Advocates of Color Discuss How to Reclaim Streets for All

When communities of color are truly engaged in planning decisions, it leads to more holistic solutions.

Untokening attendees in front of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park, L.A. Photo: Michael Anaya
Untokening attendees in front of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park, L.A. Photo: Michael Anaya

“This is the most colorful room I’ve seen in a while,” proclaimed Dr. Adonia Lugo, co-organizer of Untokening California, a multiracial convening in Los Angeles focused on mobility justice, as she looked around the room the morning of Saturday, November 4. “This is only able to happen because of years of relationship-building.”

With a focus on centering “Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and others from marginalized groups,” the Untokening sought to create a space for people to think about what it means to reclaim streets in terms of culture, class, identity, and community.

From the very beginning, Lugo saying that the representation in the room was possible because of years of genuine relationship-building already challenged the notion that merely having diverse faces in a room creates inclusive spaces. If the first time communities of color are being engaged is at a meeting, groups and organizations have failed.

When we genuinely engage communities of color, it brings greater complexity to the issues we face and allows us to come up with more holistic solutions. Sitting at a table that morning, I started hearing stories about the motivations of attendees for attending. Georgina Serrano of T.R.U.S.T. South LA told us of her work merging affordable housing and transportation advocacy, an intersection I see as crucial in order to approach community development in an equitable manner. It all boils down to helping residents have agency over their staying power in their communities and addressing factors that may serve as impediments to that.

Serrano spoke of the challenge of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities near her office in South LA. According to L.A.’s Vision Zero Safety Study 2017, sixteen of the twenty-five most dangerous neighborhoods for cyclists and pedestrians are in South L.A. One way Serrano’s organization has addressed the unsafe traffic conditions is to host slow bike rides to calm traffic along the routes. Her story inspired us to think about the many roles something like cycling can play in promoting community safety and justice.

During the first panel discussion of the day, each panelist addressed some aspect of mobility justice through an equity lens, each adding another piece to the definition of equitable. The most valuable voices sometimes are the ones bringing up intersections we often neglect, and those bringing more nuance to our histories.

Kishi Hundley, mark! Lopez, Chelsea VonChaz, Alia Phelps, Allison Mannos, Erick Huerta, Angela Mooney D'Arcy at the Untokening panel. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Kishi Hundley, mark! Lopez, Chelsea VonChaz, Alia Phelps, Allison Mannos, Erick Huerta, Angela Mooney D’Arcy at the Untokening panel. Photo: Lynda Lopez

The first speaker was Angela Mooney D’Arcy, executive director of Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. When we think of gentrification and displacement, we commonly think of it as a naturally occurring phenomenon, but Mooney D’Arcy pushed back on that. “The first gentrification was when Natives were removed and their land taken,” she said. She stressed the importance of centering Indigenous peoples in conversations around development, particularly when thinking about the bloody history of our land. “You can’t heal when the wound is still festering,” she emphasized. She suggests a new approach for marginalized communities to think about taking ownership of their neighborhoods. “Rather than decolonize, we need to reclaim and remake spaces.” This was a call to action for communities who are often at the receiving end of the remaking, rather than paving their own way, and often not by choice.

The next speaker was a perfect example of someone working to empower her community to be in control of decision-making. Alia Phelps of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) was born and raised in Oakland, a city she’s seen experience “rapid change.” Her story demonstrates the power of engaging ordinary residents in fights for their communities.

Her story of involvement began when she was a mom sitting at a bus stop in Oakland. As she sat there, a man approached her and asked her questions about transit service. “Do buses come enough?” he asked. Those questions led her to get involved with the campaign for better transit, which included fighting against fare increases within the local transit district AC Transit and bringing bus shelters to bus stops in front of senior facilities.

