By Randal Henry and Manal Aboelata-Henry
As parents guide their kids to school on foot, the family experiences the joys of living in a walkable neighborhood. They soon launch Crenshaw Walks to encourage others to join.
It’s 7:20 AM on a brisk, sunny Monday in South L.A. Brothers Taj and Sadiq check the ‘‘velcro’’ on their hushpuppies and take one last look to make sure lunch pails and homework folders are tucked into their backpacks. Check. Off they go to the nearest Metro Station, about a 12 minute walk. Many people walk in our neighborhood, so most days, Taj and Sadiq say hello to other Crenshaw Manor walkers or talk to their parents along the way.
If the car traffic on Coliseum St. isn’t too heavy and the lights at Crenshaw and Rodeo are just right, they’ll stroll up the platform just in time for the 7:40 train. They might even have an extra moment to find a penny someone’s left behind at the TAP machine. Some days they get stuck waiting for a lull in the steady stream of cars at an unmarked crosswalk at Coliseum or the light at Crenshaw won’t turn until they’ve seen the eastbound train bolt through the intersection. In that case, they wait for the 7:52 train. But, either way, the 7 minute train ride will get them to school well in time for their 8:05 bell.
Taj and Sadiq have always loved all manner of transportation and the train ride is a dream come true. When they were babies, their parents used to push their double-stroller down the then fruit-tree filled future EXPO train line. Two years ago, they watched the tracks as they were being laid. From their car seats, they watched the daily train tests, wondering when it would be open for them. The sign advertised: Metro Expo line coming in 2012. They rode the train the very first day it was open, today the train is part of their daily commute, and they have ridden rain or shine for the last two years. The ride is an opportunity to read, to watch all the cars pile up at the stoplights, or chat with an acquaintance. Best, they’re familiar faces on the 7:40 train recognized by train operators, passengers and Metro personnel.
“Now arriving: Expo Park-USC station. Exit here for the California Science Center, the Natural History Museum, The California African American Museum and USC” blares the pre-recorded message. Taj closes his book. Sadiq rises to exit. The boys make sure their parents are with them and head out the train in a throng of passengers. Most are headed toward USC. A smaller handful wait as cars zoom across the extra wide, bright yellow striped crosswalk separating two lanes of eastbound traffic whizzing toward Figueroa and the 110. The light changes signaling its’ time to cross. Taj and Sadiq crane their heads to the right for one last look. No red light runners today. They cross toward the stand of stately trees with their exposed, smooth roots that front the Rose Garden and the architectural gem that is the California Science Center.
Often, Taj and Sadiq footrace or cartwheel their way up the wide sidewalk while their parents amble behind. The trucks and cars are especially loud on this stretch – everyone shouts their “I spy…” clues to be heard. It’s been a while since they’ve seen anyone sleeping on the benches flanking the side entrance to the park or eating from the garbage can. But for one while, the boys would utter many hushed questions wondering why people had to sleep outside, under blankets on benches. Last year, a man was camped out for several days on the lawn outside the Rose Garden and didn’t bother to find a proper bathroom when he needed one, instead he used the area right next to his blanket, they couldn’t help but whisper, “eeeeewwww” to each other. Heading east past the park, they stay toward the right, taking care as best they can to avoid bicyclists heading in the opposite direction, but once in a while they jump into the other ‘lane’ of sidewalk to pounce on the remnants of Olympic stars painted on the asphalt along Exposition.
At Figueroa, they turn the busy corner –their last little stretch before arriving at the school gate. “Wow! It’s clean” Sadiq takes note. The plants have been trimmed and a lot of litter has been picked up. Here, most parents are darting toward the drop off point. One, in a particular rush, lets her son down and he jumps into the planter, dodging tall grasses before crossing a little blocked side shunt that’s usually blocked by cones. Phew…the bell will ring soon.
Thanks to the efforts of the new principal, Taj and Sadiq now enter through a pedestrian gate that opens to face Figueroa instead of following the cars’ path and entering along the driveway. A small consideration for the young walkers, this shaves 90 seconds and a hundred steps from their morning commute. Arrived, they open their arms to provide their parents with goodbye hugs and kisses. “I love you mommy,” “I love you daddy.” “Have a great day” we all say as we switch pairs to make sure we’ve all gotten our proper good-byes.
With kids off to school, the parents take each other’s hands and stroll back to the train for the ride and walk home before another day’s work begins. This is our time. We feel so fortunate to be together. It’s so much better than driving the kids to school. My husband asks me, “What are we going to do for our morning walk when our kids graduate?” It’s a great question. This walk has become a morning ritual, a constitutional. Quality time. Will we be able to find a suitable junior high our kids can walk to? Will they even want us to walk with them? (We pretend that the answer to that second question will be “yes” right through college.)
The truth is, we are fortunate. While we were deliberate about choosing a walkable neighborhood to establish our household, we got lucky. Without a crystal ball, which we did not have when we moved into our home 12 years ago, we would’ve never guessed that our lovely, culturally diverse, well-maintained neighborhood would become the focal point for Metro’s new build out first at Crenshaw and Exposition and later down Crenshaw towards LAX. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago we used to push our babies in their strollers along the abandoned rail line and examine the plants and fruit trees that were along the once used tracks.
But the other thing is, we were also really purposeful about establishing a home in a neighborhood where we could be active. Even if we didn’t articulate it at the time, finding a walkable community to move into was really important to us. We both love to walk and we have for a long time. Randy’s spent various times in his life living car free. (Yes, in Los Angeles.) He’s run and/or walked over a dozen marathons. We’ve walked a half marathon together.
In fact, when we met back in 1998, one of Randy’s jobs as an Epidemiology Analyst for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Injury and Violence Prevention Program was to be the preschool pedestrian safety coordinator, Safety Sam. When we were dating, he used to joke that we shouldn’t jaywalk. The headlines: “Injury prevention professional struck at midblock” just wouldn’t do. In 2004, Manal became certified by Caltrans and the California Department of Public Health as a Walkable Communities Expert, which has given me the opportunity to facilitate workshops in neighborhoods, like Watts, Harbor Gateway, Baldwin Park and the Fashion District, where people want to create their visions for safer, more health, more business-friendly communities. Wherever we’ve lived, whether it was by the beach or by the hills, we’ve always loved the meditation of long walks.
With our children a little bit older and much more physically capable of the walks than when we first started, we have a little more time and energy to devote toward walking. Not just as a family, but for our neighborhood. We see a real opportunity and a lot of creative people in the community who share our vision. That’s why we’re launching Crenshaw WALKS to increase walking, biking and active transportation in the Crenshaw Community and along the Crenshaw Corridor, connect neighbors in the joy of walking, and to create a focal point for safe and healthy walking in our community. Let’s walk!
Crenshaw residents Randal Henry and Manal Aboelata-Henry are the founders of a fitness and walking advocacy group called “Crenshaw Walks.” Follow their latest news on Facebook, and support the endeavor by buying walk-friendly apparel at crenshawwalks.org.