Altered curbs and crosswalks along César Chávez Avenue are part of the Great Streets Initiative of the City of LA and in accordance with its Vision Zero policy. Photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas.

Whenever Holivia Alatorré finds herself near Lucy’s Laundry Mart on East César E. Chávez Avenue, she can’t help but think of her daughter, Marlene, who was killed there three years ago.

“For me, it’s real dangerous, that little area around Lucy’s Laundry,” Alatorré said. “It’s dangerous for the community, especially the children.”

A mural facing the parking lot, which was recently painted over, depicted doves and roses commemorating the two victims who were struck and killed by a drunk driver in the late hours of June 2012. The driver was going 100 mph on the I-10 freeway during a police chase before she exited the off-ramp onto César Chávez near Britannia Street.

That night, 19-year-old Marlene was getting food from a local taco truck, while her sister waited in the car. The driver, Elba Jiménez, hit Marlene and another woman, Claudia Fernández, 38, a mother of four, killing both, and also injured two people in the truck, according to court documents. She was convicted of two counts of murder and other charges and is in prison for 15 years to life.

Holivia Alatorré holds a picture of her daughter Marlene, who died in a car accident on César Chávez in 2012. Photo by Martha Ramírez

Alatorré lives a block away from the accident site and remembers hearing a loud bang that night. “I jumped out of my bed and ran barefoot in my pajamas. I kept running and it felt like miles when it was just around the corner,” she said.

César Chávez Avenue, considered by many to be the heart of Boyle Heights, has a higher rate of accidents involving cars, pedestrians and bicyclists – than similar streets in Los Angeles, according to the Mayor’s office. It also has an abundance of trash and many irregular sidewalks, problems for the estimated quarter of Boyle Heights residents who lack cars and walk to get around.

The Great Streets Initiative intends to change that in at least one stretch by having the street formerly known as Brooklyn Avenue undergo renovations to beautify it and make it safer. The targeted stretch runs from St. Louis Street to Evergreen Avenue – about two blocks short of the site where Marlene was killed.

Alatorré, a 42-year-old mother of four, and other residents – have safety concerns about the nine-block stretch. She believes that barriers should be built to separate pedestrians from drivers to prevent accidents.

Residents received a tragic reminder of those dangers in mid-December when a hit-and-run driver struck Raquel Diaz, a 70-year-old nun. She was crossing the street at the intersection of Winter and Evergreen Avenues, a few blocks northeast of the area targeted for safety improvements. Diaz died of her injuries a week later.

“These hit and run drivers need to be caught and prosecuted. Too many innocent people are getting seriously injured or killed,” Monica Harmon, a community activist, said about the incident involving the nun in a community newsletter she sent the day after the hit-and-run.

The Great Streets Initiative, proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, seeks to meet the needs of residents in the community – from safety, to beautification, to the creation of community gathering places. Launched in 2013, but expanded to Boyle Heights only this year, the initiative will make temporary improvements to 15 streets in districts throughout Los Angeles, with permanent improvements planned if more funding is obtained.

Officials and residents, like Marlene Alatorré’s brother, Martín – who grew up in and recently moved back to Boyle Heights – have been expecting improvements on this street for some time. “The city and the community need to open their voices and start talking about how we could make this spot – safer for our pedestrians,” he said.

In 2008, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles – began working with Councilman José Huízar to plan what could be done for the street with public money. However, the state forced all community development agencies to dissolve in 2012 to save money, pulling the plug on the planned improvements for César Chávez.

Since August, construction crews have added red paint, waist-high safety poles and pots of flowers at intersections, as called for in the 2008 plan.

The project is in its early stages and Garcetti is seeking more input from community residents.

A $5 million Metro grant, a combination of state and federal dollars, is expected to be spent on César Chávez, according to Garcetti.

“We want to show improvement and success on César Chávez,” Garcetti said in a statement. “If we’re able to do that and people are able to take pride in it, we’ll look to our next street in Boyle Heights.”

César Chávez Avenue has off ramps – from both the 5 and 10 freeways, which contribute to the heavy flow of traffic. Valentine Solis, 44, a local resident, claims that in the past year he’s come close to getting hit by cars on multiple occasions while crossing César Chávez. “People are so used to driving right through this street without stopping,” he says. He says drivers should be more aware, because pedestrians can’t do much to protect themselves against rapidly moving vehicles.

The improvements can’t happen soon enough for local business owner Jack Rovero, who has seen César Chávez go through various changes over time. Rovero is concerned about the effect of broken sidewalks near his business and others.

“This would help the poor businesses,” he said in Spanish. “I have a business so I understand all of those people.”

Rovero, 80, owns El Norteño, which sells Stetson hats, cowboy boots, apparel and accessories. With the improvements already made at César Chávez and St. Louis Street, where his business is located, he hopes to get more foot traffic from the neighborhood.

“The people that stop by come from other places,” Rovero said, while tending to an empty business. “They’re not from this neighborhood. I would like to see more people here, attract something so that more people will come.”

“At the beginning, I thought the improvements weren’t going to work because there were more important things that needed to be done like the sidewalks that are all messed up – But now I see that the improvements have had results.”

A year from now, the plan for the initiative includes permanent renovations, such as concrete curb extensions, replacement of trees and sidewalks and creation of “‘parklets’” – spaces on the street in which people can gather. Similar improvements can already be seen in nearby areas, like downtown Los Angeles.

Residents have had a few months to adjust to the changes on the community’s busiest street and have already formed opinions about them.

Tenoch Xipilli, 30, a long-term resident, believes the neighborhood should focus on other issues as well. “It’s not a bad thing, but maybe we could use the money for better things, like street cleaning,” he said. There’s trash everywhere all the time.”

According to Garcetti’s office, this project is a chance to revisit long-neglected issues.

Garcetti is consulting Councilman Huízar and city departments, such as transportation, to define the project’s vision and goals.

Alatorré says the accident involving her daughter affected a lot of people. She and Marlene’s brother, Martín, gained custody of Marlene’s five-year-old daughter, Mia. It also led Martin to become a crisis counselor in the community. ““The whole community came together, and they helped me. I never in my life thought I would have to go through burying one of my children.”

Every year, gatherings are held to commemorate the two residents who were killed. It’s beautiful that they’re making the community better,” she says. “There’s a lot of money for this community to get fixed.”

This story was updated on March 2 to correct the name of the driver who killed two women in the June 2 accident. 

Samantha Olmos is a student journalist with Boyle Heights Beat.

Photo above: Altered curbs and crosswalks along César Chávez Avenue are part of the Great Streets Initiative of the City of LA and in accordance with its Vision Zero policy. Photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *