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. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website www.mylariver.org
It was a hot and sunny June afternoon when I first set foot in Lincoln Heights. I've passed through the neighborhood before -- it's a great detour when the 5/110 interchange is clogged -- but it was the first time I'd actually been there. Wedged between the Los Angeles River and Interstate 5, this section of Lincoln Heights seems more industrial than residential, but upon closer inspection you can find a whole community practically hidden from sight.
Continuing with the NELA community survey, I started at North Broadway and made my way down South Avenue 18. It might have been the time of day, but it seemed there were more locked gates than usual. Feeling a little discouraged, I continued on my way down Avenue 18 until I reached a man sitting on his porch, working on what looked like an old fan. I introduced myself and explained the purpose of our project, and although he was a little hesitant at first he agreed to take the survey. When we reached the point in the survey in which I asked the two places where he buys his fresh fruits and vegetables, he replied, "nowhere." He pointed to the watermelons, cucumbers, and other produce he had growing in his front yard. He explained that growing his own food has always been a passion of his, and one day he hopes to start a community garden within Lincoln Heights.
We had finished the survey, but I was interested in learning more about this man, Peter Garcia, and his quest to start a community garden from scratch. A few weeks later we met at The Village Bakery and Café on Los Feliz and he shared his story with me.
When we spoke earlier, you said one of the biggest problems in your neighborhood was a lack of communication within the residents. Can you elaborate?
Especially in the little section where you came -- Avenues 18, 19, and 20 -- it seems cut off from the rest of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood by the freeway. To me it feels like an island, and if you're on an island full of people you want to get to know who they are. I barely know anybody. I know more about the Asian lady next door who speaks broken English than my other neighbors who speak perfect English. Everyone has a false perception of people they don't recognize. They look at you and think you don't belong here or that you don't look like you belong here. Everyone has a "No Trespassing" sign or a dog. I talked to a lady who asked me, 'Who are you with?' I said I'm here by myself and handed her a bag of tomatoes from my garden. We spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes as she was hosing down fireworks from the street. Her husband came out -- and I'm not easily intimated -- but when he started asking more questions and getting aggressive I just left.
How long have you lived on Avenue 18? Why did you move to Lincoln Heights and what was your first impression?
About five years now. Before it was all about Echo Park. I moved to Lincoln Heights because prices in Echo Park were no longer affordable. If I could afford to live in Echo Park for $1,500 a month I would. I love Echo Park. When the lake looked like crap I loved it and fished there every day. Prices were going up, and my neighbors and friends were disappearing. When I moved to Lincoln Heights I looked at the walls and there was graffiti everywhere, and I thought "It's just like home, it shouldn't be so bad." And it's not as bad as everyone assumes when they drive down the street. The street lights are dim and some of them are broken, but once you get used to it you stop looking at the negatives and you start looking at the positives.
You're the one that has to be the one who wants to engage. Everybody puts up walls and all of a sudden they're in their own prison. Gardening is like my meditation. It's something I've always done as a kid. To me it's simple and if I can pass my knowledge to the people I meet in my life, maybe there can be some change. If kids learn where their fruits and vegetables come from they would open their eyes. If they cared for the soil, then maybe they could care for something else, something greater. The Native Americans had a god for soil and the sun. I'm not looking to teach religion; I'm looking to teach the next kid to care about what they have because once it's gone it will probably be gone forever.
Are you known as that guy who grows his own stuff?
No, not really. Not even recently. People will walk by and look. When someone sees somebody doing something, then things start to trickle down and ripple across the community. When you put a sign to"Keep Off' is when people walk all over it. When there's no sign is when people respect it the most. Whether they know me or not I want to give people the idea that something can be done. If I saved someone money from having to go to the market and buy a mass produced tomato that probably doesn't taste very good, that's paying it forward.
You were talking about starting a community garden in Lincoln Heights, what is your plan of action?
First I'm talking to the community members and getting them to see what their ideas are. It has to be somewhere where it's accessible, not too far from seniors because they are the ones that would probably use it the most. They're on fixed incomes and sometimes they can't afford to go to the market. The goal in the end is to have something to show people to appreciate food and appreciate themselves and give them more self-worth. I'm trying to put the word out to get more people involved, more kids and more Latinos particularly. In the end Latinos have the most to lose because they're the biggest in population. Kids are losing the ability to have face-to-face conversations. They can send you a text with more emotions than they can say in person. The community garden would help people come together and show kids there's more to life than what's the latest thing on TV. If you're bored, go and produce. You can go down the street, water your plants, and bring back something to eat.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the neighborhood?
I see the entire neighborhood warming up and being involved. Neighborhood barbecues and block parties, future involvement in your neighborhood, to love where you live. How are you going to love someone else if you can't love yourself? I think RuPaul said that. I see a Christmas light show in the garden; it's for the kids and for the future. I was told we were the future and yet here we are and what are we doing?
Our next summer policy engagement workshop on Saturday, July 27 will focus on Food Policy in the NELA river area and neighborhoods. We look forward to exploring the state of food access and quality in NELA -- and what food policy ideas will improve the food landscape to create healthier communities.