Re: the New Wine Bar, Alma’s, on the Corner Where Our Neighborhood Forms a “Promise Zone”

Dear Mr. President,

I hope this note finds you well. On the subject of “returning to normal” once the majority of our cities and communities are vaccinated, I’d like to bring up an old, but recurringly fresh topic on my mind as well as that of many in my community in Los Angeles.

As you may know, white people in the United States have had exclusive access to land here by way of colonies, plantations, titles, laws, segregation, FHA loans, redlining, zoning, credit access, the suburbs, and more for centuries.

Can you explain to us, then, how their now fraternizing over drinks in our ‘hood, which until recently was avoided by both private and federal banks for its Black and immigrant residents, IS NOT recreating this exclusive access?

This is exactly the case at “Alma’s,” a bar recently opened underneath apartments that house Latinx families, including elderly women and children at one of the most disinvested intersections for our community through at least two decades.

The reason it’s outrageous that this bar has suddenly opened in our vicinity is because little Brown kids from our community were killed across the street from its corner, and indeed on the same block.

As our neighborhood still reels from racist disinvestment in health, housing, and educational opportunities for our families, then, the new bar acts like a vortex, vacuuming in white money away for white investors’ keep, all while a Brown reality surrounding it remains politically and socially unaccounted for.

The census tract for the area, 191410, shows a Median Household Income of $34,000 a year, or roughly half of L.A. County’s, placing the majority of families in the area well within the federal poverty level.

On top of this, public records state that at least 20% of people living on the same tract where the bar now operates rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries. This is a rate second only to that of the tract right below, 191420, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

That’s approximately 600 people in a six block radius, not counting undocumented and/or unhoused residents, of whom there are many along Virgil avenue, barely getting by, as white people throw money away on lavish drinks for themselves at this establishment, which was permitted to operate after a spot-zoning ordinance by local City Council Member, Mitch O’Farrell, in 2018.

The bar is also situated directly beneath residential housing, where Latinx abuelitas and mijas have resided for decades, and is also less than 500 feet from our community’s local Lockwood Elementary school. I’ve got a feeling that this wouldn’t happen in neighborhoods throughout the Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, or Malibu, so why should it happen in ours?

Due in no small part to those whiter, more exclusive neighborhoods, as of January 2021, the median price for a single-family home in L.A. County is now at $650,000. This makes the tiny blocks in our neighborhood much of all we have for the foreseeable future.

Yet suddenly, in our neighborhood, white liquor licenses, paid for by white patrons, are welcome? That is the definition of Planning Violence, meaning that is how inequality for some is designated, built, and manufactured, while access and rights are reserved for just a privileged few.

Walking past “Alma’s” recently, Mr. President, I could spot shame on some of the faces behind the bar’s screen, a shame betraying cowardice, as they looked back in our direction but still failed to see our humanity before returning to a fantasy world which plays more like a nightmare for those of us only in its peripherals.

Candles for Anthony, a youth and local in the neighborhood slain in October 2019 just over 300 feet from where “Alma’s” now operates.

Long-time neighbors and community members all around the new bar have also witnessedyellow tape cordoning off white chalk lines, where Brown bodies fell to their deaths on the street, as well as police handcuffing and incapacitating Brown youth before hauling them off the street, even during quarantine, and more.

And so we hope you can appreciate, Mr. President, that if there’s one thing we know after these experiences:

It’s that we don’t lose Brown lives on our streets for white wine bars to take home–outside of our neighborhoods–the pay.

Alma’s” disruptive presence in our community is not equity for our kids. It’s not support for 600 neighbors on food-stamps, and it’s certainly not justice for redlined Black and immigrant families here; it’s a product of Jim Crow policies by public officials in Los Angeles who shut the door to working-class communities but line boulevards for investors.

To be sure about our neighborhood, though, Mr. President, please also note that it was designated as a “Promise Zone” under the Obama administration in 2014.


