Episode 3, full transcript
Episode Three. Red Hot.
WARREN: When Spring replaces our mild Winter and then gives way to the Summer, it gets pretty hot in a lot of neighborhoods here in Southern California. But lately it’s hotter than ever. During the last August before COVID, I forgot about that. Went to the beach in my bare feet, and I felt like the comedy star Dudley Moore in that old movie “Ten”, dashing across the blistering sand to get into the water. Then came 2020, the hottest year on record, and there’s nothing funny about it.
WARREN: I’m Warren Olney and this is In Our Backyard, a six-part series about the local impacts of climate change in Southern California. We’ll start warming up by getting to the point indirectly, starting with one of humanity’s enduring questions.
Tim: How do you fall in love? Do you know? Do you know that?
WARREN: You’ll get a lot of different answers to that one. For Tim Watkins, it’s all tied up with his father...and his mother, who showed up after his Dad’s first wife died back in the late 1940’s.
Tim: She fell in love with my dad, my dad fell in love with her. It was around friendship. My father had been married, had two kids and his 22-year-old wife died from tuberculosis. And he was just a mess. He had to work and try to raise these two little boys that were two-and-a-half, three years old. And my mom saw him outside of a bank that she was going into with her sisters and saw these two little black boys, all rusty and dusty. And a conversation started. And they became friends. So they fell in love.
WARREN: Now, Tim is a second-generation resident of Watts in Central LA. He inherited leadership of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee from his father, Ted Watkins. Here’s more of Tim’s story about how love found a way for his parents and it wasn’t easy.
Tim: And, they got married and they got married. They had their first rude awakening that because she was white, they had to go to Mexico to get married.
WARREN: It was 1949. Even though anti-miscegenation laws had been ruled unconstitutional in California the year before, Tim’s loving parents didn’t really have many options.
Tim: So their marriage certificate is all in Espanol. And the picture that they took, you know, when you get married, there's a little picture parlor or whatever. The picture is them looking like they're in jail and looking out from the bars. It was sort of the two of them were against the world.
WARREN: When the newlyweds got back from Mexico, their lives were governed by other all too many other forms of racial discrimination. Mixed couples weren’t allowed to eat in a lot of restaurants, and when it came to finding a place to live? Tim cites the Black novelist and poet Arna Bontemps, who lived in Watts, and wrote about whites tricking Black people to live there.
Tim: The way I understand it in Arna Bontemps’ book, it talks about the joke that was played that they bought a piece of land down on the South side of Watts and allowed Black folks to move there. And it was not subdivided. It was just a vacant, dirty, you know, place. And so they started setting up like a little shanty town.
WARREN: The Black neighborhood in Watts began to fill up as tens of thousands of people were fleeing the Jim Crow laws that governed the South, hoping, of course, for better lives in California.
Tim: And I have pictures of it. They were proud people. Black people living in abject squalor that had the most beautiful smiles, the most beautiful disposition because they were out of the Deep South and they were looking forward to something better. And then, lo and behold, it rained and damn it, when it rained, you know, the first bit of it may have been a little fun because there was mud and so on. But then what a mess. You know, cardboard shacks and, you know, sticks and paper cloths and stuff didn't hold up in the rain. And it became what white folks called “Mud Town” and Mud Town became almost a universal label given to where black folks were living in squalor across the country in the early 1900s.
WARREN: Tim’s mother Bernice confronted the squalor of “Mud Town” by organizing for community action. His father, Ted, was active in the United Auto Workers at a factory now long gone from Long Beach, but he was a neighborhood activist, too.
Ted: Almost all my life, I've been an organizer of one type another. When I was living in the projects, I was a tenant council, organizing and organized tenants. When I was in the shop in the Ford Motor Company, I was organizing the workers. And when I came out here and started working in the community, I started organizing people in the community. And that's what Watts Labor Community Action Committee came out of was that organizing effort.
WARREN: 1965. That’s when the late Ted Watkins founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, hoping to help raise the voices of people who lived in Watts. But, just months later, voices in Watts -- and other parts of the city -- were raised in a different way. A police officer had pulled an African American man over and beat him with a baton, leading to six days of outrage. 14,000 National Guard members were called to LA. 34 people died. And the city was in shambles. It was “the Watts Riots.” Also called the Revolt or the Rebellion. You know, it’s just like what happened with the Rodney King episode 30 years later, or last year, after the Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd’s murder. The word “riot” that distorts the cause of the violence for a lot of people. So, we’ll call it the Watts Uprising of 1965, and after that Watkins’ family got busy cleaning things up along with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee -- the WLCAC.
