Battling Absentee Owners in South LA

Anti-Eviction campaigners put a little ‘sweat equity’ into South LA neighborhood

Adam Rice, co-chair of the Los Angeles Anti-Eviction Campaign, and organizer Callie Little, pick up trash in a South LA alley. Their goal, along with residents, is to clean the alley and hopefully turn it into a garden or place where children can play.

Adam Rice, co-chair of the Los Angeles Anti-Eviction Campaign, and organizer Callie Little, pick up trash in a South LA alley. Their goal, along with residents, is to clean the alley and hopefully turn it into a garden or place where children can play.

Adam Rice is standing at the mouth of an alley in South Los Angeles. His long copper-blond hair is pulled back and around his neck is a breathing mask. He is sweaty from hours of picking up the dusty filth that completely fills the alley — discarded lumber, old carpets, paint cans, tires, pizza boxes and feces. And from the looks of things, after four hours of work, Rice and his equally exhausted companions have hardly made a dent in their task.

“People want a safe environment,” he says. “Well, this is a fucking health hazard. Kids can’t play back here. This is a breeding ground for rats and roaches.”

Several weeks ago, the Los Angeles Anti-Eviction Campaign (LAAEC), an organization that Rice co-chairs, began canvassing the neighborhood around 98th and Wall streets to learn what residents were concerned about, besides crime and violence. The alley, which lies between 98th and 99th streets to the north and south and Main and Wall streets to the west and east, continued to come up in conversation.

The cleaning began on Saturday, November 9. With the help of City Councilmember Bernard Parks’ office, LAAEC was able to obtain shovels, hoes, rakes and brooms from the city. Even a small dump truck was provided, and with only a half-day’s work in, they managed to fill a 40-yard dumpster to the brim.

cleanup-355“This is a ridiculous job,” says Rice. “We couldn’t have done this without the city.”

LAAEC’s outreach in the community began last year when they attempted to keep Cathlene Hughes, an elderly resident, in her home from Colony Realty which was attempting to evict her. LAAEC and Hughes argued her foreclosure was fraudulent because her bank inflated the value of her property on her home loan and she was never informed the interest on her mortgage was adjustable. Hughes was evicted by the LAPD in late July. But, despite its loss, LAAEC never left the neighborhood and continued to campaign against evictions.

The problem with the alley, explains Rice, has much to do with the foreclosure crisis. As police cleansed the neighborhood of foreclosed homeowners through evictions, the suits-and-ties scooped up cheap houses and became the new slumlords of post-Great Recession LA. To make matters worse, the alleys are no longer tended to by the city’s Lot Cleaning Division. The alleys, which are gated and locked off, are supposed to be cleaned by the homeowners. But, when the new homeowners don’t live in their houses, neglect creeps into the scenario.

cleanup-354“This is on the landlords; this is supposed to be done by the owners,” says Rice. “All those things that make a community horrible are exemplified in this alley.”

As volunteers work, dust plumes up into the air as garbage is torn from the grips of overgrown grass and loaded into trash bags and wheelbarrows. A man wearing a white cowboy hat uses a machete and an electric power saw to remove shrubbery that hugs the trash like covetous octopuses.

Members of LAAEC are not alone in their effort. Those who live in the houses they own, along with a few renters, are helping LAAEC. In total, the burden of cleaning the alley falls upon a dozen or so people.

Brenda Muñoz, 22, and her brother, Adan, 11, are helping clean along with their father. They recently moved to the neighborhood from Mid-City where they grew up. It has been difficult getting used to their new surroundings. Muñoz says they hear a lot of gunshots at night and don’t leave the house after 8 p.m.

Adan Muñoz, 11, lends a hand. His family recently moved into the neighborhood. He would like to see the alley behind their home become a garden.

Adan Muñoz, 11, lends a hand. His family recently moved into the neighborhood. He would like to see the alley behind their home become a garden.

“I went to the liquor store once and I saw these guys fighting,” she says, leaning against a rake. “I was looking for graph paper for my little brother’s homework — it’s really hard to find graph paper here.”

“It is?” asks a surprised Adan.

“It is,” she says. “It is hard to even find paper. In Mid-City, all the utensils we needed for school, or any supplies we needed for that matter, were just around the corner. And here, you have to travel. It’s quite a bit of a drive.”

Muñoz says she never walks around the neighborhood. She knew there was an alley to the back of her family’s house, but hadn’t really looked at it until now. Adan chimes in and says he looked at it once. When the alley is cleaned up, she hopes it could be used as a garden.

“I’m hoping we plant more fruit,” she says.

“And vegetables,” adds Adan.

LAAEC members and residents make use of a city truck provided to them with the help of City Councilmember Bernard Parks’ office on Nov. 9.

LAAEC members and residents make use of a city truck provided to them with the help of City Councilmember Bernard Parks’ office on Nov. 9.

“If we can get that going, that would be awesome — no more grocery shopping,” she says.

The idea of using the alley for gardening, according to LAAEC, is popular among neighbors. The group hopes to have the soil tested in the alley after it is cleaned up. The results of the test will determine what will become of the project. If the soil is unsuitable for gardening, there is the option to grow flowers or turn the alley into a park.

Alberto Guttierrez, who lives across the street, is helping clean up the alley too. He works as a mechanic for a car rental company in Beverly Hills. He has pictures of himself sitting in a Lamborghini car that he worked on.

Guttierrez came to the U.S. from El Salvador in the early 1980s. He’s lived in his house for 23 years. He remembers when the city took care of the alleys, which, by his recollection, stopped about 10 years ago. His alley is one of the few clean ones in the neighborhood.

cleanup-351“I take responsibility,” he says about cleaning his alley with a mixture of pride and helplessness. “I go out there with my containers and fill them with trash.”

As the day progresses, the work is hard, but people’s spirits are high. The dumpster is filling fast again. There is probably two days worth of work left before LAAEC is ready for soil testing. Rice practically beams when he sees their progress.

“This is really cool. I’m happy,” he says, laughing.

Rice gets excited about community outreach too. He enjoys talking to people who walk by and inquire about the alley. Even if they don’t talk to him, he still reaches out and invites them. After all, he figures, it’s their neighborhood, not the investors. He says investors just slap a coat of paint on a house to avoid citations, but do nothing for the structure of the house.

“Investors don’t have an investment in the community,” he says. “This is exploitation. And, that’s what we are fighting against, that’s our mission statement: Build a culture of self-defense against the exploitation of poor and oppressed communities.

“Land is for use by the people using it. Sweat equity is what earns land. That is why this country is so fucked up, because everything is a commodity. Land, health care, food, clothing are not commodities. They are basic human needs. You can’t sell and trade basic human needs without your society crumbling, like ours is now.”

dan-bluemel-175Rice laughs and apologizes for getting fiery and preachy. He lights a cigarette and walks off. Nearby is Callie Little, a LAAEC organizer. She is taking a break from working and speaking to a woman who is holding her child and watching the cleaning. Behind a fence adjacent to the alley, a small dog barks incessantly against its newly altered surroundings. Little explains to the woman their project. Compared to Rice, who becomes passionate and animated when discussing the plight of poor communities, Little’s style is gentle and subdued. Hers is a simple statement, but resonant in its purity.

“This is a neighborhood space,” she says, “and people should be able to use it.”

Dan Bluemel
L.A. Activist

Photographs: Dan Bluement/L.A. Activist

Sunday, 16 November 2013

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