by Mehmet Berker, Board Member of Los Angeles Walks
On Wednesday, March 24th, after a series of opaque statements and actions by Los Angeles Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office, the LAPD was sent in to forcibly evict an unhoused community who had been encamping in Echo Park for some time. During the night, coordinated with the police violence, the City of Los Angeles erected fencing around Echo Park as well as the playground south of Bellevue Avenue to ostensibly “make repairs”.
if people of color are not free to exist in public space without the threat (and reality) of state violence, they can’t exist peacefully in the pedestrian realm
This action was incredibly irresponsible and “anti” a lot of things, but we do want to talk briefly about how it specifically was anti-pedestrian and also how the state of affairs the City was ostensibly “solving” in Echo Park is now worse for people walking. We hope this serves as a reminder that when those in power use walkers in their rhetoric to further state control and violence, that one should be extremely skeptical of their claims.
Pedestrianism is about a lot more than just people walking of course. Crucial to pedestrianism is Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Association, and the Freedom of Assembly. Inherent to pedestrianism are also informality, negotiation and cooperation, and tolerance. It is why, for just one example, criminal justice reform and ending police violence is inherently a pedestrian issue: if people of color are not free to exist in public space without the threat (and reality) of state violence, they can’t exist peacefully in the pedestrian realm--they are being excluded and being denied their Freedom of Movement, and that is anti-pedestrian.
The Encampment at Echo Park
There had been an encampment at Echo Park for some years. After the COVID-19 pandemic started, the number of people living in Echo Park grew. Also during this time, the cohesion and self-support of this community grew as well. Local organizations working with unhoused residents have noted the powerful support networks that grew in the community, support networks that are now destroyed and scattered.
How did this encampment affect the park? Well as you may expect there are certain realities about human beings encamping, and life is harder (and harder to keep orderly) outdoors and in tents. But as local organizations who worked with the community pointed out (as did the residents themselves), the strong sense of community and the cooperation with local service organizations meant a well-cared for encampment.
Our public space is filled with those different than us, going through different things and at different points in their lives.
As this conversation with one of the residents of the community makes clear, the encampment and the community there was a lifeline for those who lived there as well as a place of possible reintegration if temporary housing were to end. As for the encampment’s presence in relation to people walking and using the park, the paths were open. Not discounting a possible hiccup here and there, access to the park and to paths was unobstructed.
Looking south on the park path before the eviction.
Sometimes people say they “can’t use” a space due to the presence of unhoused people, and that is cited by City leaders when they take punitive actions. Sometimes this is not mere hyperbole. There are sidewalks in this city where tents do block the entire sidewalk. This however was not the case in Echo Park. This was a case of the presence of an unhoused community being intolerable to some.
Now, we don’t deny that some people walking through the park could feel frightened or apprehensive about the presence of an encampment, but without sounding too flippant, this is where informality, negotiation and cooperation, and crucially tolerance come into play. Our public space is filled with those different than us, going through different things and at different points in their lives. We must be tolerant and share our public space. It is anti-pedestrian to demand the removal of people for their mere existence, and of course one need not be a master of history to know where such rhetoric and decisions lead.
The Police Action and its Aftermath
The violent police actions on the evening of March 24th were inherently anti-pedestrian and its aftermath (and the state of affairs the police were called out to violently effectuate) has made walking in and around Echo Park worse. It has mainly done this by prohibiting walking in Echo Park, as the City has now closed the park to the public. Also, one cannot separate the post hoc state of affairs from the police action that brought it about, so let’s start there.
Using the police to establish control over a peaceful demonstration (however antagonistic that demonstration may be) is anti-pedestrian. At a basic level, it negatively affects walkers by cutting off paths of travel to people on foot. Security cordons are created in a large perimeter, cutting off walking routes for demonstrators, passersby, and residents all. These closures can last after the initial action, as they did in this case where Glendale Blvd was closed until Friday, two days after the initial action, with residents on Glendale Blvd not allowed to walk, drive, or park in front of their homes. And, by the way, LAPD did not fully clean up after themselves--local residents had to take down police tape blocking off walkways on their own initiative.
At a more fundamental level though, in a multiracial democracy (for those who value such a thing) complete control over public space--the kind enforced through police violence--is an irreconcilable goal. The way to achieve this complete control involves exclusion, punitive measures, and state control--all antithetical to a healthy multiracial democracy. Conditions brought about through such violence and control, even if nominally “good”, are fruit from a poisonous tree, and therefore undesirable.
It is truly baffling to close a park for discretionary work during a pandemic where outdoor spaces are essential places for people to gather and recreate safely since indoor activities are unadvisable.
And as far as that post hoc state of affairs is concerned? The walking environment in and around the park (again, only a part of the pedestrianism of the space, which includes the lives and dignity of the unhoused residents) has now been made worse as a result of the City’s actions.
Most clearly, as mentioned earlier, the entire park is now closed, including the section south of Bellevue Avenue. (It is clear that this portion is fenced because the playground has been torn out in the days after March 24th. The Rec & Parks board report on the construction for the park stipulates “Replacement of playground surfacing at the north playground”, so it is unclear why the playground south of Bellevue Ave has been removed).
The playground south of Bellevue Ave has been removed. It is unclear if this is what was meant by “Replacement of playground surfacing at the north playground” in the board report outlining the scheduled construction at Echo Park and if it was a typo or this is other construction which has been instigated.
