Mis Ángeles: How Highland Park Residents Are Banding Together to Save Poppy Peak

(Photo illustration by Chava Sanchez, LAist/Photo Courtesy of Save Poppy Peak)

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Monica Alcaraz was running errands a few days ago around Highland Park. She was wearing a face covering.

"I wear a mask, because, yes, COVID, but I also wear it because we have these fires and when I walk out I can't breathe," she said. "We have horrible air quality and people are cutting down trees."

Monica has lived in Highland Park her whole life. So have her daughter and granddaughter. Her mom lives there, too.

These four generations of Highland Park Latinas have seen the Northeast L.A. neighborhood's Brown residents struggle through many phases of gentrification and displacement. But these trees, she told me, are essential to better air quality — and in her community are possibly even the last green barricade against an ongoing, years-long onslaught of development.

Monica is referring to a proposed real estate project in northern Highland Park on the beautiful slopes of Poppy Peak, where some of the indigenous wildlife has already been removed to make way for dozens of luxury homes.

More than 6,000 residents there have signed an online petition saying they don't want the new homes. They have also organized an effort to reach city leaders in an effort to force the developer group, Poppy Peak 26 LLC, to sell the land back to the city of Los Angeles or to a nature trust.

Monica said people take their dogs on hikes on Poppy Peak. They take nature walks and read books. Like people do in Runyon Canyon, Los Liones, Mount Hollywood and other popular outdoor destinations, people in Highland Park use Poppy Peak to get away from the density of the city.

"It is very important to the community because we're surrounded by buildings," Monica explained. "One of the things that we don't have is a lot of parks and a lot of open space. And Poppy Peak helps provide that for the community. It's a pretty, open area that people can enjoy."

A few weeks ago, the effort to save Poppy Peak got L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's attention during a Zoom meeting of the Alliance of River Communities (ARC), a coalition of 17 neighborhood councils including Highland Park's.

During the virtual meeting, several residents spoke to the mayor about preserving Poppy Peak as part of his Green New Deal for Los Angeles, the mayor's plan to combat climate change. Monica pointed out that the mayor's plan includes planting 90,000 trees across the city, not knocking them down to make way for luxury homes.

Monica also sees the development plans as part of a pattern Highland Park has seen over and over again: Outside money comes in and makes the once predominantly Latino neighborhood less affordable and more white.

"What they want to build is not going to do anything for the community here, it's only going to help rich investors," she said. "There is not a lack of housing crisis, there's an affordability crisis, and people in our community will not be able to benefit from that luxury development."

I left a couple of messages for the developer and didn't hear back. But last month, a representative told the Boulevard Sentinel that the project has already started with two houses on East Annan Way, the second of which could be completed within the next six months.

During the ARC meeting, Mayor Garcetti said his office would try to help. He asked the Save Poppy Peak committee to reach out to his office to discuss the matter. And members of that committee seemed hopeful something could be done to halt the project.

I asked Monica if she thinks the mayor can save Poppy Peak. She seemed hopeful, but also wondered why it had to come to this.

"This wouldn't happen to nature spaces in Santa Monica or West L.A.," she said. "Why should we have to drive all the way over there to go on a nature walk? What would happen if some developer came in and started cutting down their trees?"

I didn't really have answers to her questions. But I do know that Monica's children and grandchildren deserve the same access to green spaces as children on the Westside.

This story has been updated.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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