The Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory at The Paramount building on East César Chavez is becoming an official climate resilience hub. Photo by Erin Stone/LAist

By Erin Stone

Originally published July 31

As pollution from burning fossil fuels drives higher average temperatures and longer and more extreme heat waves, communities and officials are grappling with ways to adapt. One essential need? A cool space to go when it’s too hot to be outside.

But increasingly, that space is not one’s own home. And given our historically mild southern California climate, many Southlanders have no air conditioning — some 20% of homes in Los Angeles have no AC, for example.

But even if you do have AC, renters and people with lower incomes are more likely to live in older, poorly insulated housing and spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy bills, forcing many people to have to choose between paying for cool air or other necessities such as food and medical supplies.

And then, there are the rising numbers of people being pushed into homelessness and insecure housing, such as RVs and other vehicles.

As the climate crisis collides with the twin crises of housing and affordability, cities like L.A. promote places like libraries, senior centers and parks as cooling centers. The trouble is, not many people use them. And when the power grid goes down, these places go dark too.

Enter the concept of a “resilience hub.”

These are buildings that are already well-used and trusted in a community, that can provide helpful resources outside of air conditioning, water and some board games to play. They’re retrofitted with solar panels and battery power so they can ride out a disaster. They’re chosen by the community and aren’t necessarily run by a government entity.

From Boyle Heights to Wilmington, grassroots groups across L.A. are establishing some of California’s first “resilience hubs.” At the same time, the city of L.A. is working to retrofit certain existing cooling centers in strategic areas to serve as “resilience hubs” as well.

Where to put resilience hubs

In Wilmington, the grassroots group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) did extensive surveying and engagement work to establish the Tzu Chi Clinic as a resilience hub that will be retrofitted with solar panels and backup power. The clinic is right near a high school and is already highly used. And the Wilmington Senior Center is another resilience hub they established — it’s already been outfitted with solar panels and battery storage. Boyle Heights is also getting a resilience hub (but we’ll go back to this one later).

“Resilience hubs are different from cooling centers because they have more resources and more space for people to just come together,” said Romeo Clay, a 17-year-old organizer with CBE. He goes to high school right near the Tzu Chi Clinic and regularly spends time there.

“A resilience hub is a place for a community to come together and really build resiliency,” Clay said. “If they need housing, if they need help paying their bills, or they just need someone to listen.”

The city of L.A. is close to completing a retrofit of the Green Meadows Recreation Center in South Los Angeles. The building will have solar panels and battery storage, as well as be turned into a microgrid, to help power the city in times of need.

“That’s really the ideal resilience center for the city,” said Chief Heat Officer Marta Segura. She said the city is using climate and socioeconomic data and CalEnviroScreen, a statewide tool that identifies communities with the highest pollution burdens, to identify which existing buildings can be retrofitted in the areas of highest need.

Los Angeles appointed its first chief heat officer on June 3, 2022. Marta Segura will help coordinate the city’s emergency response to extreme heat. Photo by Heidi de Marco/KHN

Segura said the city is already struggling to staff and fund cooling centers when hours are extended during extreme heat waves. Retrofitting buildings is a far bigger financial lift.

“When we have money available, we are attempting to prioritize these areas because this is where we can make the biggest improvements in the shortest amount of time,” Segura said.

“We’ll not just get the best results from a public health perspective and reduce the risk of heat injury or hospitalization, but we will also begin to lower emissions because we’re going to bring climate adaptation to those areas — more tree canopy, more shade,” Segura said.

She added that increasing coordination with non-profits already working on establishing resilience hubs is needed, as well as identifying resources for the most vulnerable residents who may not have viable ways to actually get to these hubs. For example, Segura said the Department on Disability, as well as the Department of Aging, have transportation vouchers and can help provide equipment like ACs for people with disabilities.

Building community and climate resilience

For Joey Rodriguez, the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory on East César Chávez Avenue is already a resilience hub. He’s been coming here since he was 15. Now 20, he’s gone from intern to program coordinator for the non-profit, which offers free classes and paid opportunities in film, art, music and digital production for young people in the area.

“I was originally supposed to, according to my parents, be a doctor or a nurse,” Rodriguez said. So he was sent to Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School. But it didn’t feel right.

“I had always been the kid that went straight to school and straight back home,” Rodriguez said. “Prior to becoming a part of the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, I had never really connected with my community. So once I found out that this place existed, I started coming and I never left.”

Now, it’s a second home.

Joey Rodriguez, 20, is program coordinator with the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory. Here he sits in one of the building’s multiple studios.Photo by Erin Stone/LAist

“It was a home to me immediately and I recognized that the other community members that I was around also recognized it as a home,” Rodriguez said. “So when it was officially named a resilience hub, it only helped elevate the work that we were already doing.”

To become an official climate resilience hub, the Conservatory partnered with local non-profit Climate Resolve to get funding to retrofit the space so it can have solar panels and battery storage to provide a safe place during power outages and disasters. Those additions are expected to be completed by mid-2024.

It’s a cooling space, but it’s also a healing space. It’s a healing space because we’ve made it that way.

Joey Rodriguez, program coordinator at Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory

In the meantime, they’re operating as a cooling center and working with staff to implement climate education into their work in the long-run. They’ve hosted events on disaster preparedness training, the impacts of the climate crisis, and practical resources for community members to access things like rooftop solar panels installation, help paying utility bills, or access to AC rebates and other resources that can help community members navigate the climate crisis.