According to the fact sheet for Promise Zone neighborhoods in Los Angeles, strategies to create equity for communities here are supposed to include (bold J.T.’s):

  • Increasing housing affordability by preserving existing affordable housing and partnering with housing developers to increase the supply of affordable new housing to prevent displacement.
  • Ensuring all youth have access to a high-quality education, and are prepared for college and careers through its Promise Neighborhoods initiative, by partnering with the Youth Policy Institute and L.A. Unified School District to expand its Full Service Community Schools model from 7 schools to all 45 Promise Zone schools by 2019.
  • Ensuring youth and adult residents have access to high-quality career and technical training opportunities that prepare them for careers in high-growth industries through partnerships with career and technical training schools and the Los Angeles Community College District.
  • Investing in transit infrastructure including bus rapid transit lines and bike lanes, and promoting transit-oriented development (TOD) that attracts new businesses and creates jobs.
  • Charging its Promise Zone Director and Advisory Board with eliminating wasteful and duplicative government programs.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, the Youth Policy Institute was shut down for embezzlement in 2019, leaving this part of our promise glaringly unfulfilled. But in addition to goals laid out by the Promise Zone we’d still like to see come to fruition, we’ve also got a simple suggestion for what our neighborhoods can use to begin creating equity here:

Federally subsidized housing and zero-interest loans for Black and immigrant communities, so we may live without the threat of displacement and banishment and open our own shops in our neighborhoods; that’s all.

In terms of “wasteful and duplicative government programs” to eliminate, personally I’d submit that the 13th District Council Member’s office for our community has fit this profile for decades, and that it should be shut down and rebuilt for our communities more aligned with the interests of our Promise Zone.

J.T.

America’s Greatness Has Always Been Measured by the Scale of White Violence

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 74)

As businesses burn and sirens embitter the night air, under the shadow of a president who was elected to office on a lie, and then a million of them, what could we expect from our nation following four years of his flipping off the system?

Several papers, including the New York Times and the L.A. Times have published headlines on broken windows, but on the “big five” social media networks, many have seen how the vast majority of looters are not Black people nor immigrants. For one, footage abounds of mask and hoodie-wearing white groups, so-called “anarchists” and Trump supporters, taking liberty while police focus on peaceful Black & Brown bodies on the front-lines to advance a perverted lust for mayhem unrelated to racial justice.

For another, when someone points their finger at impoverished Black and Brown people associated with acts of vandalism or violence–which is a form of white supremacy in itself–just remind them that years from now, the biggest criminals will not be people who broke windows, or the people who stole a flat-screen TV, nor even those who wrecked a police car or two.

Years from now, the biggest criminals will be the barely-elected public officials like Mayor Garcetti and Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who, along with their counterparts from the National Guard, clad in M4 assault rifles, looted democracy in Los Angeles overnight, rebranding martial law as “curfew” so it sounds less out of a Banana Republic.

The biggest looters will also be people like Jose Huizar–the L.A. City Council member under investigation by the FBI for bribery–and his enablers at L.A. City Hall, including his fellow council-members, who refused to say anything about their colleague stealing from the public good until it was no longer newsworthy given the open secret that council-members do the bidding of real estate developers and police unions instead of serving the 250,000 residents who actually form their districts.

What will also be clear following this weekend is that the United States needed no wall to keep rapists and violence from MS-13 out, as President Trump promised to voters was the case. Because we grow rapists and violence right here in the U.S.A. better than anywhere else.

Consider how after four years, at the highest levels of government, our greatest mascots for American thrashing of the rules have been Brett Kavanaugh, Donald J. Trump, and Addison Mitchell McConnell, whom to any accusations of misconduct or being held to the same standard that any Black or Brown person charged with a crime during these protests will be: they give a bit, fat, and raging middle finger.

After years of such disregard for fairness, we’ve simply gotten used to white men like these shoving personal responsibility to the American public out of the way, not to mention their playing all out warfare against their opponents–against “the establishment,” or against the “liberal media”–demonizing their opposition, denying them even an ounce of dignity.

But in the billions of acres that comprise the United States, there are still many young people out there, including young white children in America, who might be watching such disregard for the rules.

For those young white Americans–including anarchists–in the 21st century, what does it say if their own president, and their own supreme court justice, and Congress’s top senator can flip everyone off?

The implication is that they can do it, too. To place this into perspective, recall a few names we’ve forgotten these past few years: Patrick Crusius, Devin Patrick Kelley, and Stephen Paddock, or some of the latest white men to shoot down helpless bystanders with assault rifles during the last three years of the Trump administration.