Tim: And so WLCAC went into action, so every morning during the summer of sixty six, the men would get up and go to work at WLCAC on a leave from the various unions they came from. Seventeen unions came together to support the founding of WLCAC. The men would come and they would teach the kids how to march with their tools to the different vacant lots that were left from the riots. And they would clean those vacant lots and clean the alleys and clean the streets. There was no money, but there was pride.
WARREN: Now, that place that residents came to call “Mud Town” was in the Central part of Los Angeles -- a city still called “The Smog Capitol of the World.” Now, listen again to that recording by the late Ted Watkins, and how it occurred to him that what Watts really needed in 1965 was trees.
Ted: One of the things that, you know, came up in one of the magazines that I had read was that chlorophyll from the trees helped to clean the air of the pollutants. And I had to assume that since we had no trees, we wasn’t get no chlorophyll to clean up the pollutants in the air. And the pollutants were deadly as far as we were concerned. So we began to plant trees.
WARREN: Pollution, we talked about that in our last episode. Big problem in places like Watts, has been for a long time. But, Ted Watkins was right about trees for another reason. They provide an overhead cooling infrastructure, and, you know, it can reduce heat by 10 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day. Just what we need now as the climate gets warmer. Anyway, Tim picked up his father’s idea and he organized to plant trees -- a lot of them -- subsidized by Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities Program.
Tim: I was just 17 years old, I started a company called Environmental Maintenance. And it turned out that the city of Los Angeles wanted to plant thousands of trees. And so I grew plenty of trees and sold many trees. One contract that I got was with the Department of Water and Power. And we planted 267 trees throughout the city of Los Angeles, all the way up to the Valley, out to Rolling Hills. We were all over the place. And even today I can take my kids and show them full grown ficus nitida and other trees that we planted that have become massive canopies where they stand.
WARREN: But the Model Cities Program didn’t outlast Lyndon Johnson’s resignation from office in 1968.
Tim: And, so what was a good project which was taking vacant lots, turning them into neighborhood parks and planting street trees all along residential and commercial corridors, it just ended. It ended almost without warning. And that had a lot of impacts. There were a lot of unskilled laborers that lost jobs when that went down. Neighborhoods that never got their trees -- to this day, in some cases, still don't have trees.
WARREN: In Watts, of course, Tim and his father had planted trees.
Tim: But in Watts I'd say, 90 percent of the trees that we planted were eviscerated for reasons officially unknown to us. Unofficially, we're told that because of the crime rate in Watts and the need for police helicopters to see who was under the trees, they started a defoliation program.
Tim: While, you know, I can't argue about the intent, I don't know that they meant to kill the trees, but it ended up killing the trees. And so where you had a nice five or even ten-year-old tree, you ended up with a stick coming up out of the ground and eventually just a hole with a trip hazard. And, even today with all the efforts over the years to restore that, we still have whole blocks where trees were once planted, where there are no trees now.
WARREN: Now, I spoke with a former deputy chief of the LAPD, who told me he’d never heard about defoliation as an aid to aerial surveillance and it’s a claim that we couldn’t confirm. But, given the history of Watts, it’s all too understandable that some people believe that’s what happened. So, maybe the LAPD killed the trees, maybe it didn’t. In either case, there are plenty of other reasons why they died off in a racially segregated region. Here’s one from Henrik Minassians-Palasani. He’s a professor of Urban Studies at CalState Northridge.
Henrik: What we know specifically about lack of trees or lack of resources in certain communities, such as South Central, it goes back in history when it comes to redlining and racially restrictive land covenants and generally speaking, which is segregated, and placed Black and brown communities in certain parts of the town. And then the next issue is lack of services or dollars that has gone into those communities, historically speaking, which it has led to a limited number of similar amenities that you'll find in more affluent communities, with parks, with better maintenance of the streets. With having more green grass. So that's been one of the main reasons that we see fewer green spaces in places such as South Central L.A.
WARREN: A lack of resources and red-lining. That’s a term with an ugly history. During Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal agencies oversaw home lending and they appraised some neighborhoods as more valuable and safer than others.
Neighborhoods that suffered Pollution or were near industry or what used to be called “vice”, they were deemed unfit for federally backed mortgages and home improvement loans. No coincidence, redlined communities, Watts among them, were heavily Black and brown. Exactly like what we saw in our last episode in Sun Valley, East LA, and Wilmington.