Andres Rodriguez, who also grew up in Boyle Heights, is resilience coordinator with Climate Resolve, the non-profit partnering with the Conservatory on the resilience hub retrofit.

“Resilience, you’re being proactive,” said Andres Rodriguez, resilience coordinator with Climate Resolve. “When you’re adapting, you’re reacting. Having those deep ties within the community, gives [the Conservatory] the ability to be there when a climate emergency happens.”

And the benefits go far beyond a safe place to huddle during an emergency. One example of the space’s intersectionality at work —they hired local artists to paint a mural with a non-toxic paint that can help absorb air pollution. That also launched their Mural Workforce Academy to train artists in mural painting.

It’s a far cry from a typical “cooling center,” which is generally made up of temporary seating, a cooler of bottled water, and some board games in a designated room away from other activities.

The Mid Valley Senior Center on July 14, 2023. It’s a city-run cooling center in the San Fernando Valley. Photo by Ashley Balderrama/LAist

While a building retrofitted with solar panels and battery storage provides physical resilience, the space’s community building is at the core of its ability to be a resilience hub, said Joey Rodriguez.

“What’s the difference between a nice, fresh gym where you just huddle around and cool off versus this space? This space is made for us. It’s made by us,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a cooling space, but it’s also a healing space. It’s a healing space because we’ve made it that way.”

Inside the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, the walls are lined with posters and artwork. Photo by Erin Stone/LAist

A historic space long rooted in community

Josof Sanchez, better known as Mr. OG, walks into the entrance hall of the Conservatory. It’s lined with photos of iconic musicians and artists. He points to a portrait of a young Ray Jiménez.

“Little Ray was one of the first producers here in East L.A.,” Sanchez said. “He was known as the brown James Brown.”

There are portraits of many who performed here, including the best East L.A. bands, such as El Chicano and Willie G. and Thee Midniters, as well as artists such as Stevie Wonder and Sonny and Cher — the former pair lived in the building when they first started making music.

Artists including Stevie Wonder, left, and Little Ray Jimenez, first portrait in top row, spent time in the historic building now known as the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory. Photo by Erin Stone/LAis

For generations, this building has been a beloved and safe space for Eastside communities, particularly those experiencing marginalization. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a resource center run by Jewish socialists. In 1949, it became The Paramount Ballroom, hosting local and internationally-renowned artists alike, then The Vex in 1980, where the east L.A. punk, rock and local music scene thrived. It was a place that challenged the racial segregation of the times, and served in opposition to the Hollywood scene, which largely excluded people of color.

Today, as a nonprofit that provides free and affordable arts programming for young people in the community, the place serves hundreds of families every year, many of whom have been impacted by gang violence and the criminal justice system, said Sanchez.

“We produce hope here,” he said. “We’re dream builders.”

Josof Sanchez, or Mr. OG, left, and Julie Matsumoto, right, host a radio program out of the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory and run a non-profit for local young people called Operation Street Kidz. Photo by Erin Stone/LAist

Sanchez, a Vietnam veteran and former probation officer who grew up in Boyle Heights, is a motivational speaker who runs his own radio show — The Mr. OG Show, but OG stands for “opportunity giving” instead of “original gangster.” Through his organization Operation Street Kidz, he works with young people impacted by gangs and the justice system.

When I visited on a recent afternoon, young people were mixing music on laptops during a class, others were recording or live on air in one of the building’s many studios.

“My mission is to speak into the lives of young people and their parents and let them know that they’re somebody, they’re unique, they’re rare,” Sanchez said. “That’s what this place has done.”

Lack of funding

In 2021, the state launched the Community Resilience Centers program to support and speed up resilience hub efforts. This year it’s set to fund a first round of projects.

The idea is to fund a wide array of resilience hubs that are centered in communities hardest hit by climate impacts, said Coral Abbott, the program’s manager at the Strategic Growth Council, the state agency that’s in charge of facilitating the effort.

“We wanted to think about how to make this program help communities get themselves set up to respond to whatever emergencies they’re most at risk for,” Abbott said. ”Rather than say like, we want to see ‘X’ number of applications from local government or a community-based organization, we are really trying to have the underlying criteria be understanding what communities priorities are, understand how they were involved in selecting these sites because we want them to be places that they trust and are willing to go.”

But the program, originally allocated $160 million, has already seen significant cuts — the first round makes $98 million available and there’s no guarantee the program will continue, said Amar Azucena Cid, a deputy director with the Strategic Growth Council.

“Funding definitely impacts how we plan, especially if we’re thinking about setting up this program as a long-term program with real solutions that I think communities are really looking forward to,” she said.

Cid said the state’s climate bond, which may be on California voters’ ballots in 2024, could ensure the funding stays for at least a second round.

“I think the hard part with standing up a new program of this magnitude is folks want to test it out and I think that’s what we were hearing from the Department of Finance,” Cid said. “I firmly believe that this is something that can be stood up long-term, but I think on the budget perspective it is like, let’s get that proof of concept going and then we can move in towards what that looks like for long-term funding.”

Abbott said the department already expects funding to run out this first round.

“The amount of funding we have is not going to meet the demand,” she said.

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

LAist is the trusted friend showing you what's happening in your neighborhood and why it matters. Telling stories from inside the deepest pothole to the top of Mt. Wilson -- and beyond. We are part...

Leave a comment

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