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
One afternoon, when asking a Cypress Park resident about her access to fresh fruits and vegetables, she lamented that the grocery store within walking distance of her house had closed. She told me that many grandmothers in the neighborhood used to walk to the neighborhood grocery store in the morning, and spend all day cooking a hearty supper for their families when they came home from work or school. Delicious smells would waft through the neighborhood, and she lamented that those days were behind them now.
So many things struck me about this story. How wonderful to walk by homes, engaging your senses with aromas from all over the world, and how nice that they had a store close enough to give even those without cars access to healthy meals. But on the other hand, what happens to those grandmothers who take such pride in feeding their family now that the store is gone? Did anyone else walk by these homes and have the opportunity to enjoy the delicious aromas?
While carrying out my internship for the Northeast Los Angeles River Collaborative, I noticed the way people interact with and experience their neighborhood while walking. Walkability may be determined by the infrastructure in place, how enjoyable the walk is (like not walking past blank walls), and having practical and enjoyable destinations within walking distance of homes. The walkability of a neighborhood, and proximity of necessary services and stores, determines the lifestyle of the people in those neighborhoods.
It is easy to imagine, walking down the streets of Cypress Park or Lincoln Heights, a much earlier, simpler time when one could walk to a corner store for a carton of milk, greeting neighbors and friends along the way. While this sounds like a foreign idea to many Angelenos, many of the residents I have spoken with do recall times like this when streets were places of community and places to spend time. However, for a variety of reasons too long and complicated to go through here, these times slowly, and sadly, have become obsolete, and Los Angeles streets now belong to cars rather than people.
The rise of the car obviously meant more car-oriented infrastructure in NELA, just like it meant for the rest of L.A. The building of freeways and highways severely fragmented the neighborhoods. People can, and do, still walk, as sidewalks are still in place, but it is no longer pleasant or at all comfortable. When walking in the neighborhoods adjacent to the freeways, I think about its dangers to the environment and people's health and comfort. It is easy to realize why I don't see many other walkers on the streets along the freeway. Walking simply isn't as fun as it could be.
Many of the sidewalks are in disrepair, quite narrow, or blocked by some assortment of city utilities -- useful but perhaps misplaced. In many of the neighborhoods the majestic trees have pulled up sidewalks. Oftentimes I find that two people can't walk shoulder to shoulder because of the narrowness of certain sidewalks. Walking after dark also proves to be a pervasive problem, especially in Cypress Park, with the lack of street lights. This makes streets magnets for crime, forcing people back into their cars for even the shortest neighborhood trips.
And if you still decide to walk through the hostile streets, there really aren't too many destinations nearby. Riverside Drive, Elysian Valley's main street, is nearly void of stores or businesses. Elysian Valley residents don't have destinations within walking distance. Understandably, of the five neighborhoods in the study area, Elysian Valley ranks the lowest in terms of walkability, with a Walk Score of 55 out of 100, followed closely by Glassell Park's 57. Even where there are small businesses in Glassell Park, the businesses hide in strip malls behind car-dominated streets and expansive parking lots, such as at the intersection of San Fernando Road and Fletcher Drive. When doing small business surveys in Atwater Village, one of the biggest issues facing small business owners is how to get more foot traffic. Atwater ranks highest in terms of walkability in the study area, with a Walk Score of 75, but businesses still suffer.
Despite all of these observations, I do believe that Northeast L.A. is a walkable group of neighborhoods. With some slight tweaks in planning and zoning, these streets can grow as public places where locals and visitors alike can enjoy spending time. The houses in the NELA RC study area, with great front porches active with family life, lend themselves well to walkable neighborhoods. Hopefully at one point, with help from the partners of the Collaborative, the neighborhoods will incorporate more walkable destinations along the riverfront, not just for residents but for anyone coming to visit the river or NELA. Visitors will be able to see the pride that the residents have in the waterway and in their neighborhoods.
Walkability promotes social interactions and a connected neighborhood. Having walked through these neighborhoods myself, I can assure that an exciting and enlightening adventure is in store for walkers, if they keep their eyes open for special treasures and kind people willing to chat. Only at walking speed do we go slow enough to process the sights, sounds, and smells unique to NELA.