Revisiting the Groundbreaking for the New Sixth Street Bridge

Memoirs from February 20, 2015; one year ago.

The story of how we protested the groundbreaking event

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“The New Bridge Sucks!!!” – With sign in hand, Jessie (Illyria Exene) Elliot came out to protest the groundbreaking.

When I arrived at the underside of the Sixth Street Bridge at Santa Fe Road a crowd was already arriving. And there in the expanse of the underside of the viaduct stood a John Deere machine for show, and row of golden ceremonial shovels.

This was the groundbreaking for the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. Though there was no real breaking of ground, just soil held by plastic sheeting for the officials to play with for show.

I had actually noticed this all start to come together the day before, when I found there was already a brand new excavator tractor to be found here; partially wrapped in black protective plastic, just sleeping like a beast.

This was the first vivid and tangible symbols of the destruction which was to come.

It actually took everything in me to resist the crazy impulse and uncharacteristic desire to deface this shiny little prop for the upcoming regalia.

Only two days before had it been announced that the city was planned a ceremonial groundbreaking and press conference. Which was announced only listed in the Los Angeles DT News website.

Though there was no real outreach to eastside residents to be part of this milestone event.

For this reason the event was filled with officials, developers and Art’s District businessmen. While from the Boyle Heights neighborhood there were just a few officials, and an assortment of high school kids also present for show. All of us lingering through the huge model of the bridge.

Just then I heard someone call out to me.

“You’re here! I was hoping to see some familiar faces from Boyle Heights.” It was our journalist friend Sahra Sulaiman, who I had met the year before at the unveiling of the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. [See the “The Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan.”]

If there was one thing I have been good at, it has been keeping myself and my friends up to date on the news regarding the viaduct. Ever since I had learned about the reality of the upcoming demolition and reconstruction of the viaduct.

I had full intent of continuing to be there for every major step of this project. And at my side was my buddy Squared. Though knowing most of our neighbors had to work at that hour and how time impoverished our locals are, we were worried that we would be pretty much alone this day.

When just then the crowd of cheap blue suits seemed to part, like a shark was coming through, As Jessie came marching in, sporting a Mohawk and a protest sign saying, “The new bridge sucks!” Direct and to the point.

We embraced in the thick of the growing crowd. We actually hadn’t seen each other in some time because of a huge conflict in our circle a while back, but today we came together almost instinctively.

And so here we were waiting for the presentation and press conference, almost directly under the spot which we had occupied on the Sixth Street Bridge for years. In the cavernous underside of the bridge, where the curves of the bridge and the afternoon shadows came together to grace the light golden expanses. Just in view of the graceful steel arches, which had long been painted and repainted in a thick, faux blue resembling a copper patina.

Long had I swore that I would be present on this day to bark at some gutless bastards for selling out our community with this new bridge project.

And here in view off all of this which we were losing, the sense of righteous indignation rose as these smug developers patted themselves on the back.

This entire event was a farce. It wasn’t any sort of community event.

It was simply an opportunity for politicians like the city council members, to use a media covered event for self-promotion during an election season. And also get their name attached permanently to this project before the termed-out left office or i case those who were running might fail to get re-elected. Just a few steps away from the bridge model, Jose Huizars people had placed a table and were campaigning for him.

It was not long before the press conference was called to order. And well, we were pretty orderly… at first.

Until our city councilman Jose Huizar took to the podium.

At that moment Jessie turned around the protest sign. The other crudely mocking his inept leadership in this redevelopment, “No way José (Huizar).” With a mocking picture on it of one of the Olsen twins giving a raspberry. As Huizar looked up from the podium to take notice, he actually started to laugh and was momentarily distracted.

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As for me, while he spoke I responded to his trite remarks and platitudes. Responding back to his speech, rebuking him in a regular tone of voice, just up until his shtick became too much to tolerate. I yelled out, “You gutless thugs! You sold us out in the end!”

