The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. For more information visit our website www.mylariver.org
KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative.
Cecilia Dominguez has called Elysian Valley home since the 1970s. "Ceci" and her husband Rey began getting involved in community efforts when they realized that city officials were not living up to their campaign promises. In recent years, Ceci has worked on a plethora of community issues: improving local education, cleaning up the river, decreasing pollution from nearby trains and businesses, and making Elysian Valley a safer place for all.
For this interview Ceci and I engaged in an almost two hour conversation. The transcription process was difficult for much of what Ceci has to share could be included in a budding activist's manual. Nevertheless, her stories of Elysian Valley through the years and her thoughts on the future of the L.A. River are heartfelt and a joy to read.
Tell us about your arrival in Elysian Valley, I think this would be a good way to introduce your story.
I came to Elysian Valley in 1971, I came as a newlywed of two years with my husband Rey. It was very odd because his family lived on the same street that we had moved to. His sister lived across the street, his brother and his parents down the street. Both of his parents were elderly, so he thought it would be a good way for his parents to know his children. And he was correct because his mother died when my children were around three and four years old.
I knew of this area previously because my aunt lived here, but I had never gone to the river. Because the river was taboo -- "it's dirty, mosquitoes, you just don't go down there!" There used to be fences down there but they all had holes so you could go through them. My husband's family migrated here from Chavez Ravine so I knew all about Chavez Ravine from their stories, but not too much about Elysian Valley.
My husband used to tell this wonderful story about him and his friends riding all the way down the hill on this old "junkie bike," and that there would be a rope hanging and you would ride your bike down the hill, grab on to the rope and let it go -- just let the bike roll down the hill! The funny thing is they all shared the same bike.
They would get down to the river and look for lumber to make a raft; he even told me they would make swimming pools by banking sections of the river. Now when my kids were that age and they would ride their bikes and wander down the street, I would tell them, "Don't go to the river! You can't go past the block." Those were the times when kids could actually play in the streets 'til dinner. This neighborhood was quite safe back then. We had the frogs of course.
I've always been very curious about the frogs. Did you get to see the great frog invasions?
Oh my gosh I couldn't believe it when I first saw the frogs. I thought, what kind of place is this? One night I'm out in the backyard and I see these things jumping all over the place, and they're not little -- they're huge toads. If you wanted to garden in your backyard all of a sudden you would hit a toad. I thought they were disgusting. My kids grew up handling them, they brought them home. Our dogs would chase them and when they would nip at them, the frogs would secrete some kind of fluid that would make the dogs foam at the mouth. And if you came at night that was sort of awful because it'd be so dark and you'd be walking up your driveway and there were toads jumping around.
Back in the day, my father in law used to tell us a story about coming home one night after drinking a little too much. And when he got out of the car he saw toads everywhere. The streets were filled with them. It was an epidemic. My father in law didn't believe what he saw, and thought he was just drunk. The next morning he came to discover there were still toads everywhere -- dead on the street, on top of your car, in the yard. I never saw it quite that bad, but those were the stories.
How did you get started in community activism? What are some of the forms of activism that you're involved with today?
When I came here I was a young wife and a mother with two babies, running a house, and there was no time for any of that. But I remember that there was a time when a zoning issue was hitting the neighborhood, and my husband, who has a degree in architecture, was asked by the neighbors for some help with this issue. Shortly afterwards my husband told me, "We're having a meeting in our backyard." And I remember how passionately these folks were talking about these zoning issues and I began to ask more questions, and so I guess you could say my interest in community issues started around this time.
Later in life, I found out that by volunteering you can get into almost anything and start learning from the bottom up. To actually go in and find out about what needs to be fixed instead of someone just telling you about it. So I started with the school's first because there was a need, and that need was because my neighbors and my grandson were in this school. It's a beautiful school. The principal has been to my home, we've connected, and that's what we've learned: we need to connect with one another and help one another to make things better. This was a time in which many other people in the community began to ask the same questions: what do we need to do about safety? About education? But the last thing we thought about was: what do we need to do about the pollution in this community? I didn't think too much about that back then.
There were stories about people actually dumping directly in to the river. You could see the trails. We didn't know what the AQMD (Air Quality Management Department) was. When we smell things at night from a manufacturer, who should we call? I realized I didn't want to live on a street where a manufacturer of janitorial supplies could be piping out smoke that smells bad. And even when we complained we realized that they still were not taking care of us. We had to go a little further, and that's when organization started happening. We started calling our friends, asking them if they knew about certain things that were going on in the neighborhood, and that's when we saw that as community we could really make a change. Did we have victories? Yes, we had one, and we were on a roll. But then we didn't have victories for a long time. We lost and lost. But that's the way it goes. Community organizing is a long and drawn out process. Sometimes you lose your energy for it, community members leave, you grow tired of fighting, and then suddenly it comes up again and people organize again.
