Photos: The Eastside Fought For This Scenic Hilltop, But It's Turned Into A Dumping Ground
It's been a year since Liseli Walan hiked up Elephant Hill—a rare swath of sprawling green space in Northeast Los Angeles that she and neighbors fought to save from development—but she was so horrified by her experience that she hasn't been back since.
The school teacher was hoping to enjoy some greenery with her then-3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Instead, she found a hill strewn with beer cans and rolled-up carpets. There was an SUV filled with people boozing and blasting music, and her family was nearly struck by a truck barreling up the hill for some illegal off-roading. They jumped out out of the way just in time.
"It was no longer an enjoyable nature experience; it was sort of an assault on my family," she said.
Last year she also had to evacuate her home, near the base of the hill, after someone playing with firecrackers started a blaze. Walan never imagined such a scene when she joined her neighbors in the fight to stop a developer from building condos on Elephant Hill.
Since the 1980s, developers have eyed the site, which spans 110 acres in the community of El Sereno, the largest pocket of open space in this working-class Latino neighborhood that is deeply in need of green space. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that there are fewer than 2 acres of parkland per 1,000 people in El Sereno, making it one of the most park-deprived sectors of Los Angeles (a city known for being park-poor).
Nine years ago the Los Angeles City Council, buoyed by community activists and residents like Walan, stalled a subdivision project by Monterey Hills Investors. A lawsuit ensued, which the city settled in 2009 by purchasing 15 acres of hilltop from the developer, along with additional parcels, for $9 million. Rather than condos, the land would now be the site of a public park, the city announced. It sold five acres to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and rezoned the land as open space to achieve this goal.
That was over four years ago. Today El Sereno residents continue to wait for the MRCA to create a park in their community. They complain that off-roading, dumping, campfires and squatters on Elephant Hill pose risks to this natural resource. Developers may have lost the battle for the hill, they argue, but it's no more accessible to locals now than it was years ago.
"I've been waiting for something to happen," said Walan, who has lived in El Sereno for 13 years. "Elephant Hill wasn't like this before. To me, it's gotten worse."
"People do whatever they want up there," she said. "I don't understand. I feel like we don't count—like we're lumped in with people who don't count. In Northeast L.A., Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, people don't have a lot of financial resources."
El Sereno sits in the 90032 ZIP code where more than 27 percent of people live in poverty, the census found. That's a higher poverty rate than both Los Angeles (22.4 percent) and California (16.4 percent). But El Sereno borders the affluent and largely white city of South Pasadena—whose city council notoriously built a wall at the city line in the 1970s that stopped traffic from flowing into the suburb from the Latino enclave.
"The fact that communities of color seem to always have to organize to defend their interests with less resources makes it very difficult," said Hugo Garcia, a community activist who fought development on Elephant Hill. "We tend to live in communities that are park-poor and where infrastructure has been ignored by institutions that could be doing better jobs to represent us, and El Sereno is no exception."
Behind The Scenes
MRCA spokeswoman Dash Stolarz told LAist the park is still a go: "In some ways, the victory is that we managed to beat the development from happening. The goal is to make it public parkland, and our goal hasn't changed really."
But snags along the way—mostly bureaucratic ones—have created delays. The city council voted in 2011 to sell the land to MRCA. In 2012, the city voted to preserve the Elephant Hill land it bought from developers, about 20 acres in total. In June 2013, the sale officially took place. However, it took until December 2014 to finalize the sale, which was celebrated officially in February 2015.
These delays caused problems for the agency. The five acres MRCA purchased from the city stretched from Pullman to Lathrop streets, to give locals access to both sides. The agency was aiming to get grant money to buy more parcels that would make a network of trails possible, but because more than a year elapsed before the sale went through, it missed the grant deadlines. Stolarz says these kinds of delays aren't uncommon.
"Actually when properties are purchased with public money, as this property was, there is often a series of legal or procedural twists and turns a transaction will go through before title transfers and the transaction is complete," she wrote in an email to LAist. "It is frustrating, but well worth it in the end."
Right now, MRCA is appraising Elephant Hill parcels, so it can acquire the best land for the park and trails, she said. The agency expects the appraisal process to end this summer. After that, the agency plans to apply for Los Angeles County Proposition A funds, designed for the acquisition of property for parks and natural lands.
Asked why it's taken more than a year for MRCA to take these preliminary steps, Stolarz said that turnover among its project managers assigned to Elephant Hill have halted the agency's progress.
MRCA has also gone back and forth with city officials about whether it would be allowed to build trail easements on the 15 acres the city owns, she said.
"We've been told, 'No way, you can't build trails on city property,'" Stolarz said. "But now we're hearing, 'Maybe it can go a different way, that's something for sure we could look into.'"
Rick Coca, the spokesman for Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar who represents El Sereno, stopped short of saying that the city would allow MRCA to create trails on the city's property. But he insisted that the city is doing all it can to help the conservation group. He said they're in talks about how to move the project forward.
"When you activate those trails, when you have them clearly marked that's going to disincentivize people from going up there and doing illegal things," he said.
Those "illegal things" are what really infuriates neighbors. Community activists fought for a park, but neighbors say that in the meantime, they would settle for a more watchful eye over Elephant Hill.
Chaos On The Hill
Part of the Repetto Hills range, Elephant Hill has about 11 entry points, some of which are open to cars and trucks. Once a vehicle enters an access point, it can traverse the entire site, where the red-tailed hawk, coyotes, gophers and other wildlife roam.