At the same time, minorities were being kept out of white neighborhoods because of racial covenants. So, it was systematic, bankers and realtors had actual maps with red lines. Altogether depriving majority-minority communities of an important mechanism for building wealth, home ownership and improvement. Then Watts saw a new kind of very unwelcome development.
Henrik: And we see 37,000 housing were demolished during that period of time in order to create the highways that we have today.
WARREN: Demolishing homes to make way for freeways hasn’t just created a shortage of housing, it’s helped move Watts toward what scientists call an urban heat island. And, that brings us back to what this podcast is all about. Urban heat islands are one of the deadliest consequences of climate change.
Edith: I like to think of the image of a kid with a magnifying glass concentrating the sun into one area while surrounding areas remain untouched.
WARREN: That searing image comes from Edith de Guzman. She’s co-founder of the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative.
Edith: But of course, we don't have a giant nefarious child sitting over L.A. with a magnifying glass. Instead, we have made alterations to the landscape that have a similar, if harder to see kind of effect. So we've essentially changed the balance that we have with our relationship with the sun, such that we've created more opportunities for heat to be retained rather than dissipated.
WARREN: That was true in places like Watts even before climate change, which inevitably, will make it get worse.
Edith: So an issue that is already problematic because the urban heat island is a phenomenon that exists without factoring climate change. But now we're also applying to this the fact that we have this increased rate of warming due to climate change. And just to give you a bit a bit of a perspective for Los Angeles, we're looking at projections of an increase in about four to five degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of the century and by about five to eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with the hottest days being about 10 degrees hotter than we see today. So if your hottest days, one hundred and ten, get ready for one hundred and twenty. I mean, that's that's really significant.
WARREN: “Really significant” in places like Watts, according to studies done all over the country on places with histories of residential discrimination and red-lining. Researchers from the Science Museum of Virginia say temperatures are some seven degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are in places with no red-lining, partly due to the lack of tree cover and to policies that govern housing. Once again, the consequences are potentially catastrophic.
Edith: Heat is a silent and largely invisible killer. It is, in fact, actually the deadliest of all weather related disasters combined. So think about cold weather, tornadoes, lightning. In an average year, extreme heat kills more people than all of that.
WARREN: In 2010, a single heat wave in Russia is said to have contributed to the deaths of 55,000 people. There’ve been similar disasters in other countries, but too often the deaths aren’t reported as being related to heat.
Edith: We have preexisting conditions that predispose somebody to having negative effects during heat, cardiovascular or renal conditions, diabetes, even mental illness. These are all risk factors for heat related illness. And we see on an average hottest day in Los Angeles in the summer, we have an eight percent increase in all cause mortality, deaths from all causes combined during those hot days. So if we think about the fact that we have about one hundred and fifty deaths in the summer daily, if we increase that by eight percent, that's that's about 12 extra deaths per day.
WARREN: Obviously, death is the most extreme health consequence of an urban heat island. Alan Barreca of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment says there are more subtle health issues too. He’s focused on childbirth.
Alan: Say you're, you know, you're in your third trimester and you're close to delivering, maybe you're maybe you're set to deliver in like two or three weeks away. Extreme heat actually increases your oxytocin levels. And oxytocin is a hormone that actually regulates the onset of delivery. So you actually begin to have contractions due to oxytocin. And that could lead to having a slightly undernourished child at birth. We don't know exactly what that means. But we have concerns that that's going to lead to worse outcomes for that child for the rest of their life.
WARREN: Here’s an example.
Alan: So preterm delivery, which is a delivery that occurs before the 37th week of gestation. So most pregnancies go about 40 weeks. And babies that are born, say, like three-ish weeks early are considered preterm. And children on average that are born preterm just tend to have worse health conditions. Now, that's just looking at the average. It's not saying whether that's related to heat or not, but they just tend to have worse health conditions. And there's evidence that they have asthma and in early childhood.
WARREN: Studies show that premature babies may have learning impairments -- and earn less as they grow older -- with potentially lasting effects on entire communities.
Alan: Other less talked about impacts, like something I focus on in my research about the extreme heat can also affect people's chances of successfully conceiving. So extreme heat is known to affect male reproductive health. So sperm production is influenced by the temperature. And so if you're trying to conceive and you, you know, you’re really looking to have the family size that’s right for you, extreme heat could be influencing that. Now, you might still go on to conceive when the weather cools off, but you might not.