For Phelps, the fight for transit is closely tied to the fight against gentrification. “When I was young, it was mostly people of color on the bus, now there’s a ton of white people,” she said. “There are two kinds of bus-riders: folks who have no choices and others who have a car but choose to ride.” Phelps says we need to be fighting for better transit, while simultaneously fighting against rent increases and evictions. We often see the fight for better transit far removed from issues like housing, but if transit access is improved without taking housing affordability into account, it can contribute to higher property values and housing costs, so that improvements become associated with displacement.

Untokening attendees. Photo: Michael Anaya
Untokening attendees. Photo: Michael Anaya

Kishi Hundley of T.R.U.S.T. South LA. told another story that built on the theme of displacement. Hundley was one of the most compelling speakers for me, partly because of how candid she was. Hundley spoke of her own story of fighting displacement from South Central and how T.R.U.S.T. South LA helped her win the right to return to her home once her building is reconstructed.

In addition to the challenges of maintaining stable housing, Hundley discussed the difficulty she has faced finding a stable job and how that intersects with transit justice. “I have a car and a bike, but sometimes I have no money for the car,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of employment out there.”

Hundley describes riding bikes for fun and as a lifestyle, but it goes deeper than that for her. “We sometimes don’t have a way to make ends meet, so we ride our bikes.” It was important to hear Hundley’s story because biking often gets stereotyped as a leisure activity for white people, but it can mean so much more than that to communities. For some people, cycling provides mobility when financial strains limits other options. When we consider biking in a broader sense, meaning a variety of things to different people, that may change our priorities in terms of biking infrastructure.

The final panelist to speak was mark! Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ), which works alongside residents of Southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach. Lopez first took a minute to acknowledge the uniqueness and importance of The Untokening convening. “Conversations about us happen without us often,” he said. “That is why this space is important.”

Lopez described how EYCEJ started with a basis on transportation issues. “60,000 trucks drive through our communities daily (a blogpost he wrote discusses this further),” he said. “It’s a dangerous place to be. Our neighborhoods are cut by freeways.”

Even though EYCEJ is located outside the city limits, its location in Los Angeles County means it is impacted by traffic in and out of the city. Given the challenges these communities face, Lopez expressed his disbelief about being continuously being left out of decision-making. “It’s a trip to be excluded from conversations when it affects us,” he said. “City of Los Angeles conversations happen without us.”

Lopez went onto describe what he sees as the meaning of mobility justice, which he sees as going far beyond bikes, buses, and trains. “It’s this idea of self-determination. So much has been enacted on our communities. We want folks to understand that what exists isn’t natural,” he said. “Once we understand these things are planned, we can make our own plans and change the trajectory of our neighborhoods.” Lopez emphasized that communities aren’t underresourced because of the innate lack of resources, but because resources have been stolen.

The panelist conversation gave way to a frutiful Q & A session. I was the first to ask a question, which I directed at Alia Phelps of ACCE. I was struck at how intersectional the fight for better transit was described in all the narratives I’d heard, a welcome departure from the narrowness in which its often portrayed. One of the questions I asked was, “How do you merge the fight for better transit and the struggle against gentrification?”

It all leads back to intersectionality, Phelps said. “Make sure campaigns aren’t working in silos,” she stressed, “Fight for our varying struggles.”

Mooney D’Arcy continued to drive home the point of being intentional of who we include in our struggles. “It’s important to include Native nations,” she said. “We aren’t doing enough for there to be entry points for Indigenous and Native people.” She also challenged how we often think of vacant land as representing nothing and being ours for development, but how is that connected to lost Native land? It is these historical points that can challenge us to reconsider how we take ownership over land without taking into account the peoples who once inhabited it. What can equitable development look like when we approach it through a historical lens?

This question of equitable development can often become even more complicated when we factor in all the players involved. Advocates of color often have to interact with government agencies or nonprofit organizations, which can often contribute to tokenization and ultimately stymie what they can do. It can ultimately lead to communities deciding to increase the outside pressure on institutions.

“We don’t want to sit in on a million meetings with you [government agencies and non-inclusive institutions] as you tell us what we need,” Phelps said. “This is why direct action is needed.”