In response, you could see some of the people in suits turn around to voice and give thumbs up in support. For some people, it seemed like we were preaching to the choir. And it was only one person who in the end had a spasm; just one uppity young, property investor whining, “But I’m trying to listen!”

Though we would not be silent this day. Not by a long-shot.

Then everything erupted with my full on exacerbation and rage, following the very telling and completely shameful comments of Congressman Xavier Becerra. (House Dem, 34th Dist.)

He first tried to make his whole speech about boasting how some people in the federal government actually make things work, taking pride in this pork-barrel project they secured here. Saying that in the end this was all about creating jobs; even though we are already aware that the jobs he’s talking about account to about a week of work at most as part of a 4.5-year rebuild project, translating into no real job gains for our local working-class residents.

Then Congressman Becerra just couldn’t resist and thus showed his true colors, when he made the following statement to the crowd of suits and developers in front of him. He gushed that he had a secret “tip” for the crowd. As quoted by Sahra in StreetsBlog LA:

“Buy property real quick here” before the area changes and values go up. “This is going to be a great place! Buy now!”

[See: “The 6th St. Viaduct Replacement Project Officially Breaks Ground; Actual Breaking of Ground Is Yet to Come.” Streetblog LA]

And that point my frustration could not be muzzled. I cried out, “You bastards! You aren’t even bashful that your selling us out to developers!”

Now by that point the media had already begun to surround us. ABC, NBC and media writers from KCET (PBS).

What they expected to find was just a few punk rockers with off the wall things to say. Though once we explains what we meant, we noticeably effected the journalists. And each of them walking away focusing on a different aspect of the issues we had with this redevelopment, and focusing on the realities and sentiments they were unaware of.

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“A protestor from Boyle Heights | Photo: Carren Jao” (KCET)

Journalist Carren Joa from KCET – a PBS affiliate in here in Los Angeles – spoke to us most about the inequity of the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. Staking how offended we are that our neighborhood is getting none of the cultural and artistic redevelopment that we were promised us when this rebuild set out, promises made to appease the residents. Though now we are find out that in the end they are giving an amphitheater, art park and other impressive features to the newly gentrified Arts District. While leaving the Boyle Heights side of this bridge project – of which the majority is on our side – a barren corridor, vulnerable to aggressive redevelopment. All while displacing jobs and heaving hardship on respectable businesses in the Boyle Heights Flats.

We also made the case that the neighborhood of Boyle Heights has always been expected to take the brunt of aggressive and unpopular redevelopment. As often stated by Lucy Delgado and Gloria Molina, Boyle Heights has always suffered as the dumping ground for the public projects not wanted in other communities. That this minority, working-class community is once again being disregarded and disrespected in pursuit of Los Angeles’ notoriously unfair road works which have been imposed on us for generations.

She titled her article “Sixth Street Bridge Replacement Project Breaks Ground; Surfaces a Tale of Two Neighborhoods.” She wrote:

“Boyle Heights resident, tour guide, and writer Shmuel Gonzales takes an even more confrontational stance. As his friend holds up a sign that says “The new bridge sucks,” Gonzales explains, “Every day people on the other side [Boyle Heights] are wondering what’s going to happen. Businesses are anxious. We don’t know what the future is and the city didn’t give us any information.”

“Gonzales says that even today, residents of Boyle Heights still don’t understand that the Sixth Street Bridge, a “symbol of the Golden Age of Boyle Heights,” according to Gonzales, will eventually disappear. He adds that his neighborhood seems to be getting short shrift, receiving less that the amenities being planned for the Arts District side. He even notes that during the groundbreaking only about a dozen people from Boyle Heights were present. “We’re hopeful,” says Gonzeles, “but there has to be a dialog.”

“A bridge is always used to connect one place to another, but in the case of the future Sixth Street bridge, it seems that it’s ironically becoming a divisive symbol that needs to be addressed.”

When we spoke to KABC news we mostly spoke about the important role that these viaducts play in the narrative of the people of Boyle Heights.