It seems entirely feasible that the City could keep sections of the park open with phased construction and sectional closures for the relatively minor work that has been approved. Of course the cynic would point out that the entire intention of the scheduled repairs and changes could be as a convenient way to schedule a clearance of an unhoused community, so no such staging or phasing would be desired on the City’s part.
You cannot just fence off the park and have business as usual around it. The surrounding streets become deactivated
It is truly baffling to close a park for discretionary work during a pandemic where outdoor spaces are essential places for people to gather and recreate safely since indoor activities are unadvisable. Closing the park has also cut off the livelihood of vendors operating in the park, a truly callous outcome.
But the closure hasn’t just affected the park and those who depend on it and use it, it has also negatively affected all the streets surrounding the park and the local community as well.
It has done this in two ways. One way is at the community level, where the closure has cut out the heart of the community. You cannot just fence off the park and have business as usual around it. The surrounding streets become deactivated: fewer people are around in general, and residents choose not to make trips (or can’t make trips) they otherwise would. The whole tenor of the neighborhood is altered for the worse.
The other way is at the physical level where the very geometry and accessibility of the neighborhood has now been worsened substantially.
Look at the image below from before March 24th looking northeast with Glendale Boulevard in the foreground and Echo Park in the background. Notice the park path traveling along the western edge of the park, along Glendale Blvd. This path has now been closed.
Looking northeast with Glendale Blvd and Echo Park.
You may also notice the substandard sidewalk along Glendale Blvd. Well now this around four foot sidewalk, with utility poles and street lights planted in the middle of those four feet, is the only path of travel on the east side of Glendale Blvd. To make matters even worse, the fence erected by the City, now also cuts back the substandard sidewalk on Glendale Blvd and other streets even further. Check out this picture to see a complete blockage of the sidewalk along Glendale Blvd.
Looking north on Glendale Blvd at the edge of the park with the newly-installed fencing. Crucial to note that now, the park path is inaccessible, leaving the substandard sidewalk (now even more restricted in width) the only path available.
The case of Glendale Blvd is especially bad as there is no “alternate path of travel” within 200 feet, which has been deemed acceptable under the Willits ADA Settlement against the City. (A previous blog post of ours details this and other aspects of sidewalk accessibility). As you can see, it’s a quarter mile from the crossing at Santa Ynez St to Bellevue Ave (and this crossing is not even accessible--Park Ave is the only accessible crossing and it is 600 more feet to the north).
A quarter mile distance between safe crossings of Glendale Blvd at Santa Ynez St (upper left corner) and Bellevue Ave (lower left corner).
The Big Picture
Los Angeles is starved of public space. While there are some large parks or other areal public spaces, most of our public space is linear: our sidewalks and roads. It makes sense therefore that people would encamp in the spaces they most often encamp in: public rights of way, including sidewalks, underpasses, and highway frontages; and our areal open space, including parks, undeveloped open space, and water channels and basins.
Public spaces, whether areal or linear, need negotiation and tolerance to be truly free and open. The mere presence of the unhoused is not the antipode of safety and security as some would have it; a state of affairs that must be eradicated. Rather, unhoused encampments are a result of our society, government, and economy forcing people into one of the most rational choices they can make under dire circumstances, to band together. These communities then become stakeholders in a public space like any other--stakeholders who should be acting, and treated, on equal terms for the maintenance and flourishing of all.
This is how a supportive system works. It is fluid, and a little disorderly, definitely hard to track, and “messy” at times, but that’s how it is
As noted in letters linked to earlier from the Echo Park Neighborhood Council and SELAH, a system involving the unhoused residents of the park as stakeholders on equal terms, along with local organizations, and LAHSA has been exactly what was there.
Even in a scenario where Project Roomkey and other supportive housing efforts can house everyone, there will always be new people becoming unhoused (as jobs are lost, rents increased, and life circumstances change), there are bureaucratic delays to getting people housed, and finally, there can be real issues with a supportive housing option that lead people to move back to an encampment (the refusal to allow a pet, a curfew that doesn't allow them to work a job they have, the list goes on)--the point being is that any supportive housing system will be a fluid one, with multiple points of entry and exit and needing constant communication and adjustment.
And indeed, in practice at the Echo Park encampment this is exactly how things functioned. People who became homeless would come to the encampment. People waiting for supportive housing would camp in the park as this gentleman describes. Families with small children would end up at the park for a few days as rapid rehousing was arranged for them. People who worked odd hours or had to have tools, pets, or otherwise couldn’t stay in housing situations where regulations conflicted with their needs. This is how a supportive system works. It is fluid, and a little disorderly, definitely hard to track, and “messy” at times, but that’s how it is--these are human beings going through hard times trying to pick themselves and each other up.
This kind of a community and modus vivendi is intolerable to some. They wish to have the unhoused go away. We may never know how many of the voters who supported Measures H and HHH did so with this as a benign goal: to get homes for people so they wouldn’t see them anymore. We must, however, remember that the flux mentioned earlier that brings people to encampments will always be with us. Our leaders need to reject a punitive framework that seeks to sweep people away, and rather fully commit to a collaborative and peaceful accommodation between stakeholders. That collaboration and accommodation, which by all indications from the organizations involved and from what Councilmember O’Farrell himself claims, was happening in Echo Park.
The Councilmember, the City, and LAPD definitively destroyed and scattered that community and supportive system last week--an anti-pedestrian action, which has created a more anti-pedestrian state of affairs.