Lopez echoed the sentiment and described what we need to be doing to hold elected officials accountable. “If you are a politican and you are f—ing up, I’m going to let you know,” he said. “The more comfortable we are calling our elected officials out, the less comfortable they’ll be f—ing us over.”

Allison Mannos speaks during the panel. Photo: Michael Anaya
Allison Mannos speaks during the panel. Photo: Michael Anaya

Allison Mannos of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy also expressed that the lack of vision in bureacracy can potentially be an opportunity for us to be pushing our better ideas. “We can’t just be in a battle stance, we need to develop vision and proposals,” she said.

As the discussion wrapped up, it all led back to the idea of tokening and how we can move past that to essentially untokenize our movements. Part of that is being honest about how organizational structures and funding play a role in that.

Hundley spoke of her challenges seeking employment and how that relates to the question of untokening. “Our work is tokenized and we aren’t valued.” Audience members seemed particularly unnerved that Hundley was having trouble finding work, especially given her extensive work in her community. Mannos said, “We’ve got to avoid situations where people are exploited as volunteers.”

Mooney D’Arcy also expressed. “We’ve got to hold philanthropy and funders accountable. They’ll spend more money patting each other on the back than on the actual work.”

Along with funding streams, we need to consider how the very structure of organizations can contribute to the marginalization and tokenization of communities. Lopez described the unsettling nature of the corporatization of organizations, with boards and pay scales structured as such. “There’s levels to this nonprofit thing. It’s important to understand how organizations grow and question whether they are doing it in a just way,” he added.

EYCEJ seeks to create an environment in which the community has ownership and drives vision. No one can join the board of EYCEJ unless they’ve been involved for two years and everything at EYCEJ is initiated by its core membership. “At our org, our pay scale is flat,” he said. “Our interns get the same pay as everyone else. It’s easier to have accountability when everyone’s getting paid the same,” Lopez said. “Transformation isn’t just looking out, but looking in.”

It was important to end the panel on this idea of looking in. While we work to dismantle the oppressive structures that weigh down our communities from the outside, how do we also look internally to see how we replicate those very systems? As we consider this very question of how to build equitable communities, streets, and transit; we are confronted with difficult choices in regards to how we approach fighting for those resources. At the core of it is the question of how to do that in a just way.

Erick Huerta speaks during the panel. Photo: Michael Anaya
Erick Huerta speaks during the panel. Photo: Michael Anaya

Looking inward is an essential part of our work, even more so when employees of organizations are attempting to do work in communities they don’t live in. Much of the conversations at The Untokening were based on wanting to push back on those outside organizations because they are often the ones perpetuating tokenization. It’s much harder to build in a place you’re not from and when your organization does not reflect the communities you seek to represent. Our movements require allies from all sides, but that requires introspection of all our roles. It means being more intentional, being willing to sacrifice expediency for the sake of genuine relationship-building, and being able to truly relinquish power when necessary. It means challenging notions of what it means to be a true partner with communities.

It’s difficult work, and none of us have clear answers. I would say we all walked away from this conversation with more questions. However, the revelation of new questions means we are getting somewhere because we are being critical and not settling for what’s easy, but rather challenging ourselves to refocus our lens.

The panel set a good foundation for what the rest of the day had in store, which continued to unravel the complex idea of what it means to truly reclaim streets for all.

Kishi Hundley brought this idea of reclamation home when she talked about wanting people to know she had a right to ride her bike on the street.

“We have a right to use our [bike] lanes; they’re not just your lanes. They’re our lanes.”

Thanks to Streetsblog L.A. communities editor Sahra Sulaiman for help with this post.