I began to relate that their role has always been symbolic of our sense of place as people of Boyle Heights and the greater Los Angeles eastside. How these bridges are not just connectors, as they are also symbols of the complex relationship minorities have long had with this city of Los Angeles. To our eastside minorities who find much symbolism in our daily crossing over to fulfill the needs of a bustling city, to a westside we have long been segregated away from on the other end of these viaducts. They have become symbols of our sense of place. While at the same time these viaducts have also been symbolic points by which we could challenge the boundaries set before us.

For years I've promised you all that i would be there to bitch at some gutless people for not preserving the historical integrity of the area with a complimentary redesign.

For years I’ve promised you all that i would be there to bitch at some gutless people for not preserving the historical integrity of the area with a complimentary redesign.

I insisted that the viaducts have become symbols of the historic eastside, which we regard as our cultural heritage. For this reason they have long have been destinations for longtime resident and even the local classic car club movement, because of the classical style.

I also insisted that the Sixth Street Bridge which is neo-classical modernist in style in actually part of a progressive theme demonstrated by the various eastside viaducts over the Los Angeles River; demonstrating different neo-classical, deco, moderne, as well as gothic styles. Each one of the bridges following a theme, designed to be complimentary and to play off the style each other. I maintained my stance that to lose the Sixth Street Bridge as the glory of these bridges, for an ultra-modern monstrosity, takes away from the historical integrity of the rest of our gorgeous and time-honored viaducts.

In the end, I would get just a few words in to the nightly news on KABC evening news. When they reported that not everyone was thrilled about the rebuild. I was quoted as saying:

“It would have been nicer if they had taken account the viaducts around it and planned something that fit more close to us, that had a little bit more of those golden memories.”

And so we stood there for a while being interviewed, almost directly under the spot we had occupied as friends for years.

[See: “6th Street Viaduct Replacement Breaks Ground” (KABC)]

And so it was that we defending the honor of the classic Sixth Street Bridge and the historical legacy of Boyle Heights. Representing the local demands for respect of our heritage and for equity in this redevelopment. Insistent upon not letting the passing of this bridge go by without people understanding what we are losing here.

That evening I would be bombarded with messages from many friends who were excited that they had seen us on television! For weeks to come I was flooded with calls from so many different people sharing their own precious memories of the classic Sixth Street Bridge – some of them good and some of them bad, but all remarkably significant in their life stories.


Personal Reflections:

The memories of this day are very precious to me. Though this protest almost never happened. Not just because our circle of friends had already pretty much disbanded at that point. And not simply because this event came as such a surprise when announced last-minute, making it hard to schedule.

Other complications also hung over that day, both painful and ironic.

Immediately after the groundbreaking and press-conference at the Sixth Street Viaduct concerning our bridge being replaced because of “concrete cancer” and bad bones, I was scheduled for an appointment with a specialist surgeon in Long Beach. For him to take a look at my left hand that had been fractured for some weeks and to identify a large tumor in the bone; initially with the fear of cancer.

At first I was afraid I would be forced to sacrifice the groundbreaking, in order to make it all the way across the county for this urgent doctors appointment. But knowing how much it meant to meant to me, Squared offered to wildly drive me to both the event and the doctor.

So immediately after the groundbreaking ended, we rushed our way out to Long Beach. My head up against the window, heavy in thought and pained on so many levels.

The surgeon I consulted with was confident that it to be a most likely a benign tumor which has been growing outward from inside the bones in my hand nearest to my index finger. It has grown until the pressure of it was enough that it fractured the bones in my left hand, breaking it two places as it broke its way outward from the bone marrow.

It was determined that tumor needed to be removed, and the bone cleaned and rebuilt with bone shavings taken from a long bone near my elbow.

The surgery would be a success in the end.

However, the next year would be painful both emotionally and physically. As I tried to keep up with documenting the harsh changes coming to our classic eastside; all well nursing my arm in a huge cast. With my body and this bridge, seemingly locked in painful tragedy together.

[Read more about my recovery in my inspirational blog entry here.]


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