WARREN: Now some people might see a hidden benefit. For decades, there’s been hope for shrinking the human population on this already crowded planet.
Alan: I think that that's something where our human brains often like, “oh, look, there might be some silver lining to this,” but I don't see that as like as a silver lining at all because it does just totally cut into people's opportunities. And not only that, it's like we’ll be imposing that, especially the wealthy who are emitting the most greenhouse gas emissions, on people in say developing countries or people that are living in dense urban areas in Southern California where they're exposed to a lot of heat. I just don't like the idea from an environmental justice and fairness standpoint that the emitters get to decide, like the vulnerable, like how many kids they have. That's, that's just not how it like society should be working. So the people that that should be deciding how many kids are right for them is the people, and especially the people that are the most vulnerable.
WARREN: For now, there are much less radical ways than population control for dealing with climate change. The Watkins family and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, they were planting trees back in the 1960’s. So, flash forward. They’re doing that now in Shanghai, in London, and New York City to improve liveability and provide shade as the climate continues to warm. And you might remember former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa started a Million Tree Initiative here in Los Angeles. Whatever happened to that?
Stephanie: Well, it's been over 10 years and the goal has a few problems with it.
WARREN: Stephanie Pincetl is Chair of Environmental Science and Engineering at UCLA, and she also founded the Center for Sustainable Communities.
Stephanie: One is this was not an environment, where there were very many trees. Trees don't grow well in this region. So you must create conditions that are hospitable in the urban environment for those trees to survive. We are planting trees without modifying that urban morphology, first of all. So we plant a bunch of trees and very narrow planting strips. We then are pissed off because the tree roots make for the sidewalks to be lifted. Instead of widening the planting strip into the street, we end up cutting the tree roots and then the trees are less healthy and we can't plant very big trees because big trees have big trunks and they take up a lot of room. So we want these trees to provide all these services, but we aren't providing a healthy environment for the plant to survive in the ground. Then you have to water those trees. And in a place where we are worried about water supply is slightly problematic.
WARREN: And, of course, there’s that ongoing issue -- inequality of economic resources, especially where most residents are people of color.
Stephanie: The other part of it that is really problematic is that those trees are not maintained by the city or the county. You rely on the private property owner or the resident to take care of that tree. So here you have in Los Angeles people who can barely afford their water and power, who also then have to water those trees because otherwise they'll die. They have to prune the trees. They have to rake up the tree detritus. It's, as we can see, if you just walk around with your eyes open, it's not working very well.
WARREN: So what could be done to make things work better? Stephanie has a solution: zoning reform. That’s another dramatic example of political challenges posed by climate change, and elected officials are already doing battle. From LA City Hall to the Capitol in Sacramento over proposals to change the laws that determine how residential housing is governed.
Stephanie: In the United States, because we've had a very strong private property ownership support by the government with mortgage lending and so on, has really established a hierarchy of income and race. Between those who could afford a single-family-home and those who are renters. And so the idea behind removing the single-family-zone segregated mandate, is that you can begin to build other things in the single-family area and in the multiple-family area. You can mix and match. And you begin to open that up so that people of different income levels can live in the same spaces and you can densify your urban environment so that more people can live in the already built environment, and you're not going out to green fields at the edge of the of the of the city and converting more land and creating more transportation burden, more infrastructure burden, more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, and so on.
WARREN: Remember Henrik of CalState Northridge, he’s worked with the LAPD to study sex trafficking and how our built infrastructure impacts various kinds of crime. And, what he has found raises another important question about zoning.
Henrik: Why do we have on a small stretch of Figueroa Street alone, 13 motels or why do we have five adult entertainment places on Sepulveda, along with 11 of similar type of motels? And the area it's highly either industrial or residential, but in the form of apartments. So there are not enough people invested and there are not enough eyes on the street watching these type of activities. Well, what else are we going to expect? We call this the little challenge with the built environment if it has overuse of certain amenities, such as I mean, I don’t know if I want to call adult entertainment places as an amenity. But, if you have too many of those then you have you’re actually reducing the use value of that community.