  • Remember the subway

    I’m wary of the assumption that improved transportation infrastructure necessarily leads to gentrification. In case after case, large-scale transportation improvements have allowed city residents to move to more affordable places. Housing reformers lauded the New York City subway when it was built because it allowed residents of densely populated wards to move to Brooklyn and Queens, where land was cheaper, density far lower, and apartments bigger. The Interstate Highway system is another–a massive housing subsidy in the form of federal road building, as it (and FHA loans, notoriously restricted to whites) allowed houses to be built on cheap peripheral land close enough to downtown to commute from.

    Granted, if you lived out in these areas before the transportation improvements, you’d see your land values rise. But this land was mainly agricultural and non-residential, and infrastructure improvements transformed it into an affordable housing supply for millions.

    Housing prices balloon when there are too few improvements to satisfy the demand for good infrastructure. The 606 accelerated the housing price spike along its route because it was the only thing of its kind. But if elevated parks and paths were built all over the city–in neighborhoods on the South Side, West Side, and North Side–I doubt prices would increase so dramatically. Imagine if the federal gov’t had only built one, 3-mile long interstate highway leading out of Chicago. You can bet that housing prices would be really high along the route! But since there are a zillion highways ringing the city, you can get cheap housing in a range of communities in the metro region.

    The answer for anti-gentrification advocates can’t possibly be to stop all neighborhood improvements. It should be the opposite. We need more transit, more parks, more 606s, especially in infrastructure-neglected communities on the south and west sides. Community input matters. When done right, transportation infrastructure has the power to improve people’s lives and lower the cost of living at the same time.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Apparently Americans believe that you have to build ugly unlivable cities so poor people can have suitable surroundings.

  • rohmen

    No, what I think many believe is that in building pretty, livable cities you do it in a way that doesn’t simply take the people who were living in an ugly unlivable pocket and simply push them over into the ugly unlivable pocket next door to make room for gentrification.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Right, because making one part of a city nice automatically makes the rest ugly.

    I’m an American living in Germany and often travel around Europe with Americans. They are always amazed at how nice the cities are. They usually put it down to the age of the cities, forgetting that a lot of European cities were knocked flat in WWII.

    The real real why European cities are so nice is that that efforts are made to make them nice. Instead of having laws against loitering, they have wide sidewalks, and sell the space to restaurant owners for a profit instead of giving it to drivers for free. They plant trees and flowers. They invest in making the place look nice an push land owners to reciprocate. Th police the streets respectfully. They prioritize slow traffic over fast traffic. They attempt to serve the community instead of the region. They mix uses in neighborhoods to reduce travel distances. The emphasize the uniqueness of each neighborhood, city and town. They encourage businesses that require zero investment, instead of encouraging rich people to bring in bland outside ideas. And so on.

    You firmly believe that cities have to be ugly. You don’t know any other word. But they don’t. It’s not about money, it’s about design.

  • rohmen

    Right…….. because no european cities are set up in a way where there’s rich,vibrant city cores, and poor, under-resourced suburbs and outer neighborhoods.

    If anything, after years of inner-cities sitting in complete neglect in the U.S., this country (especially Chicago) is marching towards the Paris model—vibrant, transit rich, and well-off city cores, with lower income, marginalized and immigrant populations pushed out to the city edges and the suburbs.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Don’t ever change anything. you live in the best of all possible worlds. You know everything there is to know, so don’t try to widen your horizons.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hey folks, let’s keep the conversation civil. Thanks.

  • Guy Ross

    …except for the fact that the same transportation options exist throughout the entire city of Chicago. It’s a tough case to make that the neighborhoods of South Side, Garfield Park, Cabrini and Washington Park are somehow wealthy despite the fact they are in the core (albeit not the loop) and enjoy the best transportation options the city has to offer.

    Chicago is ‘marching’ nowhere as a city. Rather, it is changing slowly due to demographics and economics. Transportation has literally zero to do with it.

  • rohmen

    I’d agree that Chicago is changing due to demographics and economics—namely, it’s becoming hip to stay in the city, so you’re increasingly seeing people with money do so. Being able to stay in the City, especially with kids and in a SFH, is increasing being looked at as almost a status symbol.

