For many Ramona Gardens residents, an alley a few blocks north of Lancaster Avenue that connects Murchison Street with Soto Street is the easiest way to access Hazard Park, an MTA bus stop and other nearby services. But the alley is broken up, cluttered with trash and dirtied with graffiti, and with traffic flowing indiscriminately in both directions, it is unsafe for seniors and young children to use.
But Ramona Gardens teens and pre-teens who belong to the Youth Council at Legacy LA, a youth development organization, have renamed it the “Alley of Dreams,” because of its huge potential for their underserved community. The Alley of Dreams was the backdrop for the May 16 “Invest in Me!” youth-led town hall, where the housing community’s youngest citizens advocated for more city and county funds for youth development programs.
“They say we are the future but they don’t offer us opportunities or programs,” complained Araceli Rodríguez, a 16-year-old who just completed her first year at Youth Council.
Rodríguez said she was shocked to discover that as much as 50% of the City of Los Angeles’ budget goes towards the Los Angeles Police Department, while less than 1% of the municipality’s General Fund dollars go to programs that engage youth.
“We’re not advocating getting rid of police, [but] so much is focused on law enforcement, incarceration and criminalization,” said Lou Calanche, executive director of Legacy LA. “There needs to be an investment in youth development so that there isn’t a need to fund juvenile halls and continue to fund probation departments at the rate that we are funding them.”
According to Legacy, youth development organizations in Boyle Heights spend an average of $106 per youth per month. In contrasts, it costs taxpayers $15,340 per month to house one person at Eastlake Juvenile Hall, a county run detention center not far from Ramona Gardens.
Youth who spoke at the town hall –which marked the end of the Youth Council’s 10-month program– asked for the city to invest 1% of its total public safety dollars towards centers and programs that prepare youth for success. They also presented a plan to transform the Alley of Dreams, to make it a safe and enjoyable asset to the Ramona Gardens community.
For the town hall, organized in part by the Boyle Heights for Youth campaign, the alley was decorated with photos of local teens provided by the Los Fotos Project. Musicians from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts performed while artists from Self Help Graphics silkscreened shirts that were given to participants.
Attendants were asked to fill out postcards addressed to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and CD 14 Councilman José Huízar, asking them to consider funding a Los Angeles youth department, similar to ones now in place in New York and San Francisco.
Although the request comes late in the city’s funding calendar, Calanche said it would be a good opportunity “to teach youth that they have a say in the city budget.”
Calanche said that for many teens growing up in Ramona Gardens, the Youth Council is their first opportunity to look into the root causes of poverty and other social ills that plague their community.
“They start learning that the problems in the community are not necessarily their fault,” she pointed out. “They start learning that there are these systems in place, that sometimes perpetuate these issues.”
Rodríguez said the first year in Youth Council opened her eyes. “I got to learn about social justice,” the teen said. “That, you don’t get to learn in school.”
NOTE: Boyle Heights For Youth is a campaign of Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights, an initiative funded by the California Endowment that also supports Boyle Heights Beat.