Henrik: So, that’s the entire point. The point is that the businesses, they do advocacy in order to get what they want. That's understandable. Liquor stores, motels, whatever. It's zoned out, specifically allowing that type of places. In a sense, you cannot build a motel in a single residential community, but you could build it in a track that it allows that to occur. And then we question about the safety of the community, how the public space is being utilized and used in the form of, when it comes to human trafficking and et cetera. Well, the city has permitted all those businesses to be concentrated in certain parts and that's what raises all kinds of issues of equity.
WARREN: So, there it is. Zoning can impact crime, livability, and the consequences of climate change. Now, when it comes to cleaning up neighborhoods, the Trust for Public Land has an idea. It’s a non-profit that creates parks and helps protect land for people. Here’s Robin Mark, she’s Program Director at the TPL.
Robin: So when we initially started working with the community in 2011, folks had a lot of fear of the alleys. These are community members that didn't even necessarily want to come out to community meetings in the evening because they didn't feel safe walking in their neighborhood. And so they would complain about, again, the illegal dumping, illegal activity happening in these alleys and just a safety issue.
WARREN: Now, the Trust for Public Land got support from LA’s Sanitation Department and members of the City Council. And now we’ll get the story of Dayana Molina, she’s a colleague of Robin Mark. She started one very productive community enterprise with TPL two years ago.
Dayana: We were able to collect seven thousand pounds of trash. And this is all in the matter of two, three hours. And we're talking about three, four alley segments. And we have to realize that this is actually not just particular to the alleys that we are working on transforming and working on with community members. The fact is that when I go to them, to any community engagement and I introduce myself and I introduce these projects, community members automatically want to ask, “what can I do so that you can work on my alleys?”
WARREN: Dayana mobilized local energy in a way that helps neighborhoods “Go Green” by transforming dangerous alleys and turning them into community assets.
Dayana: People are using them. More kids are learning how to ride their bikes. There’s communal fruit trees that community members themselves got to decide. One of the key things that we learn is that community members are really supportive of this project because they were included from the beginning of the planning process. And so the alleys reflect a lot of their needs.
WARREN: Dayana’s colleague Robin says making an alley green might well make it easier to plant more trees.
Robin: We pull up whatever asphalt is there. And then we repave the alleys in a series of permeable pavers, an infiltration trench and then dry wells that actually go 70 feet down into the earth so that we can funnel stormwater into the alleys, clean it and then replenish the aquifer.
Warren: Is this important in the context of climate change and heat island?
Robin: It's incredibly I mean, stormwater management is really the issue of Southern California. When we do get rain, we get ton of it. And ultimately, most of that rainwater ends up going down through our storm drain system to the L.A. River and then out into the ocean. If we are utilizing the stormwater that we do get to replenish our aquifer, it puts us in a position to be less reliant on other sources of water for drinking and for irrigation and other uses. L.A. is far from being self reliant for our water, but every drop of water that we save, that we clean is getting us more to that place of resiliency.
WARREN: So there are solutions to the problems that Stephanie Pincetl says have made LA tree planting initiatives untenable in the past. But, these projects are more than just the green alleys themselves.
Dayana: And it's not just the improvements that you can't see, which is the storm water, which are really important, but it's really focusing on those effects that you can't see. And that's the important thing to take into account, that we may be a parks organization, a Green Alleys organization, a schoolyards organization. But at the end of the day, we are really working on how do we make sure to bring community members to the table, passing on these I want to call like Western structures of government and how can they navigate them themselves? Because it's not enough that I may be able to advocate for them because I do come from the understanding that I cannot be the voice for community members.
WARREN: And, here’s the overriding point about Dayana Molina. She comes from the neighboring community, and it’s inspiring to hear how she first got involved as a little kid in making the neighborhood better.
Dayana: So nowadays I can say that I actually have 20-plus years of community organizing, but I also have to disclose that a lot of that was me being engaged as a kid. So in 2001, I joined a soccer team with a local nonprofit called Anahuak Youth Sports Association, and I fell in love with the sport. And within months of, like having joined the team, we were being asked to go to meetings to advocate for two park spaces. The last two biggest lots in Los Angeles that would eventually become Rio De Los Angeles State Park, as well as LA State Historic Park.
WARREN: Those two parks matter a lot. Open, green spaces for an urban community surrounded by freeways and concrete and highrises.