    I disagree that transportation isn’t playing a role, though. The people staying in the City want to be close to rapid transit, which is why we’ve been seeing a steady march of gentrification up Milwaukee following the blue line.

    The fact that it hasn’t spilled into the south side, Garfield Park, etc. I think has more to do with the City’s past (and arguably ongoing) segregation and redlining than anything else.

  • Guy Ross

    Totally agree with this. I took issue (and take issue) with anyone saying that good transportation is the primary force of rapidly increasing rents and therefore a threat to the poor. It is one of a number of factors and I would argue not in the top 5.

    Seeing white people with a paper cup full of expensive coffee on the other hand….

  • Dale_Doback

    “Civil”?? But saying: “Seeing white people with a paper cup full of expensive coffee” is completely okay, right? Just imagine if someone said: “Seeing a black person with a cup of Crown Royal” … I bet you’d ban them from the entire discussion. It’s quite in vogue to hate white people these days all in the name of misplaced anti-‘gentrification’ wannabe activism. Sad…..

  • Dale_Doback

    – Seeing white people with a paper cup full of expensive coffee on the other hand….
    – Seeing a black person with a cup of Crown Royal on the other hand….
    – Seeing a Mexican with a bottle of Dos Equis on the other hand….

    Isn’t it funny how you neo-racists work these days … It’s like you’re so blinded by your own identity politics, you can’t even make out which way is up. It’s a fascinating study, please go on. I have my notebook out and at the ready.

  • Guy Ross

    The charge is ‘reverse racism’? Is that it? That I make a non-disparaging comment about the majority race is somehow comparable to your instances of getting busted (let’s be honest here) with disparaging comments about minorities is somehow equitable?

    Man, that’s a wobbly tower of offense you are building there.

  • Dale_Doback

    Oh no, no need to go “reverse” racism here … let’s just go with plain old racism. I mean, that’s what it is.

    “your instances of getting busted” …. wait, what? So now, because I’m white, I’ve obviously been “busted” before. Man, your generalizations just keep getting better and better.

    No, I’m not offended at all, I could really care less to be honest with you. I just find it absolutely hilarious how far you neo-racists have swung to the other side. And again, the really comical part is that you can’t even notice it, at least, not from any real objective sense.

    I realize how fashionable white racism is these days, I mean, go to any community blog and you’ll find nothing but. Even whites are getting in on the action as white-guilt plays into the hands of these ‘activists’ like an aged, fine wine. Go ahead, have fun. I’m not playing the victim here, that’s your job. But I do call out subtle racism when I find it, I don’t care who it’s directed at.

  • Dale_Doback

    Looks like the mod is deleting my comments because he’s as big a race-baiter as you are … sad … the “antifascists” of the day happen to be the biggest fascists. Have fun in your bubble guys!

  • Guy Ross

    Great take Dale. Do you have anything to add to the discussion about transportation and gentrification? Maybe that’s why your comment got deleted: we try to keep it tight around here.

  • Dale_Doback

    If you want to have an honest conversation about “gentrification” while simultaneously superimposing race-bait tactics, then no, I have nothing to add. Gentrification has nothing to do with black or white and everything to do with green. The fact my comments were deleted for calling out a post about “white coffee drinkers” {which could just as easily been replaced with “black 40 drinkers”} tells me everything I need to know about the type of discourse I’d receive here. I actually care deeply about Chicago and these are interesting conversations to have. But not through a filtered, biased lens. I have better things to do, and much better resources to engage with.

  • Guy Ross

    So I clearly understand you: you are taking serious issue with a non-condescending generalization based on race and in the same breath claiming that gentrification has *nothing* to do with race?

    Sure, Dale. I wish you well with your other resources. Godspeed.

  • Dale_Doback

    No, you clearly don’t understand. That’s the issue. I’d try and explain, but as I said, censorship is an ugly practice that I can’t condone or support through my clicks. Which is why this will be my last. Be well.