Green alleys to take root in South LA

Walk down an alley in South Los Angeles and you can expect to see old furniture and scattered trash piled on cracked pavement. You’ll hear dogs barking incessantly and smell standing water. And you’ll rarely come across a fellow pedestrian. An environmental initiative currently in the works, however, seeks to change this reality by turning those neglected alleys into clean walkways sprouting with native plants.

“If residents see that their city is investing in them, we can really build a better quality neighborhood all around,” said Connie Llanos, spokeswoman for councilman Curren Price of the 9th District.

The Green Alley Program, slated to break ground late this year, will transform alleys of blight into welcoming open spaces. The Bureau of Sanitation partnered with city districts within South L.A. and the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit that develops parks throughout the nation, to spearhead the program.

Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in the nation, says a study by the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, with only 7.8 percent of the city devoted to open spaces. In other major cities like Chicago, according to the City of Chicago Green Alley Program website, 8.5 percent of land is devoted to park space. In low-income communities like South L.A.’s 9th District, the number of parks is significantly fewer, while the rate of poverty is among the highest in the city.

Meanwhile, South L.A. is home to the greatest percentage of the city’s alleys — nearly one third. That’s because South L.A. is one of the oldest parts of the city. At one time, alleys were used for garbage collection and goods deliveries as a way to reduce traffic on the main streets in the year’s following World War II. Today, because of the high poverty rate and the lack of a functional use for them, the alleys have become a place for drug dealing and other crimes, said Llanos.

“Right now [the alleys] are a tremendous eyesore,” Llanos said. “But we can utilize them and clean them up when we use them as a place for families to congregate and play.”

Two alleys have already been identified for transformation under the project. One is sandwiched between 53rd and 54th Streets in between San Pedro and Main streets. The other snakes between 51st and 52nd Streets between Towne and Avalon boulevards.

The alley between 53rd and 54th streets at San Pedro and Main streets is slated for transformation into a green space for residents to walk and play. | Jordyn Holman

The alley between 53rd and 54th streets at San Pedro and Main streets is slated for transformation into a green space for residents to walk and play. | Jordyn Holman

According to TPL, these alleys will be more ecologically friendly. Their new paving will allow rainwater to infiltrate the ground, preventing standing water. The permeable paving will also help nourish the fruit trees and native species that will be planted along the alleys, creating mini-parks. Streetlights and crosswalks will be added to ensure safe passage for pedestrians.

Planners hope the beautification improvements will encourage locals to get out of doors. Currently, several neighborhood organizations, like Challengers Boys and Girls Club of America, run their programs indoors because of safety concerns.

Challengers offers athletic programs and academic support to children in South L.A. The group’s building and its amenities give children a place to play that’s safer than they could find outdoors, said Diane Jones, director of development.

“Everything else is gloom and doom,” Jones said, referring to the surrounding community of Jefferson Park and West Adams. “The community needs someplace where [people] can walk and feel safe.” As it is, she said, “No one is going to go outside and take a walk.”

Jones said the plan for more green spaces within South Los Angeles would enhance the wellbeing of the residents, particularly children.

“People need fresh air because it’s healthier — mentally, physically and emotionally,” Jones said.

The Green Alley Program is not the first ecologically friendly project to take root in the area. The program joins a growing list of more than 14 green initiatives aimed at improving residents’ quality of life. L.A. Audubon’s Baldwin Hills Program, which educates South Los Angeles teenagers about the local environment, is among them. Stacey Vigallon, program director, said exposure to healthy outdoor environments within the city limits is crucial.

“Green space and open space, especially in the city, is essential to physical fitness,” said Vigallon. “Plus, it also makes people more accountable to their community.”

Though green alleys may benefit the environment, many stakeholders believe the ultimate accomplishment will be increased interaction amongst neighbors. In order to maintain the alleys, Kjer said, residents will form “green teams,” which will be responsible, along with the city, for the upkeep of their nearby alleys.

Kjer believes this element will be crucial in building stronger community ties.

“People who might not have talked to one another or paid attention to their community before are now active and paying attention to cleanup and taking ownership of their community into their own hands,” Kjer said.

Though TPL and the city are currently focused on rolling out the program solely in South L.A., planners believe the impact of the green alleys will extend far beyond the area. The Trust for Public Land said that, although not all of L.A.’s alleys will get a full renovation, many will be improved in some way.