Dayana: And soccer was just increasingly becoming very, very popular. So it was around this time that the adults around me realized that we would need more park space. It was really funny because it goes back to, like some folks thought that factories and places of work, low pay places to work would be the best thing to bring to this community. And I can remember being, being driven to all these meetings and being asked what I wanted to see. And honestly, all I wanted was the soccer field. I never thought that we could get so much more. And that whole process, I feel, really changed my mindset and my outlook. It took a DACA recipient now, but a 13-year-old kid that was very conscious of limitations -- given her own status -- a voice. And I think it's one of the things that really drives my work because it's one of the things that I'd like to share with community members.
WARREN: In 2005 -- when she was still just 13 -- Dayana took a half day off school for the opening of the LA State Park. Since then, she’s played a lot more soccer, she’s done a lot more organizing, and now she’s able to see a new generation enjoying the place she worked so hard for.
Dayana: So I do feel that even though there's there's so much history of like this disinvestment, this redlining, there's also a sense of hope in South L.A. And I do see that in a lot of our leaders where they, they get the sense that they are able to self-advocate, no matter what your background is, what your color, the color of your skin is. Like. You do deserve a better community and you shouldn't have to choose between a park and housing. Even if you can’t vote would be the best way of putting it.
WARREN: Dayana herself has grown up to be one of those hopeful leaders who have banded together now with help not just from the Trust for Public Land, but also the Pat Brown Institute, which has helped establish a new grassroots organization.
Wilma: I’m Dr. Wilma Franco. I’m the Executive Director for the Southeast LA Collaborative. We typically go by the shorter version of that which is SELA.
WARREN: SELA includes two unincorporated areas, as well as Vernon and Bell Gardens and six other cities. A bunch of little cities that welcomed industrial growth, but were later abandoned and then overwhelmed by the transportation needs of other people in other places. And, by the way local government has been structured.
Wilma: For example, just our City Council, right, their part-time. They work their full-time job, and this is their part-time job in the afternoons. Right. And then so I know the part of things that we've heard from the elected officials is, you know, when, when you're trying to engage the Southeast cities, it's important to keep in mind that a conference or a meeting or a convening in that 8 to 5 time frame isn't going to work right.
WARREN: So, that’s why, Wilma and her colleagues call their group the SELA Collaborative. Instead of acting city by city, they’re combining their weight in hopes of being heard.
Wilma: You know, for us, right. This is partially why we look at the region as a whole. Because it's not us saying, “hey, you know, we're working in the city of L.A., right. And we only deal with one council.” It's “we're working across eight municipalities and the county.” And so as we work with, and build these relationships, it’s really kind of helping us kind of understand how does each city function? What are the different approaches we need to take to each of them? And then also, you know that the majority of SELA falls under Supervisor Hilda Solis’ district, while there's two sections that fall under now Supervisor Holly Mithcell’s. And then so I think that's where for us is a collaborative, right, when we advocate for the entire region, we have to do so not only at the local level, but also at the county level and state level because we're advocating for this entire geographic area.
WARREN: Remember, the SELA Collaborative also has those other relationships with non-profits -- the Trust for Public Lands and the Pat Brown Institute. That helps with constituents who don’t trust any of those local governments -- some of which are infamous for corruption.
Wilma: We launched what we call our SELA leaders network. And then so we begin to really bring together a number of key partners, both formal and informal. And what we utilize is what we call a mapping tool, network mapping tool. And so we convene all the leaders that we have come across, that we had met, asked some of our partners to also invite some of those leaders that they have engaged in. And we begin to map them. Right. And say, OK, are you connected to it? And then so we were able to kind of create this beautiful map of all these leaders that are working in SELA. We asked them to, to let us know, like, what are your policy areas? So those were the starting point of us beginning to help people understand that when there's leaders that say, “oh, well I focus on environmental justice issues?” And we kind of ask for the like, “OK, well, what exactly around environmental justice?” Some of them said air, some of them said trees. And if it was such a broad range of different issues. Right. And so for us we were able to say, “look, here's a group of folks that have said their priority issue is environmental justice.” But even within that group, there's so much diversity. So what would it mean for us to bring all of you together to address environmental justice challenges in SELA from your individual perspective. And then so I think that really kind of began to plant the seed for us to really kind of continue down this path of elevating, not only the work that's being done by those partners, but also the opportunities where we can either be, you know, those connectors and collaborators or we can be a bottleneck.
WARREN: Watts is not part of the SELA Collaborative, but it’s a neighbor that’s setting its own example. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee has built a history center, housing complexes for homeless people, and a policy institute. And they’re bringing the trees back to “Mud Town”, where there’s now a new place called Mudtown Farms. You’ll remember Tim Watkins.
