Traffic safety is taken very seriously in the Union Pacific neighborhood in East Los Angeles where children on scooters is as common a sight as commuters driving residential streets to get to work or big rig trucks making their rounds in the nearby industrial zone.
Cars are always driving too fast down their streets, many residents say. They are used to keeping an eye on each other’s children while they play outside, and are in the habit of making sure the coast is clear before signaling for their friends or family members to back their cars out of their driveways.
With childcare centers, an elementary school and a church in close proximity to the 710 and 5 freeways, industrial warehouses and a railyard, residents are reminded of potential traffic dangers on a daily basis.
But an accident in which a beloved community member was killed, and another collision that happened in a residential intersection while families were out celebrating last year’s 4th of July, have caused some residents to become fed up with their constant, daily worries about traffic.
Some, like resident Sonny Roque, began to wonder why other residential communities get speed bumps and four-way stop signs when they only have streets with blind spots, and two-way stop signs at most intersections.
With help from a local advocacy group, Roque and a group of fellow residents have been working for months to try to get traffic signals, stop signs and speed bumps for their community.
Their first request to get something installed failed after county traffic engineers returned to them saying the request did not fit the necessary criteria. Residents will appeal the decision at the County Highway Safety Commission meeting on July 7.
In May, members of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice approached Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina at the grand opening of the YWCA Union Pacific Empowerment Center, a bright orange and blue childcare facility that now sits a block away from the Parque de los Suenos, an earlier project spearheaded by the supervisor, for help.
Molina recommended they appeal the earlier decision by traffic engineers, said Isella Ramirez, co-executive director of East Yard.
The opening of the YWCA facility was the “tipping point” for Molina’s interest in Union Pacific neighborhood’s traffic issues, according to Molina’s spokesperson Roxanne Marquez.
Ramirez says the neighborhood is a mixture of different residential, commercial and industrial zones that contribute to the areas’ traffic issues. “We hope the commissioners will be able to see there is a need,” and grant “at least a couple of our demands,” she said.
With East Yard’s help, residents are petitioning the Highway Safety Commission for a traffic signal on Union Pacific Avenue and Sunol Drive, multi-way stop signs on Sunol Drive and Triggs Street, multi-way stop signs on Sunol Drive and Tuttle Street, and speed humps on Sunol Drive between Triggs Street and Union Pacific Avenue.
In the meantime the community has put up its own traffic safety signs. Last Sunday, as a team of community members made their way up and down the streets to gather petition signatures to take to the appeal’s hearing, large yellow signs telling drivers to “Watch Your Speed, Please Slow Down” began popping up in their wake. The petitioners were handing out bright yellow “Slow Down” signs to any resident who would take them. If a driver does not see the sign the first time, another sign a house down repeats the request.
One resident, Abraham Jimenez, said he was ready to make his own stop sign, but when he saw a neighbor’s makeshift sign, he knew he wanted one. “Everyday I get mad. I have kids, grandkids, and they’re playing right here,” Jimenez says. He called the initial rejection by the traffic engineers “baloney.”
Silverio Garcia also noticed the signs and wondered “Who gave it to them? I want some of them!” He thinks the neighborhood has plenty of major problems, including pollution, so getting the traffic issues is “at least something.”
Last summer and fall, Roque and his wife Sylvia began hosting meetings at their home, where neighbors would make themselves at home around Sylvia’s themed holiday decorations that included elaborate turkey motifs for Thanksgiving, and trimmings in red, white and blue for Independence Day.
At a meeting in November, tea was offered to accompany conversations about each other’s health and discussions about the news of the day. When the meeting finally began, almost everyone had a wish list of intersections where they wanted stops signs or streets where they want speed bumps placed.
On their minds were the near misses, fender benders, and two significant events that made an impression on the Union Pacific community in a public way. When the first major tragedy in recent years struck the community just a couple months before in May, it did not seem possible that it would take one of their most cautious community members.
Almost everyone knew Doña Esperanza, the respected elder who organized the yearly Posada around Christmas and the Via Crucis around Lent, religious enactments that involved the whole community. It was a chance for the community to get together over tamales, champurrado and sweet bread.
Seventy-nine year old Esperanza Gutierrez was always the first to say, “No, no, no, you must make sure the car has stopped” before crossing the street, so when fellow church member Maria Hernandez and the rest of the community heard she had been struck and killed while crossing a street to get to church, they could not believe it.
“We all asked, ‘Why her?’” Hernandez said.
The extra precautions it seems did not help Gutierrez. According to CHP spokesperson Luis Mendoza and the CHP’s accident report, on the morning of May 26, 2009, Gutierrez had already walked 15 feet into the crosswalk at Union Pacific Avenue and Gage Avenue when a Eastman Elementary School parent, driving 30 to 35 miles an hour, “a little faster” than the 25 miles per hour speed limit, struck her with his Chevy truck.
Hernandez says church members had been asking for more stop signs, if not traffic signals, even before the accident. There is a church, a big rig truck parking lot and warehouses at the intersection where the accident occurred. There are residential streets no more than a block away.
The intersection has two-way stop signs, but Gutierrez was struck on the crosswalk without stop signs, though it had yellow ladder cross walks and warning signs to watch for children crossing the street.
Just a few months after this accident, another collision occurred at the corner of Sunol and Triggs on the evening of July 4th, right in front of many families who were out celebrating. No one was killed this time, and not everyone saw it, but it added to the impression that things were getting out of hand.
According to Mendoza, the traffic conditions in the Union Pacific neighborhood is “no more dangerous” than the rest of unincorporated East Los Angeles.
“It’s a community just like any other. It just happens that right on Union Pacific [Avenue] there’s a park, there is a church, and there is a school. So you have a lot of pedestrian traffic because of these locations,” he says. The recent incidents do add to the reasons why CHP should be investing resources in the neighborhood.
The agency recently won a grant to increase enforcement efforts and to provide safety helmets to bicyclist under the age of 16 and reflective arm and wrist bands to pedestrians, but when it comes to installing safety measures such as stop signs, speed bumps, and traffic signals, it’s up to the community who know best what happens in their community to make it happen, Mendoza says.
The Union Pacific neighborhood does not seem like “an inactive type of community,” he added. “They’re obviously concerned, and have already set their minds to getting something accomplished here. I think it’s a matter of following the rules of what the county tells them to provide,” he says.