Every day when Natalie Lopez walks through her Boyle Heights neighborhood, she sees piles of trash accumulating on city streets. Drawers, mattresses, and sofas sit on street corners waiting to be picked up.
Lopez, who was born and raised in the community, is frustrated by what she calls a lack of attention by city leaders.
“I do not believe they (the city) care about what is happening in our community because we are a low-income community,” Lopez said. “We live in poverty, so they don’t care about our cleanliness. On the other hand, I’ve seen Beverly Hills extremely clean. That says a lot.”
For years, illegal dumping has plagued cities and communities in Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights is one neighborhood that has continually dealt with this problem.
“There is not a day I don’t recall seeing someone just toss their trash to the side on the street,” said Noemi Carretero, 16, a Boyle Heights resident.
One group of residents and activists has had enough.
The First Blocks of Whittier Blvd (FBWB) is an environmental organization that holds clean-up events in Boyle Heights. The group advocates for daily street cleaning and seeks to hold city elected officials accountable for lack of street maintenance, particularly Councilman Kevin de León, who represents Boyle Heights.
In an attempt to get De León’s attention, the group made the bold move on Sunday of dumping trash – which volunteers collected from Hollenbeck Park – in front of his Boyle Heights office. Trash included palm tree leaves, a shopping cart, leftover furniture pieces, and clothing.
“As long as we have trash in our community we will bring it to you if you fail to deal with it!,” FBWB declared on Instagram.
De León responded with an Instagram post of his own, highlighting in capitalized letters that “ILLEGAL DUMPING IS A CRIME!” He said 1,350 pounds of trash had been dumped in front of Boyle Heights City Hall and added that the city offers a $1,000 reward “to those who report illegal dumping that leads to the arrest and conviction of offenders.”
Veta Gashgai, a former teacher in Boyle Heights who co-founded First Blocks of Whittier Blvd, said the trash came from an encampment where an unhoused person lives in Hollenbeck Park. That person wound up helping them clear up the trash “and did it willingly and with lots of effort,” Gashgai said.
Pete Brown, communications director for De León, said the city last week cleared up an encampment at Hollenbeck Park, resulting in eight people being housed and tons of trash picked up, but the operation did not include a portion of the park next to the freeway that is under state jurisdiction.
Brown condemned Sunday’s dumping in front of Boyle Heights’ City Hall, saying it impeded access to seniors and disabled residents and blocked a bus stop. “Illegal dumping is not a form of free speech, it’s not protected speech,” he said.
Gashgai said cleaning up Boyle Heights should be a collective responsibility, including the teachers and police officers who work here and go back home “to their nice neighborhood.”
“We’re left here with this, and it’s not right,” Gashgai said. “It has to stop. Look at this, look at how depressing this is. It’s so dehumanizing. It’s disgusting. It’s degrading.”
First Blocks of Whittier Blvd has held more than 30 clean-up efforts in Boyle Heights. They’ve removed everything from plastic bags and cardboard boxes to even a whole bathtub from neighborhood streets. The organization is planning a clean-up event on Feb. 25. With about 15 members, the group does this work with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
The organization seeks to bring Indigenous values to Boyle Heights, by acknowledging the earth as a respected member of the community that residents should protect from harm.
To Gashgai, it’s problematic for residents to feel like “we’re victims of illegal dumpers … victims of not having sufficient services.” She said she has heard people saying, “Somos gente puerca.”
Gashgai said it’s crucial for schools to teach children how to take care of their community. Students should learn more about the dangers of litter and pollution and how that can impact their own neighborhood. They should know that it shouldn’t be normal to see trash and waste accumulating in their community, she said.
To spread awareness, the organization creates brochures available on their website as well as posters advertising 311 LA, a cleanup method where the city picks up the trash left on street corners.
First Blocks of Whittier Blvd has sought to work with De León for months, long before leaked audio recordings revealed the councilman used racist remarks while discussing redistricting maps with then-Council President Nury Martinez, Councilman Gil Cedillo, and Los Angeles Council Federation Ron Herrera. De León has refused calls to resign.
Gashgai said that since around 2018 she and Vanessa Ochoa, a dean at East Los Angeles College, have sent more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls to reach De León and former Councilman José Huízar to alert them of overflowed trash cans, messy bus stop conditions, and illegal dumping.
First Blocks of Whittier Blvd has also tried to get more information about the Clean Streets Now plan that De León announced during his unsuccessful campaign for mayor. With this program, De León vowed to increase cleanup funding and expand city sanitation staff. Gashgai wondered how often they should expect street sweeping in major streets under this program.
Gashgai said De León has not personally met with their organization since his election.
“We’ve been adversarial, but it’s only because we’ve been ignored,” Gashgai said.
Brown, the councilman’s spokesman, said De León’s office attempted to set up a meeting with Gashgai but later declined because it was being “staged” to promote the group’s “separate agenda.”
He admitted that illegal dumping was a huge problem in Boyle Heights and that the city’s resources to deal with it were limited. Still, he said, the city picked up 3,300 tons of illegally dumped trash in De León’s 14th district in 2022, more than in any other council district in the city.
In addition, the spokesman said De León allotted $1.65 million in discretionary district funds to hire additional clean-up crews designated exclusively for Boyle Heights and that CD 14 is the only council district that gets illegal trash pickups on Saturdays.
“When it comes to illegal dumping, there is no stronger advocate than Kevin de León,” he said. “We are picking up more illegal dumping than any other council district.”
De León has recently posted videos on Instagram showing before and after images of Boyle Heights streets that “Team KDL” has cleaned as they continue “to do the work in 2023.” Streets like Lorena, Cesar Chavez, and Soto are featured in these videos.
Gashgai said they are seeing some improvements, such as communal trash cans not overflowing like before, but she added, “there is still a lot more to go.”
To Gashgai, it seems like De León developed Clean Streets Now as a political move in his campaign for mayor. First Blocks of Whittier has been among the community organizations and residents calling for his resignation.
Through 2021, First Blocks of Whittier Blvd also advocated against a project proposed to convert the Sears building in Boyle Heights into a Life Rebuilding Center Complex, which would house anywhere between 2,500 and 10,000 people.
Gashgai wonders how sustainable it would be to add 10,000 more people to, what she said, is an already underserved community with overcrowded hospitals and unclean streets.
“We’re an underserved community, and it’s based on environmental racism and historic racism.… They see Boyle Heights as a dumping ground,” she said.