This is part of a series: All Roads Lead to Boyle Heights in collaboration with NewsDesk.org.
As summer temperatures rise, so do fears of asthma and other illnesses caused by all the air pollution converging on the east Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights.
With its proximity to freeways, industrial sites and shipping corridors, activists say the geography of Boyle Heights brings a disproportionate health burden to residents.
Determined to reduce the adverse health effects caused by air pollution, residents and activists of this historically immigrant community are taking proactive and innovative measures to improve their environment.
“It’s a low-income, mostly transit-dependent community, there’s a lot of walking that happens, there are a lot of people that are out, being mobile through that pollution,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, associate director at the Alliance for a Better Community.
Rodriguez said Boyle Heights wasn’t designed for a mix of residential and industrial uses, nor the density of traffic it bears today.
News about Boyle Heights in Los Angeles tends to be about crime or gentrification. There’s little coverage of air pollution, lack of safe and green spaces, lack of access to affordable and healthy food options — or the residents and organizations that are determined to change this.
On April 5, the East LA Community Corporation gathered community members to discuss the Boyle Heights Clean Air pilot project in which residents will collect data on local pollution and health risks.
“People really want to engage with us. They want to mobilize, act, and learn more,” said Lina Stepick, community organizing fellow at ELACC.
In January, the Clean Up Green Up campaign was launched and proposed to bring greener industries and jobs to “toxic hot spot” communities where concentrations of environmental hazards have resulted in high levels of health risks, including cancer and asthma. Clean Up Green Up is led by Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for a Safe Environment, Pacoima Beautiful and Union de Vecinos.
“We know that Boyle Heights is very polluted and it’s a concern in our community. The children have asthma and there are more and more illnesses. We don’t know if it has to do with the pollution, the freeways, and the cars and trucks in our community,” said Angela Gutierrez, a volunteer at Union de Vecinos and White Memorial Hospital.
A mostly working class Latino neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River and north of the industrial city of Vernon, Boyle Heights has long been home to immigrant families, rich social capital and strong civic engagement.
It also has experienced generations of environmental inequality.
In the summer of 2006, The Southeast Regional Energy Center proposed building a 943-megawatt fossil fuel power plant that would emit approximately 1.7 million pounds of toxic pollution per year as well as 2.8 million tons of green house gases. The plant would have affected the communities living in the six-mile radius around the proposed 27-acre site on the southeast corner of Boyle and Fruitland Avenues in Vernon.
Residents and organizations from surrounding communities, including Boyle Heights, formed an alliance and fought against the proposed project for three years. In 2009, Vernon abandoned its plan.
The alliance led mostly by immigrant Latinas, youth, and supported by several organizations including Mother’s of East Los Angeles, Resurrection Church and Communities for a Better Environment was a victory for low-income communities across the country that are suffering from political, economic and social inequities.
“Environmental issues are just one of many issues of structural inequality faced by poor people of color. You can’t understand this issue as separate from the attacks on undocumented immigrants, inequality in schools, housing, and employment, police brutality, cultural language repression, all of the facets of people’s repression,” said Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.
New community collaborations in Los Angeles are giving young people a leading role in improving their neighborhoods.
Youth are setting goals and organizing action in the Los Angeles communities of Boyle Heights, City Heights, Coachella, Long Beach, Santa Ana and South Los Angeles — many convening over a recent weekend for a meeting of the Building a Healthy Boyle Heights Collaborative at a local computer access and education center.
News about Boyle Heights tends to be about crime, but young residents see it differently.
“Violence isn’t the biggest issue in Boyle Heights. I see health as the biggest issue right now — lack of healthy food and exercise. Diabetes and obesity are big problems in our community. Seeing my dad struggle with diabetes motivates me to exercise everyday so that I don’t have those problems,” said Carlos Jimenez, a Building Healthy Communities youth leader and volunteer with Proyecto Pastoral, which provides low-income community services in Boyle Heights.
Participants also joined in the 22nd Annual L.A. River Clean-Up, attended workshops on social-movement history, media and “Organizing 101″ — and developed their own workshops and priority issues, such as “access to healthy food options” and “reclaiming public spaces,” for a statewide convening on June 24.
The program “has been very empowering for the youth and assists in helping change behavior that would ultimately affect their health. They are identifying issues and making healthier choices in their lives,” said Eric Hubbard, director of development at Jovenes, Inc., an organization working to bring opportunities to disenfranchised youth and families to become active and integrated members of the community.
Building a Healthy Boyle Heights is the collaborative of organizations working through this initiative to outline and prioritize outcomes for the community based on resident and youth response. Most recently residents selected the outcomes chosen by the youth as first priority.
“Being involved in Building a Healthy Boyle Heights, one of the lessons that I walked away with was that community efforts — while they seem very extensive and complicated — do work. When you work with the community and create advocates out of the community, they’re the ones that really make the choices that ultimately become the right choices for the community. They’re the ones that bring progress into the community,” said Lucia Torres, director of Proyecto Pastoral’s academic-support program.
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