“There are 900 miles of alleys in Los Angeles,” Kjer said. “Green alleys should become the standard.”

One of the alleys slated for greening:

Challengers Boys and Girls Club: 

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Six fitness zones designated in South LA

imageOn a clear morning, Esthela Jimenez brought her family to the park.

It was a warm day, but despite the glaring sun, they settled in the area of the park that was the most exposed.

Situated in a 1,200 square foot zone, nine pieces of exercise equipment stood on decomposed, golden granite.

Jimenez’s son struggled to maneuver on an aerobic machine meant for those several years older, her husband worked up a sweat on the zone’s elliptical, and Jimenez walked between the nine machines, testing each one briefly.

For Jimenez, trips to the parks have become part of her daily schedule thanks to the “fitness zone.”

“Two weeks ago, I walked around and I saw these machines,” she said. “I think, ‘I’m going to come,’ and I’m here almost every day, twice a day.”

Jimenez is not alone.

On Jan. 16, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry dedicated the first of six fitness zones in South Los Angeles.

The fitness zones include weather-resistant exercise equipment for strength training and aerobic exercise.

The Trust for Public Land received funding from Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Eating, Active Living grants of $900,000 to be spent over three years for this equipment, as part of a park revitalization project.

The Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles also provided funding.

imageFrom their inception, these zones have made a splash in the community.

“[People are] on them the second the crew is done installing them,” said Pascaline Derrick, a project manager at the Trust for Public Land. “There’s usually people standing around waiting for their completion.”

And their popularity has not waned.

“I have personally come by here twice since we’ve had them up and operating early in the morning, and I’ve seen 20, 30, 40 people at a time,” said Mark Mariscal, the superintendent for the Pacific Region of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

George Zimmerman works out at a fitness zone three to four times a week. The 76-year-old South Los Angeles resident uses the equipment to strengthen his legs.

“With the kind of equipment they have here, I don’t have to go and get a membership at some club,” Zimmerman said. “You catch a lot of people who are overweight, need the exercise and can’t afford to go to a gym, so this is a convenience that we all need really.”

Mariscal estimated that the park usage has increased 300 to 400 percent since the zone’s installation and predicted that it will continue to grow.

Perry credited this overwhelming usage to the zones’ accessibility.

“They are easy to use, and anyone of any ability can get on there,” Perry said. “You don’t have to be in shape to get in shape.

“And they are actually fun.”

This ease of use is due to the isometric weight resistance of the machines. The equipment employs its users’ body weight to engage nine muscle groups.

But the zones’ accessibility extends beyond the equipment.

The Trust for Public Land chose the locations of the fitness zones because of their accessibility to parking and park resources.

In several parks, the zones reside next to playgrounds, encouraging parents to exercise while their children play.

“The parent and the child are both outdoors, exercising, really getting out of the chair, not watching TV… and they’re out doing physical activity which is great,” said Mariscal.

Many zones are placed within sight of the park administrative offices to address safety concerns.

Michael Goran, a professor in preventative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine’s Center for Childhood Obesity, said safety is a key consideration when assessing the success of the fitness zones.

“If they are in areas that are perceived to be safe, this could be a great help [in combating obesity],” Goran said. “You’d have to increase physical activity quite a bit to get any effects … you need to design the resource to make it more accessible to the public.”

imageOne of the effects to which Goran referred is a decrease in the obesity rates in the area.

Goran said the obesity rate is between 50 and 60 percent in communities of color. He estimated that rate is even higher in South Los Angeles.

In South Los Angeles’s 90007 and 90011 zip codes, up to 37 percent of children are overweight. That percentage soars to 54 percent when it comes to children who are not physically fit, according to the Healthy Eating Active Communities project.

Mariscal said these childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past 20 years.

“We see it at our rec centers, where we see a lot of inactivity from kids,” Mariscal said. He noted that some children are not able to complete the walk from school to the recreation centers without “huffing and puffing.”

“We’ve placed [the fitness zones] in places of high need where we have a big population of residents who are obese and who have diabetes and hypertension,” Derrick said.

The Trust for Public Land’s consideration of South Los Angeles proves a great resource for the area, said Perry.

“We are battling disproportionate statistics on obesity,” Perry said. “But this is an opportunity for South L.A. to address these issues in an upbeat and positive way and as a family.”

This story is part of a collaboration between and Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report.

Photo credit: Christine Trang