On a hot Los Angeles day, a man took shelter underneath a small shaded picnic table in Rio de Los Angeles State Park. But for his crisp blue button down shirt, brown pants and jaunty straw trilby hat, he could have passed for the many casually dressed Angelenos that crisscrossed the sprawling park, strolling, jogging, or walking their dogs. Except this man was the kind to be approached by a complete stranger asking, "Ed Reyes?"
The man responded affirmatively, which elicited a smile from the other.
"This neighborhood misses you," said this stranger, while his dog pulled on the leash. "The new councilman doesn't even know the street names in his district." The encounter lasted the length of a couple of photographs and few kind words, but it spoke of former Council District 1 Ed Reyes' impact on his childhood environs and beyond.
After 12 years in City Council, and a decade as chief planning deputy for the previous councilmember, Reyes stepped down last June, termed out of office. While legislating policies that made his 13.5-square mile district safer and more conducive to businesses, he's also left behind a legacy of revitalization along the Los Angeles River that goes further than his district borders. Alongside river advocates, Reyes has gradually changed the public's perception of the river. From being a concrete-laden eyesore, it is now seen a precious part of L.A.'s natural urban ecosystem, an amenity that can benefit the diverse community that live by its banks. His dedication to the river goes beyond mere environmental conscientiousness. To hear him tell it, it was almost a matter of survival.
Reyes grew up in a household that reflected the county's immigrant experience. His parents both emigrated from Mexico in the 1950s. He was the third of seven children -- an older brother and sister came before him, two younger brothers and two younger sisters came after him. To support the Reyes family his father took on myriad jobs, from a machinist shaping metal to a janitor at Southland sausage maker, Hoffy's. His mother stayed at home, but often woke up early to make and sell homemade tortillas to nearby factory workers for extra income.
When the family first arrived, they first settled with Reyes' grandparents in Cypress Park, in a house across what is now King Taco. It was a hamburger fast food stop for truck drivers then. The family then squeezed into a one-bedroom triplex in in Lincoln Heights and lived there for about eight years.
"My first language was Spanish," says Reyes, "I only learned English from watching television." When their youngest was born, the family finally moved into a three-bedroom house back in Cypress Park. Reyes' parents continue to live in the home today.
"We lived a double life," says Reyes, recalling his youth. Under his parents' watchful eyes, he and his siblings learned respect and courtesy, but outside he was introduced to the hard realities of the streets, especially along Avenue 26, where he used to play. One neighbor was an addict that regularly shot up. A playmate's parents were part of a street gang. "The kids from the Clover gang family were always very aggressive, yet I still remember them wanting to enjoy the basic joys of playing sports out on the street -- although you had to watch your back."
His eldest brother often found himself cast in the role of protector, as the brood walked from Sacred Heart Elementary School in Lincoln Heights to Cypress Park. "We had to traverse three gang territories to get home," says Reyes. Once his eldest brother was stabbed in the leg while protecting his younger brother, who was in first grade then. It was always safer to travel in groups.
One summer, when Ed was 9 or 10, and his brother was 12 or 13, they tried to make friends at the local playground on Poplar Street. "Every time we ventured into the basketball court, the local kids would want to fight," says Reyes. His older brother would take on two or three kids at a time. Though his brother often got the upper hand, after a few more incidents, they decided their attempt at friendship wasn't worth it. "Suddenly, we couldn't play anymore. It wasn't even fun to play." Soon, it became almost a dare to step foot in the playgrounds. No one could ever tell who would show up.
Instead of venturing in this no-man's land of a recreation area, Reyes and his brothers took to the hills, hiking up from Chaucer Street to Isabel Street. From there, Reyes got a tantalizing glimpse of the Los Angeles River, glistening come hither. Enticed by its idyllic appearance, Reyes negotiated their way down to the river.
Riding their custom stingray bikes with metal flake banana seats, sissy bars emblazoned with peace signs, and high handlebars with long forks, the Reyeses negotiated through speeding cars on San Fernando Road and chain link fences blocking off the active rail yard. They dodged trains cars that moved and didn't move, as well as keep out of sight of rail yard workers. Eventually, they faced a barbed wire, found its weak link and crossed into a secret garden, a playground where there was nobody to fear.
Day after day, they would return to the river. "We were always competing to see who could stay on their bikes the longest as we skidded down the sleek cement slope of the riverbank," recalls Reyes with relish.
Lacking swimming pools in the neighborhood, he played swam in the river water. He jumped off the boulders into the deep section of the river they had discovered. It went on until the day he found out how dirty it could be. (He found a rotting animal carcass in the water that summer and never returned to swim). Despite the macabre discovery, he returned a few more summers hence, spending days catching tadpoles and catfish by the riverbanks, calmed by the sound of rushing water and chirping birds. "It was our sanctuary," says Reyes, "When we were there, we couldn't hear the cars. We didn't worry about the streets."
His pastoral experience by the river was an epiphany. It provided Reyes a hazy roadmap that would return to him decades after those summer days were gone. It was a picture of what could be possible for thousands of Angelenos that, until then, spend their days surrounded by the industrial buildings and hard cement.
Story continues -- read Part 2: Concrete Change