Unidad Campaign puts the “Public” back into “Public Meeting”

Tonight the City of Los Angeles held a scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report on the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. Community Plan. Exciting, right? You’re on the edge of your seats…

Usually there are a handful of people at these meetings. Some men and women in suits. Maybe a handful of people in the community with the time and the money and the training to look into the issues and show up. They represent an incredibly small slice of the community interest, and generally a conservative one.

Tonight was different though. First, a lot of people showed up. A lot.  People not usually at this sort of bureaucratically mind-boggling morass of legal and environmental jargon, why would they be here? It is designed to preserve the facade of participation while keeping people out, to ensure planning is left to the experts who can then do whatever they want to do. These experts spent decades removing almost all services and cutting funding to everything left; tearing down homes to build factories; permitting liquor stores, hourly motels, and strip clubs to march side by side with schools, parks, churches. They used planning to devastate the neighborhood with one hand, and withheld any sort of aid to struggling organizations with the other. The war zone that breaks my heart every day has been the result. And in spite of them, in spite of an absence of jobs and hope, in spite of the crack explosion of an earlier decade and the constant battle of drugs and turf that claims our youth, in spite of high rents for slum housing so overcrowded that people sleep in bathtubs and their beds in shifts, in spite of all this we have created some things that are beautiful. And the goal seems to be to plunk down a lot of high end retail and luxury housing on top of that, pushing people from one slum where they have managed to build networks and community to another that is unknown. At least, that’s what has been happening to date with the city bending over in its eagerness to facilitate it.

So people stood up tonight to reclaim the place of the public in a public meeting. To demand that the city recognize decades of racism, greed and neglect that have resulted in a devastated community. To reclaim their right to continue to live in that community even as they fight to improve it. And to reclaim the word environment…when was it reduced to spotted owls, air quality, density, parking and green space? It is all of these things and they are all important, but how can it not also include the buildings, the people who live within them, and the conditions in which they live?

So it was a meeting of righteous anger, of stories that could make you cry, of great applause for all of the community speakers. And comedy of course. You’d really think that planners would be overjoyed at this break in a life of regulated tedium! Monic gave a ringing list of all the groups and organizations present at the meeting and over 60 of us stood in a show of strength, so the Planning Department’s enforcer got snippy and said we had to “keep the agitation down.” I don’t think he knows what that word means precisely, but Jesus, who spoke next, promised to be gentle. Though perhaps you have to know Jesus to appreciate how funny that was. And then there was someone from the neighborhood council, one of those privileged people who always challenge my belief in the efficacy of direct democracy due to their terrifying ubiquity in all community institutions (I’ll let you imagine the kind of annoying person I mean to escape any libel charges). At any rate, she said she lived in a district that had been recommended for a historical preservation zone as the “18th Street HPOZ”…and then she continued (in shock horror) that she couldn’t BELIEVE that the city had called them that and she OF COURSE would never…ha! 18th street is, of course, one of the biggest L.A. gangs, so it’s just funny all the way around, but the thought of her identifying as 18th street had me rolling. And I wonder if the city planner actually had a sense of humor. No one actually laying down the law in an HPOZ (what colors you can paint your house, how high your fence can be, what windows can be used etc) has ever had one in my experience.

At any rate, it was a good and dare I say enjoyable evening that really shed some light on some of the structural inequality within our city, and perhaps will make a difference.

For folks who need details, LA’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) threshold guidelines actually do state that displacement and housing are environmental issues; that’s just been conveniently ignored even though I believe we have pointed it out before. They also look at overcrowding and excessive rent burden (sections C, D and J.2 for all you communities under fire).

For more information or to get involved in an amazing effort you can contact the Unidad/ Unity campaign, unidadcampaign@gmail.com. You can also check out http://www.saje.net, or do some reading on the work of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice.

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