But it isn't an easy place for the police to patrol. Regular patrol cars lack four-wheel drive, so LAPD needs to send its Off Road Unit based in the Valley to navigate the terrain. Residents say that the hill has become a haven for people to dump trash, have blowout parties and go off-roading, according to a community petition. In October, Walan launched the petition that asks Huizar to at the very least install fire gates to deter illegal off-roading.
"We're doing what we can to make the access points more defined and more secure," said Paul Habib, Huizar's chief of staff. "We're asking the city to look at the access points all around."
Installing fire gates could be tricky since some of the access points are on the privately owned parcels of Elephant Hill, Habib said. While the city and MRCA own about 20 acres of the hill, the remaining 90 acres belong to hundreds of different owners.
In November, the Los Angeles Police Department conducted a sweep of Elephant Hill. At that time, they arrested a homeless person camping there who had an outstanding warrant. They also towed a trailer, according to District 14 officials. Other individuals received citations from the L.A. County Department of Building and Safety, and the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation cleared some of the illegal dumping on the hillside.
Last fall, police also cracked down on a shed-cum-art exhibit whose owner reportedly organized film screenings and concerts. The shed is still there, and it contains a porcelain torso, paintings of horses and trash.
"As soon as we became aware of it, we went up there and we pretty much put a stop to them and let them know the rules and regulations," said Gustavo Camacho, senior lead officer for LAPD's Hollenbeck Division. "They were apparently selling alcohol and making it into a public event. There were fliers that were floating around."
But residents say despite these crackdowns, the problems haven't gone away. Victor Ayala, vice president of El Sereno's neighborhood council, said that he routinely sees bonfires on Elephant Hill from Huntington Drive. Ayala says that, speaking as a resident, he fears that squatters are occupying the hill.
"On one part, they're actually moving in some mobile trailer homes," he said. "It's starting to look like a junkyard. It's unlivable. There's no toilets, no electric. You can't just live there."
But that's exactly what some people appear to be doing. Beneath the walnut trees at the hill's peak, bright green because of recent rains, mattresses litter the grass. They join cracked hubcaps, shards of glass and construction scraps. One mattress sits near a small black suitcase, and a blue tarp hides a stack of someone's belongings. A few feet away a cluster of rocks encircles kindling for a fire. Such scenes have fueled speculation about people camping on the hill. The sight of a motor home, portable toilets and a shed just south of this encampment have all but confirmed that people are living there.
On a gray March morning LAist visited the hill and met David E. Martinez, who has been a fixture on the hilltop even after the city's sweep.
Martinez sat inside of the trailer but he denied living on Elephant Hill. He said that he rents a house in El Sereno and comes to the hilltop on weekends to escape the monotony of everyday life. Over the last year, Martinez has moved the motor home, a camper, several cars, wood pallets and bricks to the hilltop, calling to mind a "junkyard," as Ayala put it.
"They had a problem with me—some of the local residents," Martinez said.
But the 51-year-old grandfather, with tousled black hair and an Argentina soccer jersey, said that he has a right to be on the land. About a year ago he searched the Internet for vacant lots and found two parcels on Elephant Hill, while a friend bought seven, he recalled. He's threatened to sue if the city forces him out.
"I sent LAPD all my documents, all my credentials," Martinez said. "I have deeds. I pay taxes."
Coca disputed this: he said that Martinez may own land on Elephant Hill, but it's not the land he's camping on. He said the actual property owner is in Wisconsin.
If the authorities prove that Martinez has no legal grounds to place his belongings on the parcels in question, the police can then remove them. The land must be surveyed to determine if Martinez is, in fact, on his own parcels, said Camacho. But the property owner has yet to begin this process.
The creation of a public park on Elephant Hill could offset some of these illegal activities, say Habib and Coca of Council District 14. But instead of a park, thickets of wild mustard plants stand on the land MRCA bought from the city.
In the meantime, El Sereno residents continue to feel the effects of living in a park-poor area, according to Elva Yañez, the community activist who led the charge against Elephant Hill development. She's now a California Department of Parks and Recreation commissioner and a member of the all-volunteer Elephant Hill Advisory Task Force. She's pointed out that for decades, locals have resorted to using Collis Avenue, west of the hill, as a "track substitute."
A park, she said via email, "will expand their walking or jogging opportunities to include a natural area with native habitat and impressive views."
Given how many years have passed since the city first settled with Monterey Hills Investors, Yañez said that she understands why some of her neighbors have grown impatient but feels confident that MRCA will follow through with a park.
It's not the first time the community has waited to access more green space in the area. In 2005, then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa broke ground on the city-owned Ascot Hills Park, near El Sereno. MRCA was contracted to design and run the park, but six years passed before it opened. Officials blamed the delays on a state budget crisis and bureaucracy.
The fact that the city overcame these challenges and made good on its promise to create Ascot Hills Park should give residents hope that the public park on Elephant Hill will come to fruition as well, Habib said.
"We're going to work hard to make sure it's going to happen," he said. "It's what the community wants and we totally understand and hear everybody's concerns. We need to activate that parkland."
Garcia, who worked alongside Yañez to prevent development of Elephant Hill, said that he shares the concerns locals have expressed about the space. For a neighborhood such as El Sereno, the creation of a park with trails means far more than giving locals another hangout spot, Garcia asserted.
"I feel very strongly from an environmental and social justice standpoint that we need passive and active recreation in these communities," he said. "I believe it's a social justice issue."
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist who's written for a number of media outlets, including About.com, Vox Media, The Atlantic and the Los Angeles News Group. Follow her on Twitter @NadraKareem