It’s unclear whether the FBI labeled even one of these shooters domestic terrorists, but such silence also sends a message. Such silence is also violence; Paddock was 56 years old, while Crusius and Kelley were 21 and 26 years old, respectively. But they were all 100% white homegrown Americans, each inheriting a legacy of (white) violence over the past two decades, but practically incited over the last four years from our elected leadership, so that if anyone still doubts whether language denying the humanity of “the other” has psychological effects on a generation, these men–like young white “anarchists” exploiting Black Lives Matter protests today–have shown otherwise, each by contributing their own part to a uniquely American legacy of (white) violence.

In an editorial for the New York Times, Charles M. Blow thoroughly and succinctly reminds readers of how (white) violence is also like a birth language for a nation that’s been called the United States of Amnesia, forgetting its rhetoric of “Manifest Destiny” and “Segregation forever!” until it screeches back into range:

We can bemoan the violence that has attended some of these protests, but we must also recognize that…White people in America have rioted, slaughtered, massacred and destroyed for centuries, often directing their anger and violence at black people and Native Americans, to take what they had or destroy it, to unleash their rage and assert their superiority, to instill terror, to maintain power.

Today, other inheritors of this legacy of violence include white police officers like those in Atlanta, who, just this past weekend, viciously pulled a young African American couple out of their car–supposedly for violating a haphazardly made up curfew–despite footage showing a white woman in a car in front of the couple, who was also presumably violating the same curfew, but who the officers don’t even bother speaking to. After one officer pulls at the young couple’s car-doors, a swarm of more officers huddle in. Then, a National Guard troop runs up to slash the tires of the vehicle. Meanwhile, the white woman in the car ahead casually drives away, unfazed. It looked like a scene straight out of the 1943 Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles, if not 1930s Nazi Germany. It was actually only a slightly different day in the American police state that happened to be filmed for the internet to bear witness.

Yet, what can we expect? Those police officers in Atlanta have president Trump’s backing in Washington D.C., a world of courtrooms overseen by judges like Brett Kavanaugh, and mayors and commanders not so unlike Eric Garcetti or Alex Villanueva, a myriad of whom have made clear that they’re taking this system for all its got, that is, until the wheels fall off. It appears that the wheels may finally be doing just that.

J.T.

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A candlelight vigil for Cary Rodriguez, 21, at Melrose and North Westmoreland avenues

This Memorial Day Weekend, Honor Lives Lost Close to Home

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 67)

Truly the best way to honor Memorial Day this year would be to end all wars waged by the United States, which take U.S. lives to fight and lose as well as any others.

But another way to honor lives lost to senseless wars would be to consider every life taken by senseless violence inside the nation’s borders as a life also worth commemorating.

At the local level for yours truly, five years ago this same weekend, a 17 year old named Leonardo Gabriel Martinez was shot and killed at the intersection of Burns street and Virgil avenue in the Virgil Village area. Since that day, eighteen more people have been murdered no more than two miles from that intersection, the overwhelming amount being young, male and Latino. But women’s lives have also been lost due to violence in the area, including one pregnant woman’s.

In a two-week interval this year, between March and April, three men were shot and killed in East Hollywood, while one was stabbed to death.

With respect for each of these lives, which all entail grieving families & communities, listed here are names, age, date of death, and location of decease for homicide victims in East Hollywood during the last five years:

Javier Resendiz, Jr., 27
January 03, 2015
600 block of North Alexandria avenue

Leonardo Gabriel Martinez, 17
May 23, 2015
North Virgil and Burns avenues

Wilfredo Fernando Portillo, 57
March 22, 2016
811 North Virgil avenue

Lauren Elaine Olguin, 32
April 12, 2016
500 North Virgil avenue

Hector Orlando Estrada Maldonado Jr., 20
September 16, 2016
550 North Heliotrope drive

Walter Martinez Jr., 23
September 16, 2016
550 North Heliotrope drive

Marvin Hernandez, 21
May 21, 2018
609 North Virgil avenue

Andre Pierre Warren-Cyrus, 18
June 14, 2018
North Virgil avenue & Middlebury street

Isaac Dubon, 18
November 7, 2018
1000 North Serrano avenue

Cary Rodriguez, 21
May 5, 2019
Melrose and North Westmoreland avenue

Herbert Antonio Martinez, 56
June 10, 2019
5200 West Sunset boulevard

Cindy Yaneth Lopez Vasquez, 28

July 18, 2019
900 North Oxford avenue

Alexis Gihovani Lopez, 22
July 26, 2019
4550 Marathon street

Aristides Antonio Ruiz Jr., 29
October 28, 2019
North Virgil avenue and Lockwood street

