Getting around the streets of Boyle Heights has become a lot harder for long-time resident Jerry Lopez.
The 60-year-old Eastside native used to go about his day driving the streets of Los Angeles much like many others in today’s fast-paced world; but that all changed on September 17, 2010.
That was the night when Lopez suffered two debilitating strokes within a two-hour period while homeless and living in the parking lot at All Souls Catholic Church in Alhambra.
“I do everything big,” said Lopez, referring to the back-to-back strokes.
Today, Lopez still cruises his beloved community, but after developing several complications resulting from the strokes he suffered, he now travels up and down the sidewalks by wheelchair.
While in his wheelchair, his eyes have been opened to what he calls “deplorable conditions” residents must endure when using often inaccessible sidewalks. Since then, Lopez has been on a mission to bring awareness to this issue.
“Many people in the community will not speak-up about the sidewalk problems. They are afraid to say anything,” said Lopez. “I will be their voice.”
Just as Lopez pushes to affect change on the sidewalks of Boyle Heights, 14th District Councilmember Jose Huizar launched his Clean Communities Initiative that plans to repair some of the worst broken and buckled sidewalks in his district.
On April 1, the Los Angeles City Council approved his plan and allocated $250,000 in funding to address the sidewalk problems in Huizar’s district.
This initiative comes none too soon for Lopez who feels the problem is much worse in Boyle Heights than in other areas.
“You don’t see these kind of things in South Pasadena or in Montebello. I mean there’s problems everywhere, but it is worse here,” said Lopez.
He added that L.A. sidewalks are not just an inconvenience, they are not in compliance with Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates.
Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to make their programs accessible to the disabled, which includes physical access to government buildings, services and events.
Lopez began a personal quest to photograph and document the obstacles disabled residents must deal with day-to-day, and has also sought meetings with local city representatives.
He details several sidewalks he avoids. “There are barriers everywhere,” said Lopez. Lopez also says he sometimes bypasses dangerous areas by moving his electric chair onto city streets, a potentially dangerous maneuver he says many other disabled people are unwilling to make.
One location Lopez points out is in front of the Benjamin Franklin Library on the 2200 block of First Street near Boyle Heights City Hall. He cites overgrown tree roots that have made wheelchair access impossible.
“I’ve seen people turn back and go all the way around the block to get through but not me. I won’t let anything get in my way,” said Lopez.
Along with tree-damaged sidewalks, Lopez says there are many street corners without disabled cutouts, or poorly-placed city signs and light posts that make access impossible – a fact that infuriates Lopez.
“There’s a light standard on the west side of Boyle Ave., on a freeway overpass, right in the middle of the sidewalk that makes it impossible to pass,” said Lopez.
The street light is located between Seventh and Eighth Streets and because it is an overpass, there are no driveways a wheelchair occupant can use to maneuver around the barrier.
In order to reach the Sears building one day, Lopez had no choice but to go back to Seventh Street, cross Boyle and continue on the east side of the street.
The Clean Communities Initiative is a far-reaching plan that includes graffiti removal, additional trash cans on sidewalks, tree trimming and monthly community cleanups. It also includes the installation of surveillance cameras intended to curb illegal dumping in the district. According to a press release, Huizar will allocate $500,000 in discretionary funds to combine with existing City funded services to support the $1.5 million initiative.
Sidewalk repair has become a hot issue throughout L.A. as the city has allocated $10 million this fiscal year to effect repairs to the most damaged sidewalks in the city.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled his first budget in April, he vowed to double the funds to $20 million to address sidewalk repair city-wide.
However, sidewalk repair spending is on hold because of a lawsuit against the city filed by disabled residents citing damaged sidewalks infringe on their public access rights.
Lopez was leery when informed of Huizar’s initiative and said he has seen and heard this before. He questions whether repairs will be enough for him to get back on the streets freely—on a wheelchair.
“Based on my past experience with governments, this is just a little white wash. Talk is cheap. Politicians always say this and that, but the proof is in the pudding,” said Lopez.
He went on to say no new laws or initiatives are necessary and that laws mandating municipalities to provide access to the disabled have been in place since 1990, referring once again to the ADA.
Lopez, who is a person of deep faith, is aware of the lawsuits, but refuses to file suit against the city for personal reasons.
“People tell me all the time, ‘Jerry, you should sue the city and make some money,’ but that’s not me. I put my faith in the man upstairs,” said Lopez.