Surveying the Residents of Northeast L.A.

Photo: Steve M. Garcia
Photo: Steve M. Garcia

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.


The first day of any job is usually an even mix of trepidation and excitement. My first day as a Research and Engagement Intern for the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative was no exception. Under the direction of project coordinators that represent partner organizations such as USC's Annenberg School of Communication and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, interns were trained on how to conduct a community survey to the residents of Northeast Los Angeles, or NELA, if we want to give it a trendy acronym. Though not as well known as other regions of L.A., as say, the Westside or downtown, NELA represents some of the city's most dense, diverse and historic neighborhoods. Communities within the survey boundaries include those closest to the Los Angeles River, such as Atwater Village, Elysian Valley, and portions of Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Lincoln Heights. Though Eagle Rock, Mount Washington, Highland Park and other neighborhoods are also in NELA, they were not part of the study area because they are not adjacent to the river.

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The community-based survey was written to take about fifteen minutes to complete, but of course that depends on how much someone has to say about their neighborhood (or often times about their life). Once canvassing of the neighborhoods is complete the surveys will be quantified and shared with our partners, and will eventually be used to write policy to create an economically viable riverfront district. Questions range from transportation to food to neighborhood improvements. Some are open-ended and positive, such as "What are you most proud about your neighborhood?" and others are quite assuming, like "What would make it easier for you to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables?", leaving the feeling that participants do not eat healthy enough.

Photo: Steve M. Garcia
Photo: Steve M. Garcia

Regardless of impressions the wording of the questions leave, everything on the survey is optional and the whole thing is completely confidential. The most refused question is "What is your annual combined household income?", and I've come across a few residents who refused to give their ethnicity. The hardest part of reaching residents is, well, getting to their front door. Even if a resident is home (and often times they are not) the front door may be behind a locked gate and a huge, barking dog, or several, but just as loud, small dogs. Once you actually reach the resident and explain the purpose of the survey, and that you are not there to sell anything, they are more willing to be interviewed. When you add that completing the survey will get them a free water bottle or tote bag, their demeanor usually brightens up.

The biggest mistake I've made to date is having a predisposition to what a certain neighborhood, street, or even house, will be like. Like they warn you in infomercials -- regardless of a neighborhood's reputation -- results may vary. You could walk up to a newly renovated, beautifully landscaped home on Brunswick Avenue with a Prius in the driveway plastered with Obama bumper stickers, and be turned away in a heartbeat. Regardless of their success in keeping their little slice of the neighborhood clean and presentable, and their political disposition to a president that once was a community organizer, a fifteen minute survey about neighborhood improvements is not something they would be interested in.

Photo: Steve M. Garcia
Photo: Steve M. Garcia

These homes usually belong to those that are relatively new to the neighborhood, and while 99% of houses in the area have fences and gates, these new neighbors build walls. Of course these walls are made of handsome woodwork, and sometimes add a touch of color to the block, but they are walls nonetheless. I find myself wondering if these walls were meant to keep the world out, or to keep the people in. Then there are the houses that don't look as new or as kept, yet are home to some of the most active and concerned neighbors on the street. Once you look past the rusted bars on the windows and the lack of xeriscaping, you realize that this home is just as part of the neighborhood as the next. These residents usually have the most detailed responses, from the lack of youth services to where exactly a speed bump would slow fast traffic down. Maybe the inhabitants of these eye-sores are too busy participating in community events and attending council meetings to build custom woodwork walls.

At the end of the day, as the surveyor, my personal judgment is irrelevant. I am simply there to collect the opinions, desires and needs of the residents that would be most affected by the creation of a riverfront district -- whatever that district may end up being. Whether new or established, young or old, regardless of ethnicity or politics every response is just as important as the next. So if you happen to live in this river-adjacent district within NELA and see one of us walking around in a baby blue "Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative" shirt, please give us fifteen minutes of your time, it would benefit you more than us.

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