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Summit Calls for New Southeast Narrative

Concerned that the corruption scandals in some Southeast Los Angeles County areas might taint their own reputations, cities in the region have distanced themselves from one another and for the most part chosen to go it alone, strictly focusing on what goes on within their borders.

That changed last week when area leaders and residents came together to highlight their strengths and to begin to construct a new narrative for the region, one which they hope will lead to greater public and private investment to create more jobs, better schools and bring other resources.

“Regionalization allows our community to work together to leverage funds,” pointed out Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) during the discussion on communities located along the SR-710 Corridor.

“It allows us to be more influential,” Lara emphasized.

The Oct. 27 “Summit of Possibilities: People, Community and Progress” was hosted by the Pat Brown Institute and the California Community Foundation and focused on the regional potential of the southeast portion of Los Angeles County, including Commerce, Cudahy, Bell, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Downey, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Maywood, Paramount, South Gate and Vernon.

Sara Zapata-Mijares, a local businesswoman, brings up the issue of health during a summit on communities located along the SR-710 Corridor. [1]

Sara Zapata-Mijares, a local businesswoman, brings up the issue of health during a summit on communities located along the SR-710 Corridor.

The cities are densely populated and home to a blue-collar workforce surrounded by industry, described opening speaker, Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics.

Of the 750,000 people who call the area home, nearly 90 percent are Hispanic, according to the data from Beacon Economics, which also showed that a large number of the residents are fairly young, low-income and have not completed high school.

For most in the room, the information came as no surprise.

“If you lived in the area you already knew this,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice.

A majority of the housing stock is still single-family homes, Thornberg said, suggesting that the cities should invest in building more multi-family housing units to accommodate the Southeast’s growing population.

“This place is ripe for high density, transportation-oriented communities,” Thornberg said. “Given the size of population…single family [housing] is not appropriate.”

It was a suggestion that did not sit well with some of the residents in the audience.

“How can you build when you don’t have space,” Mary Johnson of South Gate asked.

Another resident wanted to know if transforming the area into a technology hub is feasible?

Thornberg suggested cities would be better served by focusing their energies on ensuring existing businesses, especially the large number of manufacturing companies still operating in the region, succeed.

The region has some of the worst air pollution in the state but air quality could be improved and jobs created through better use of the Los Angeles River and pushing more of the goods movement on to the underutilized Alameda Corridor, the economist told Summit participants.

For Bell Gardens and Commerce, Thornberg said continued investment in the casinos in those cities is key to increasing revenue and jobs.

Cities must revisit their general plans, incentivize small builders and unite to compete for grants and businesses, Thornberg advised.

“If you get together you have clout,” he emphasized.

Every presenter acknowledged the event as a very important start to creating a new identify for the southeast region.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Maywood echoed that the southeast cities he represents are all densely populated, have high rates of poverty and lack resources such as community colleges, parks, courthouses and access to light rail transportation.

Still, he says he believes a “renaissance of the southeast” is on the horizon.

Many of the panelists said they recognize the answer to the region’s woes is greater investment in the next generation and incentivizing them to stay or return to their community.

“Our [communities] should not be places our folks have to leave,” said Lopez. “We need to look to the future, at retaining residents not displacing them.”

Access to high quality education is the key to retaining local talent, said Nadia Diaz Funn of Alliance for a Better Community.

She noted that 75 percent of the students from the 8 area high schools who attend Cal State LA are not proficient in math or English, and only 45 percent of those who attend graduate within 6 years.

“It has to begin at the schools that are serving our children,” Funn said.

Sen. Lara suggested it might take breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to make sure southeast area students aren’t neglected.

Currently, Cal State LA guarantees admission to students attending LA Unified schools in East Los Angeles who complete the Go East LA pathways program, Dunn pointed out, adding, “Where is the Southeast’s promise?”

It will take coordination, organizing and residents and elected officials demanding changes to make anything happen, panelists acknowledged.

Nonprofits and philanthropy must also be part of the conversation, panelists agreed.

“It was philanthropy that brought us together,” pointed out Dr. Juan Benitez of the Cal State Long Beach Center for Community Engagement.

“We have identified the southeast region as an area we want to focus on and provide resources,” responded Belen Vargas of the Weingart Foundation, which provides grants and other support to nonprofit groups.

Rendon, however, sharing his own experience in the nonprofit sector, expressed frustration that many companies believe the only way to help Latinos is to provide services in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.

With part-time city council members and mayors, it’s often “overcompensated” city managers and administrators who act as the default policy makers, said Benitez. Ultimately, decisions are made through policies, she emphasized. The highly publicized corruption scandals that came out of Bell, Maywood and Vernon revolved around overpaid city administrators.

East Yard’s Lopez says the problem of political corruption needs to be part of the conversation. Holding elected officials accountable after the election is vital, but it will only happen with good community organizing and a clear vision, he said.

“We need baselines or else how will we know we achieved [anything],” Benitez said.

Speaker after speaker said the conversation at the Summit just touched the surface of the Southeast region’s needs, assets and potential power.

“We are all the southeast,” said Lara. “This cannot be the last time we meet, this has to be the new norm.”