Roberto DeJesus Hernandez, 53
December 21, 2019
800 North Mariposa avenue

Fernando Puga, 28
March 21, 2020
1129 North Madison avenue

Duncan Eric Campbell Jr., 51
March 29, 2020
800 North Mariposa avenue

Alexander Wildberger-Negrete, age not listed
April 6, 2020
1648 North Kingsley drive

Joshua Alexander Andrade Galvez, 24
April 6, 2020
4477 Beverly boulevard

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 05

Is it still safe for my mother to go out to open her newsstand? Should I continue to walk alongside her when I’m able to make it to her right as she closes shop? If I do, what are the odds of our walking home safely at this point? Is our community more at risk because of Coronavirus, or because of gun violence on our streets? These are questions I ask myself in the wake of another shooting in the neighborhood which has unnecessarily taken yet another life from our community.

Does poverty meet the definition of a disease? It’s certainly been passed down by many generations and is spreading throughout our country. In Los Angeles, this has become ever clearer with the rising number of tents erected by young, old, Black, White, Asian and more people locked out of housing in an increasingly wealth-driven city. But unlike encampments, shootings in our neighborhood take place more covertly. While they cost families and neighborhoods far more than makeshift tent cities, their scene is registered quickly before vanishing into our memory banks. But we do not forget these terrors once we’ve seen them up close. Death sprawled on the street casts a shadow nearly as long as the night.

A quick search through the L.A. Times HOMICIDE REPORT will show that the overwhelming majority of fatalities in Los Angeles are of Black and Latino males.

It will also show that in the last twelve months, 510 people in L.A. lost their lives due to armed violence, which is a preventable crime. The majority of these deaths don’t make the daily paper anymore, but Fernie’s shooting was the third fatality in less than six months within a 1.5 mile radius for my neighborhood, and the the sixth fatality in twelve months for the East Hollywood area overall.

Are we able to call an intervention with our L.A. city councilmember and other leaders on this situation over Zoom, or does that remain impractical? On the list of priorities for the city in lieu of COVID-19, just where does gun violence inflicted on our young men rank for our city? I know I’m not the only one asking these questions, but if COVID-19 has shown anything, it’s that a community’s net health is determined by every single person who comprises that community. Here is to lifting up once again our call for a better way.

J.T.

Temp

Madison Block Loses a Little Brother for the Ages, Fernie “Belok” Puga

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 04)

It was hardly before 7 pm when my mom heard the shot on her way home from work. She described it as something like a loud thunderclap. She is now sixty years old. The harrowing clap terrified her and forced her to turn her cart back racing the opposite way. The path along the street is one I’ve walked with her over a thousand times throughout the 18+ years that her stand’s doors have opened for the world on Santa Monica boulevard. The newsstand is a fixture, like the sign that marks the name of the boulevard itself, or the lights that guide the road. But mom’s stand is also subject to a window of time. One day, time will close its doors on the stand’s wooden frames too. The stand will also leave its place as any fixture is destined to do.

When I think back to when I first met Fernando (or Fernie), I remember the hopefulness of his greeting. There was a way that he lifted his whole chin to salute you, accentuating his cheeks and arching his eyes back as he focused them on yours while letting out an unhesitating smirk. This let you know that he was completely in the space with you as a kindred spirit. Fernie’s ability to hear you out was just as affirming. There was a way that you could express yourself with him without fearing that he’d use it against you. In a crowd of many friends–mostly teenage boys–it was difficult to find that. But Fernie was consistent. He was never out to get anyone unnecessarily. He was a loyal little brother to a pack of young men without many fathers to count among the ranks. He was there for you in any case, and was also bold on his own, which he often had to be, without flinching.

Whether you knew it or not, if you frequented Cahuenga Public Library, you were literally his neighbor. Whether you knew it or not, Fernie wore all the goodness of his neighborhood proudly on his chin. His violent loss now marks the end of an era for the community. His pack of brothers are grieving for him, praying to escape from the nightmare of a thousand memories now flowing out in his name. I salute these brothers–and also every sister and mother and father who Fernie leaves behind–and uplift Fernando “Belok” Puga’s name. Whether it’s clear or not, Fernie now walks with each of us as a giant among the stars as we continue past the boulevard on our way to a home which is still our home. A home we have to continue to claim for a community to continue surviving.

J.T.