So right now we have a group working on the pollution caused by the Metrolink across the river. We're also working on getting the DASH to go through Elysian Valey. The DASH goes down Riverside everyday on its way home to its maintenance facility, but it doesn't stop here. Our children go to school at the Sotomayor Academies and so they're limited on how to get across the river. Many of them walk, but we can't walk on the Riverside bridge and so our children are actually walking right next to the freeway. We need a bridge from Elysian Valley to Glassell Park. So we're working on that.
I also work with a group of seniors in the community. I volunteer at the high school, I'm on the school site council for ArtLab. And I also work with E.L. (English Learners) Parents, even though my Spanish is not great, because I want them to know that they have a voice. That if they have students that are English learners they should have a voice regarding where their funds go. I'm on the park advisory board because I feel that the Rec. Center in our community, when there's a budget cut, that's the first place they're going to do it. I also volunteer every year with FoLAR (Friends of the L.A. River), I bring my neighbors in, my friends, the groups I'm involved in. And we remind them every year that they are cleaning our backyard, so we should come out there and help them, we should go see what's down there. Don't be afraid.
The revitalization of the river is a popular topic of conversation in Northeast L.A. right now. What would you envision for the L.A. riverfront?
I think about that quite often. My husband used to say, "What people put on paper happens. You may not think it's going to happen now, but it will happen in the future. Be very leery of these plans if you're not involved." Someone mentioned that they want to make this neighborhood into the San Antonio Walkway [Riverwalk] and I thought, "No they're not." But I see a possibility in another neighborhood for that. I worked at the dairy for 30 years (note: the Albion Dairy site in Lincoln Heights, which has been marked as the site of a future riverfront park) and I still have a brick from the last day of demolition. It's going to be a beautiful area. I look around and again, people say, oh you have Elysian Park. We have five pocket parks in our neighborhood, we need some space here. With people going out and riding and walking on the path, you can't all be at the pocket park. So there's a need for more green space. Is it going to be in my community? Probably yes. Do I have to share my community with other people? Absolutely. Do I want a San Antonio Walkway? No. That I don't. Do I want the walls of the river terraced where people could sit and enjoy the river and have different areas where you can walk down to the water? Absolutely, I think that would be beautiful. So yes, I want change, but I want to know exactly what is planned first, and I would like the neighborhood to do our homework and be part of the planning process. We need to continue to get involved as a neighborhood in city plans that are going to impact us.
I'd like to hear your thoughts on the changes you've seen Elysian Valley go through. The changing demographics you've observed, issues with gentrification and or development, for better or for worse.
We used to know all the neighbors on the street when I first came here. I still know many of them. But the older generations of Elysian Valley stayed in the same house for so many years, many of them until they died. Slowly but surely I began to have more Asian neighbors. As we started doing work around community issues, we realized that we weren't just a neighborhood of Latinos, we needed to check in with our Filipino, Chinese, and Cambodian neighbors too. I went to my Vietnamese neighbors one day to ask them to participate in a meeting, and they told me that I needed to go ask Mr. Din first. I asked why and they told me because he's the gatekeeper. I thought, what's a gatekeeper? Once I met him we got to know each other, and he trusted me or respected me because we had Vietnamese friends in common. When they came to the meeting it wasn't just one or two, it was as a huge group. So culturally for me this was a big lesson.
As we began this community journey so many years ago, we also started seeing lots of artists move in to the neighborhood. There was a lot of talk about the artists moving in and taking over certain buildings. I remember people saying, "Well if they're artists then what are they going to give us?" I would say they don't need to give us anything. What do we give to them? And so I started inviting these artists to the meetings too. And it took a while but now we have a lot of friends in the community that are artists. We have such a great blend of people here. I think it's great.
I think it's the trend of a lot of older communities -- people are going to come in and buy Mr. Seeley's house, where he lived for 90 years, and they're going to fix it up. The problem I have is that little old house is now going to be priced at four or ive times the amount that he purchased it at. And when it gets rented it's going to be unaffordable to almost anyone in our community. I want my neighbors to stay here. I think of my daughter who rents. When you can't find affordable housing in your own neighborhood then you have issues too. Who will live here? New people will come in. Will it be the same neighborhood? I don't know. Will we start all over again? I don't know. And so when they say gentrification I think of that all the time.
A long time ago I remember a woman was walking down the street, I'd never seen her. I said hello to her and she told me she was looking to buy a house on the street. I asked why Elysian Valley? She said, "I love this place. I listen to the music coming from your houses, I smell the food, and I want my kid to speak Spanish too." [Laughs] And I thought is that what gentrification is? That was my first turnoff but I must admit that was only one person.
When it comes to the Frogtown Art Walk, we get a lot of outsiders coming in to the neighborhood, which is great. That's the point. And I've made many artist friends over the years. But I still notice that most of my neighbors are pushing their strollers past the galleries and so on. "What's going on in there?" I've heard. So in that sense there is still a sense of many long time residents being on the outside looking in. How do we change that? I'm not sure.
Thank you Ceci, I have one more question before we close, if you could please feel in the blank, "I want my L.A. River to be..."
I want my L.A. River to be beautiful and flowing, and never ending.
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