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South East L.A. Reclaims Its Part of the Los Angeles River

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It's Saturday night and a small group forms underneath a freeway overpass of the 710 and 105 freeway interchange in the city of Lynwood. The steady hum of the power generator used to power the event and the traffic zooming by overhead is magnified underneath the freeway, but people chat comfortably as they park their bikes. Along the bike path, swarms of bike lights and helmets approach from the north and the south through the balmy night, as others finish setting up a photography display. On the other side of the bike path, a group of kids play on a hill of rocks. The rocks stop short of a tall concrete wall that seems to block nothing and lead to nowhere. A boy, about eight years old, asks a little girl with a head full of curly hair "It's pretty cool here right? Have you seen the river yet?" "No," she answers, "Where's the river? I want to see!" Right over that tall concrete wall was just one small section of the expansive 51-mile-long Los Angeles River.

The event, #ReclaimingtheLAriver, was a guerrilla-style, bike-in film screening and photography exhibit organized by East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ). The event aimed to "reclaim the dignity and respect of the L.A. River for the South Los Angeles river communities." On display was photography and films created by participants in the EYCEJ Youth Summer Program that reflected how the river is experienced by the artists and those in the community. "Barrios de los Rios," a documentary by UCLA freshman Jocelyn del real Jimenez, included interviews of 15 people near the river. Among those interviewed was an older woman who spoke in Spanish of how her health issues pushed her to start walking the L.A. River Bike Path near her home. A group of young boys spoke of how they've played near the river as far back as they can remember, before taking off on a race up the river on scooter and on foot. Another man spoke of how he uses the bike path to commute to and from work. He said the route is convenient, but mentioned that the bike path needs gets dangerous after dark and attracted the danger to the lack of lighting.

A freeway overpass at the edge of the L.A. River is both an unlikely and perfect place to have an exhibition and screening. Photo courtesy of EYCEJ.
A freeway overpass at the edge of the L.A. River is both an unlikely and perfect place to have an exhibition and screening. Photo courtesy of EYCEJ.

On this night, attendees gathered on the river after sundown in celebration, rather than fear. "That was where part of the power for this event came from. If you come after dark, there is a chance you could get robbed at knife or gun point, so we wanted to reclaim this space at night," said Mark Lopez, executive director for EYCEJ.

Festive Christmas lights snake through the chain link fence before the cement wall that supports the freeway, where two photos of the L.A. River were displayed. One was of a derelict abandoned space, with trash and debris, while the other showed well-lit, clean, paved river free of trash. Hugo Lujan, community organizer with EYCEJ, addresses the group. "One photo is of the river in Southeast L.A., the other is of the river somewhere in the north," said Lujan. "If you go to Glendale or Hollywood the river looks completely different, here there are no resources coming to clean up the river. We want to make sure that the resources available are attributed to our communities because we see the worst impact of the environmental injustices and we want to see the benefits as well."

The 710 Freeway, formerly known as the L.A. River Freeway, runs alongside the river from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the 10 Freeway. Though this stretch of the river runs along an essential corridor that connects the center of Los Angeles to the ports, ultimately connecting Angelenos to their goods, it has remained largely eclipsed by the popular and political efforts that have drawn so much attention to the portion of the river that runs through the City of Los Angeles proper.

Lujan and other organizers in South East L.A. are working with greater urgency to address health, safety, and environmental concerns that have only mounted since the 710 Freeway was constructed. Transit along the 710 Freeway has reached its saturation point, with goods and passenger movement along the freeway higher than ever. The problem will only be exacerbated with port traffic expected to triple by 2035. CalTrans' plans for the I-710 Corridor Project to modernize the freeway is expected to break ground in 2020 and aims to address the problems of congestion, cargo container growth and the freeway's aging infrastructure. Plans outlined in the 2012 Environmental Impact Report include a rapid bus service that may include a dedicated bus-only lane and widening of the freeway from eight to as many as 14 lanes, including a "Freight Corridor" with options for zero-emission "e-highways," designed for electric-powered trucks only --it would be the first of its kind. As for the river, modifications may be made to existing pump stations, new pump stations added and potential locations may be identified for detention basins and biofiltration swales.

But more than just serving as a marker for a pathway for vehicles, the river is also used by people who live nearby or travel through. Better lighting along the bike path is just one of the many community recommendations drawn up for the Community Alternative 7 (CA7) by the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice, which includes EYCEJ and other community organizations from cities that lie along the 710 corridor. CA7 was created by the coalition to meet the needs of local residents and has been pushed during the public comment period of the project's study. Elements of the CA7 include: no widening of general purpose lanes, a mandatory zero-emission corridor, and a public/private partnership operator of the zero-emission corridor and L.A. River improvements.

With more than 50,000 heavy-duty trucks traveling from the ports to distribution centers and intermodal rail facilities on the 710 Freeway everyday, the predominantly Latino communities of Southeast L.A. disproportionately suffer the effects of air pollution which is linked to asthma, heart disease and cancer. To address health issues in the area, CA7 suggests filtration systems be implemented in homes near the freeway. Lopez said that apart from a zero-emission corridor, improvements along the bike path, could benefit the health of the local community while making the river an active alternative transportation corridor by extending bike lanes to connect to Compton Creek and Rio Hondo, as well as other major streets. To address the lack of green space in the area, they hope to see the river transformed into a green belt that links the parks in the area.

"For about two years, community members from East L.A. all the way down to Long Beach were engaged in a series of workshops to understand the public process, but then we flipped it to imagining what could be done. Folks want to show their relationship to the river, the value of the river. Decision-makers, agencies and CalTrans look at the river as just a canal, but for us this is a vibrant community. A community that needs to be invested in," said Hugo Lujan.

Although SB811 --which would have required that CA7 be considered as a new EIR was drafted-- was quashed when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in October 2013, support for CA7 remains. In July, the Gateway Cities Council of Governments proposed a Livability Initiative to the I-710 Technical Advisory Committee. The Livability Initiative is being used to achieve the improvements that are not already outlined in the 710 Corridor Project and that fall outside of CalTrans' jurisdiction through build alternatives or mitigation. The Livability Initiative recommends aligning river improvements with San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy's Master Plan for the L.A. River which was passed by the State Assembly in June. The Livability Initiative remains in its early stages and the COG is currently seeking support from outside stakeholders to move it forward.

Updated engineering and environmental studies of the five alternatives recommended by CalTrans are expected to be completed this Fall and circulated for public review at the end of the year. Project approval is expected for the end of 2017, but until then EYCEJ plans to continue to push Metro to support CA7, said Hugo Lujan.

The EYCEJ plans to present their recommendations at future board Metro Board meetings and during the public review process of the next circulation of the Revised Environmental Impact Report, which is slated for circulation late 2016. EYCEJ holds regular meetings with members in other cities along the 710, and holds meetings with general community members monthly. He addresses the crowd that has free veggie burritos provided by the local Food Not Bombs in hand and reminds them of the Metro Board meeting that is happening later this month. "We have a way to connect the project to the river, so if there's resources that are coming in to the 710, and we need to let them know that some of those resources need to stay to improve our communities," said Lujan.

Underneath the bridge, people start packing up tables and chairs. The projector is put away, the Christmas lights come down and as the red bike lights disappear back out into the night. And though the space under the bridge becomes pitch black once again, each of the attendees carries a rekindled commitment to reclaiming the river and bringing to light their visions for this waterway that is so intimately part of their communities and their lives.

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