Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.
Subject: Robin Nixon, Patricia Provencio, and Frank del Castillo
Organization: Yorkdale Elementary School
Boulevard: York Boulevard
Robin Nixon, Patricia Provencio, and Frank del Castillo are all teachers at Yorkdale Elementary school. Robin Nixon teaches music in various schools throughout the Highland Park area. Although she is not a Highland Park native, she has been familiar with the community since the early '80s, and attended neighboring Occidental College. Patricia Provencio teaches 3rd and 4th grade students in some of the very classrooms she learned in as a young child. Ms. Provencio has lived in Highland Park since early childhood, and is now raising her family here as well. Frank del Castillo teaches the kindergarten to 3rd grade special education students. He is not a Highland Park native, but has lived an taught in the area for the past 18 years.
As I first walked into Yorkdale Elementary for the interview I noticed the halls were filled with chattering children, even though an hour had passed since the school day ended. Robin Nixon says this is normal. Yorkdale Elementary provides after school recreational activities for the students to keep them safe and provide them with constructive outlets. The increase in adult recreational activities in the Highland Park area was a driving theme in the conversation between Robin Nixon, Patricia Provencio, Frank del Castillo, and myself.
What is your impression of the current neighborhood identity of Highland Park? How has the identity changed in the last few years and decades?
Frank del Castillo: In the last two to three years I have witnessed York Boulevard go through a transformation of business and community. For the many years that I have lived here York Boulevard had been pretty much the same, not moving or progressing in any significant way. But in the last two to three years York Boulevard, mostly along Avenue 50 and Avenue 60, there are new businesses popping up, street improvements being made, and more civic activity.
Also, it used to be that grade schools in the area had legacies, in which grandparents, parents, and children all attended the same schools during one time or another. But now with property values rising people have to leave the area, and you don't see generations of families attending the same schools anymore.
Economics drive people in and drive people out, but with the way the neighborhood is changing and becoming more aesthetically pleasing, more people will be drawn to live here and have more pride about the Highland Park community.
Patricia Provencio: I've lived in Highland Park since I was seven years old, and when my family first moved in there were a lot of Caucasian people in the neighborhood. But the neighborhood has progressively become more diverse. It is mostly a Latino neighborhood, but I see other ethnicities all the time.
And since the addition of the trains the neighborhood has become more accessible. It is easier for people in the neighborhood to get around, and for outsiders to come to Highland Park.
Robin Nixon: As a teacher in this neighborhood for almost the last 20 years, I have noticed that my school has gotten smaller. This is because apartment rents have gone up, and so people are forced to leave the area.
Have you heard about recent efforts to improve the boulevards? If so, how do you think these efforts will affect the community?
Patricia Provencio: I've noticed some improvements happening on the streets. I've seen more benches. They also remodeled the train station. It is very beautiful over there. It makes the area more inviting and artistic.
Frank del Castillo: In the '80s I remember Colorado Boulevard was very rundown, homeless people were everywhere, and there were hardly any open businesses. But after they resurrected Old Town in Pasadena, Colorado Boulevard has an entirely new image. During this revitalization York Boulevard was neglected, but about ten years ago people began to talk about improving York Boulevard too. It has finally started to happen, and now you can see the changes that have been taking place.
On the streets there is now a bike lane. Hopefully that will encourage people to bike more. When I was in elementary school about 50% of the children rode their bikes to school. In the almost 20 years that I have taught at Yorkdale I have not once seen a student ride their bike to school. I don't even think we have bike racks on school property.
Even with the new changes being made to the neighborhood I don't think elementary Highland Park kids will be biking to school, in even the next ten years. Bike theft used to be a big problem and parents might not feel it safe for their kids to ride to school. Parents would much rather walk with their children hand in hand and drop them off.
Do you notices any new trends in criminal activity?
Frank del Castillo: I've noticed a decrease in criminal activity. Neighborhood Watch groups have began to popup throughout the area; more people are watching their neighborhoods closely. Also, maybe two years ago, LAPD did a gang sweep in the area, which took down a lot of local gang activity. Also, when driving down York Boulevard I've seen a lot of under cover police and people getting pulled over more regularly.
I am an active member of a Neighborhood Watch group. I've been a member for about ten years. The group has set up an email system with the neighboring communities like Glassell Park and Cypress Park. So, we get weekly reports on the activity that is happening in the surrounding neighborhoods, like drug activity or home break-ins, so we know to be alert in our own respective communities.
Have there been any initiatives to get the Yorkdale students active in the community?
Robin Nixon: No, there hasn't been a strong push from the school to get the students involved, but we're trying to encourage interaction with our community. After celebrating our Centennial we reached out more to the community. We also received funding from a number of local businesses to help support our music program.
Because funding has been cut from the arts we have to find funding from other places. The School District only funded me one day a week to work at Yorkdale, the other days I work are funded by private funds. For instance, the York Restaurant has contributed significantly to our music programs. The local businesses have been very generous.
Patricia Provencio: A parent comes and works with the students after school, and she has done a lot of work in creating and maintaining a school garden. She talked to the students a lot about keeping their school nice, keeping the areas around their house nice, and keeping their overall community nice. She drove home the message that pride for our community is important.
Are students' parents very active in the school community?
Patricia Provencio: Many of the parents in the neighborhood work a lot, so there is not too much family involvement. It is not because they don't want to, but because they can't afford to take off work.
Frank del Castillo: We also have less parent participation because our school population is dropping. So the number of parents available to volunteer is also dropping.
We used to have 800 plus students, but now we are at about 400 students. I don't believe we will see a drop below 300, but I don't foresee an increase in the school population in the next five years either. If we do drop below 300, then Yorkdale will probably close or open up as a special education center. So, we will only house special education students, and the general education students will be bussed out to other public schools.
Have you witnessed gentrification or a racial transition happening in the neighborhood?
Robin Nixon: People are saying that Highland Park is becoming more of a hip trendy place. More bohemian, artsy, types of people are coming to live or hang out here.
The neighborhood is also becoming younger. When I walk into a café it is usually full of a younger crowd and they are all using some sort of technology like a computer or phone. So, yes, I think Highland Park is becoming more trendy and young. There are so many new businesses moving in that don't look like they belong in Highland Park; you walk into some of those places and you don't feel like you're in Highland Park anymore.
I appreciate the way the neighborhood was all those many years ago, but I am also happy with the way neighborhood is changing. Highland Park has been in fluctuation since I moved here at seven years old ... that's what makes living here so interesting.
Robin Nixon, Patricia Provencio, and Frank del Castillo all expressed their overall happiness with the transitions and improvements Highland Park is making. They all welcome the change and look forward to the pride it will instill in the Highland Park community members. However, they are aware that these changes come at a cost. In the future, they foresee, some Yorkdale students' families not being able to afford to live in Highland Park and being forced to relocate. Unfortunately, as Mr. del Castillo put it, "that is the way of the world".