Tim: So Mudtown Farms is a two and a half acre piece of land. That we planned, designed, and built an urban farm center. And the farm is meant to serve as a resource to teach people how to grow, gather, prepare, and eat safe food that they've produced.
WARREN: Tim is planning Mudtown Farms for everybody. From elementary school kids to senior citizens.
Tim: There's a walking path with exercise equipment on it. There's an area where we hope people will have outdoor gatherings and marriages. And all of these things together are meant to serve as enriching opportunities for the community to improve quality of life conditions.
WARREN: So now there’s a little bit of relief from all the concrete and all that heat in Watts. But as the community grows towards a greener future, that’s also bringing unwelcome attention -- at least as far as Tim is concerned. He’s afraid that Watts will be heating up again as the result of gentrification.
Tim: So I think that what contributes to Watts getting hotter than anything is this runaway lust and thirst for more housing, more housing, more housing, more housing, more housing, as if that's going to solve homelessness. There's a project in Watts that we're fighting with all our might right now and can't really get much traction. But, bottom-line is there's a seven or eight acre park in the heart of Watts between the Watts Towers and a historic train station. Well, they've taken that whole seven acres without any community meeting, community input, Town Hall dialog, or anything of that nature. And basically for pennies on the dollar virtually giving it to a favored developer.
WARREN: Tim insists a historic promise is now being broken. A promise that goes back to the Watts Uprising of 1965.
Tim: This guy wants to put five stories of apartment units up, dwarfing the Watts Towers. And in the process, it takes down one hundred mature trees and takes out seven acres of what should be green space. Now, mind you, that that space was dedicated in 1965 as a result of the Watts Revolt and that it was promised that the city was going to develop it as a passive park between that historic train station and the Watts Towers. But at the end of the day, this is a deep-pocketed developer that has all the right friends in all the right places and will build that project without any remorse. And it destroys not only the dreams of the community, but we're already oversaturated with housing as it is. We're one of the densest housing communities in the city and at the same time have less green space per capita than I believe any other community. And so we're burning the candle at both ends.
Warren: Well, other people would leave. You know, they wouldn’t stay in Watts. And, they wouldn’t keep their families in Watts. They'd, you know, try to go to Westwood or Beverly Hills or something. But you haven't done that.
Warren: Why not?
Tim: The ugly truth is that I haven't given up hope. And my father told me, the one time I contemplated moving somewhere that I considered to be safer than where I live, he said, “you know, Tim, you can go anywhere. He said, but the problem is still going to be here and, you know, at least with you here, with your beautiful children and your family and, you know, doing the things you do, you make a difference. And if you leave, you take that difference with you.” So I always kept that. And that was his motto. His motto was, “don't move, improve.” So I live by it. But I got to tell you, man, this thing that's going on right now that I'm fighting in Watts threatens to steal the potential from the future of people that have survived the poverty up till now. Folks are unwittingly getting better and better at shedding the guilt that gets associated with gentrification by eviscerating the truth that’s evident in history and experience. So there won't be any evidence of, you know, who's there now if it keeps going the way it's going.
WARREN: Tim Watkins, Wilma Franco, Dayana Molina -- three generations in what’s often called the most diverse urban center -- all living in neighborhoods that illustrate LA’s history of social inequity. All doing their best to bring their needs and demands to the table despite conflicting interests and the historic indifference of the broader community. And, all this as the temperature keeps rising. We can’t slow that down, but we can establish priorities for mitigating the damage of heat in all our communities. One tree. One park. One neighborhood at a time.
Next week: Smoke Out
In Our Backyard is an original series from Inside Voices Media. You can find out more about Inside Voices at insidevoicesmedia.com.
It’s hosted by me, Warren Olney.
Our producer is Julie Carli.
This series was edited by Gary Scott.
With fact checking by Alec Cowan.
Sound engineering by JC Swiatek.
And, Katie McMurran is our sound designer.
This series was made possible through the generous support of Climate Resolve, which addresses global climate change with local action. Learn more about Climate Resolve at climate resolve dot org.
Special thanks to Sam Bloch, the journalist that first got us thinking about how shade...or the lack of it, impacts LA. You can check out his article on shade in our show notes.
And, Kerissa Kelly-Slatten and Selene Sandoval from the SELA Collab for all your help with coordination.
Finally, Jeremy Hoffman and colleagues from the Science Museum of Virginia for the article on heat islands and redlining.