April has been awash with the usual Earth Day-themed activities, events which encourage attendees to "Go Green" in the form of recycling, zero-waste practices, lowering one's carbon footprint, reducing fossil fuel consumption, adopting bicycling, transit, and walking, saving the rainforests, or being more aware about global climate change. But for some communities, "Going Green" takes on a different sort of context.

Take, for example, the South Los Angeles region, the 50-plus square mile area generally regarded as south of the Santa Monica Freeway down to Rosecrans, and from Alameda Street on the east to the Culver City, Inglewood, and Hawthorne city boundaries.

Known both affectionately and pejoratively as "the ghetto," "the 'hood" or "South Central," the area is known for being historically African American, but most of what is now South Los Angeles was originally built as automobile-oriented middle-class white suburbs, with the exception of the corridor centered along south Central Avenue (hence the name) and parts of Watts, which were designated for black residents during the era of racial covenants in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1950s, though African Americans were finally able to live outside the covenant zones, racial tensions, the construction of freeways (which permanently altered neighborhoods), and the dismantlement of L.A.'s streetcar systems (which previously gave residents access to job bases), made matters worse in South Los Angeles, and culminated in the Watts Riots of 1965. Gang violence and crime rose while the South L.A.'s public image sank, becoming a textbook example of "no-man's land." The 1992 L.A. Riots only validated the socioeconomic inequities that continued after the last riots of the generation previous.

Today, the gang activity and violent crime South L.A. has had a reputation for have decreased, and the area has gone through a demographic shift -- more than half of the area's three-quarters of a million residents are Latino. Though some areas of South Los Angeles have seen investments in terms of development, retail jobs and infrastructure in the past two decades, many of the socioeconomic issues facing South L.A. still remain valid.

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To address some of those issues, a group of local community-based organizations put on an "Earth Day South L.A. Festival" in mid-April, at the courtyard of Mercado La Paloma near Exposition Park, a marketplace, food court, and community space run as a social enterprise.

One of those organizations, Community Services Unlimited, set up a stand with fresh produce for sale, which was one of the focal points of the festival. CSU, originally created in the late 1970s as the nonprofit extension of the local Black Panther Party, operates today primarily to tackle the issue of food deserts and the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food in South L.A. According to executive director Neelam Sharma, CSU's food program started around a decade ago with a community food assessment which revealed a lack of access and education regarding healthy food in the area. Since then, they have established their Village Market Place program, which has established nearly half a dozen weekly produce stands at various locations in South L.A., and a produce subscription program, which has so far garnered around 80 regular subscribers, who can pick up or get delivered a weekly supply of fruits and vegetables.

"We consider our produce, 'Beyond Organic;' in not just how our produce is grown, but how it's packaged -- we want to reduce our carbon footprint. We use bicycles to deliver our produce to our subscribers within a seven-mile radius," said Sharma.

She also added that CSU's produce stands and subscription program offers fruits and vegetables such as beets, carrots, greens, kale, lettuce, loquats, radishes, and turnips, which are all grown locally in the organization's three community gardens or in other farms or gardens which the CSU partners with.

Sharma said she wants to take their program to the next level by growing their social enterprise into a food cooperative in the community.

While some people in more affluent communities pledge to "Go Green" by driving less and adopting alternate forms of transportation, in South Los Angeles, many have already taken that step, though not by choice, but by necessity. But just because many in South L.A. walk, ride bicycles, or take transit, it doesn't mean the layout of their neighborhoods is already adapted to those modes. Which is where organizations such as T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. comes in. According to Mobility and Recreation Program director Tafarai Bayne, his organization engages and mobilizes community members in issues such as urban planning, community development, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Lately, the organization has been successful in having a blighted lot at Slauson Avenue and Wall Street turned into a planned park and mixed-use village featuring affordable housing units. At the Earth Day festival, T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. staffers were busy garnering the support of attendees to support the building of a planned transit-oriented, affordable housing complex near the USC campus and the Expo/Vermont Metro Expo Line station.

"Affordable housing is an environmental issue," said Bayne, who also serves on the boards of CicLAvia and the L.A. City Transportation Commission. He added that it was important for the South L.A. community to advocate for affordable housing developments that offer spaces for recreation and gathering, as well as spaces that can provide local employment.

In South L.A., even larger, systematic issues can become environmental issues. Empowerment, civic engagement, and the ability to build organizational capacity must be addressed before specific issues can be taken on.

"There are many people who care in South L.A. But often South L.A. is painted as unable to get it together," said Vanessa Vela-Lovelace, director of programs at Community Development Technologies, otherwise known as CDTech, a South L.A.-based nonprofit established in 1995. Among its economic development, economic justice, and educational training programs, it has also been involved in food policy issues and neighborhood beautification projects -- things usually associated with basic quality-of-life issues in most communities, but very vital to the environment in South L.A.

"There's a lot of disenfranchisement," said Vela-Lovelace. "South L.A. has a history of movements and interventions coupled with massive disinvestment, a dynamic demographic that has changed dramatically in ten years, needing to travel far for work, having limited income in highly compacted living arrangements that affect folks ability to participate in civic work."

During the Earth Day festival, Vela-Lovelace asked a woman to fill out a community needs survey and had her seven-year-old son pull a wooden stick out of a pot of soil to reveal a prize. He won a tomato planting kit, the largest-sized prize. He was beaming with excitement after having won it, and proudly held the box as his mother took his picture with his winnings.

It looks like the seeds of more than just tomatoes have been planted here in South L.A.

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About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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