Can South LA alleys become pedestrian-friendly parks?

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This is your typical South LA alley: The pavement’s crumbling, lots of graffiti, some scattered garbage, dogs yipping at any sound of footsteps. You might see panhandlers or the occasional group of teens walking home from school but few people use the alleys as thoroughfares.

There’s a lot more activity at night, according to LAPD Officer Daniel Marrufo.

“Whether it be prostitution, drug use, drug sales, there’s been homicides. You name it, it occurs in these alleys,” Marrufo said. “Couches, beds, people will really dump whatever they can get away with, so someone drops a bed and a couch, and someone sees it and says ‘Well, I’m going to dump my stuff.’  Next thing you know, some homeless will move in and they’re using the couch and bed, now it’s completely blocked off,” he said.

Not exactly the kind of place you’d want to, say, go jogging — yet. But community activists are hoping to change that. Advocates of an ambitious Green Alleys plan hope to turn blighted back alleys into pedestrian parks. This could have public health benefits for South LA, which has fewer public parks than any other urban area in Southern California. Being “park poor” is linked to all sorts of health problems since residents don’t have places for recreation.

The alley between 53rd and 54th streets near the intersection of Main Street and another at 52nd St. and Avalon Blvd. were chosen for the “Green Alleys” pilot project. Sponsors plan to spend more than a million dollars on each. They’ll add lighting, public art, plants and permeable pavement to help catch rainwater.

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Trash in an alley near East 23rd St. and San Pedro Street (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
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The alley at 52nd and Avalon Blvd., one of the two chosen for the Green Alleys pilot. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The City Council approved a motion submitted by Councilman Curren D. Price Jr.  They could break ground this year on one of the two alleys. More importantly, if the effort is successful it could be recreated in other parts of the South LA.

The Trust for Public Land, whose motto is “Parks for People” organized nearby schools, residents and others to draw up the plan.

“The opportunity for recreation and exercise are really connected to the alleys and sidewalks and the streets,” said Laura Ballock, Trust for Public Land’s program director. She said a lot of the parents in these neighborhoods work full time and a lot of the activity comes from the daily routine of a busy life. “That could be carrying groceries from the grocery store to home, pushing strollers and taking kids to different activities,” Bullock said.

She wants to make the alleys off limits to cars, and open to pedestrians, cyclists and yes, joggers.

Artist rendering of the Avalon alley project (SALT Landscape Architects) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Artist rendering of the other side of the Avalon project (SALT Landscape Architects) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Los Angeles has enough alleys to make for quite a workout — 900 linear miles in total. That’s enough pavement to run 34 marathons. If you laid these alleys side by side it’d be 3 square miles — twice the size of New York’s Central park.

So why did we build a network of pavement that’s so rarely used?

“To get services off the street,” said Mona Seymour, an associate professor of urban studies at Loyola Marymount. “Trash pick-up off the street, making a space for people delivering milk and coal or other supplies to people’s homes to do that out of view of the street. And to make our streets neater and hide our messy aspects of life around back.”

It was a design feature popular in post-World War II urban planning, when South LA was booming. That may explain why more than one-fourth of the city’s alleys fall in South LA— 239 miles. Picture 239 miles of park space and you can see why this appeals to activists.

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The Trust for Public Land has spent four years building support among residents. They hold monthly meetings in Spanish at a nearby high school and lately they have been leading trash clean-ups.

Some alleys have already improved. But many look like urban jungle and others aren’t even open to the public. I saw half a dozen alleys that have been gated with padlocks. The bars help prevent illegal dumping, but they create another problem.

“It’s living space that right now is just being used for weeds and potholes,” said Rev. James Lee Walker, who lives in a leafy neighborhood of older homes near Leimert Park.

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Leimert Park resident James Lee Walker (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

On his block, the alleys are locked all the time except on trash day. “How nice if we could have a BBQ out here sometime, talk about the kids, bring out the dogs and let everybody see them, build some community,” Walker said.

The Trust for Public Land says the group has raised half the money needed for the two pilot projects. And they’re working on a master plan for all the alleys in South LA.

So what would it take to apply these ideas beyond the intersection of 53rd and Main?

“Well, lots of money,” said Seymour. “Lots of money and interest on behalf of residents as well.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the City Council was considering a motion on the Avalon Alley project but it was approved in November and the city’s Bureau of Sanitation is drawing up designs.