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Why A Neighborhood Is Trying To Save A Scenic Lookout ‘Ingrained In The Blood’ Of LA

A wide view from a grassy hill at sunset. The cityscape of downtown Los Angeles is viewable in the distance.
On a clear day, it's possible to see Catalina Island from Flat Top.
(Caitlin Hernández
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Finding a good view of Los Angeles isn’t easy. Most of the city's epic lookouts that show off sights such as the downtown skyline are typically on the west side — and they get inundated with tourists.

In L.A.’s oldest suburb is a spot that some argue outshines the rest. A short drive up Thomas Street in the working-class neighborhood of Lincoln Heights reveals a coveted 360-degree hilltop view that spans from Catalina Island to the San Gabriel Mountains. Dubbed Flat Top, the sublime place is a favorite stop for romantic dates, joggers, and people looking to get buzzed while chilling on a dirt perch at sunset.

That allure is also why a new mini-mansion may be built there. The property, residents say, will tarnish a ridge line that’s never been developed by taking away a natural community space.

‘We Are Under-Parked’

“I’m gonna build myself a righteous pad here, swimming pool, white picket fence and sh--,” says a character named Spider while standing on Flat Top in “Blood In, Blood Out,” an iconic 1993 film centered on gang life in East L.A. Spider’s line has turned prophetic, though the “righteous pad” isn’t for him or the many celebrities who visit.

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The property that Trumika Corp. owner Duc Truong proposed to build in June 2021 is a two-story, single-family home measuring more than 4,000 square feet. The home would sit above the corner of Prewett and Thomas Street if it’s approved, and it even has the swimming pool that Spider wished for.

But not everyone is hoping that wish becomes reality.

A group of residents oppose the construction. Dydia DeLyser has advocated for the preservation of Lincoln Heights’ open spaces with her neighbors since she moved to the community in 1993. She works as a professor and geographer studying urban landscapes at Cal State Fullerton. DeLyser says the home would not only be uncharacteristic to the community because of its massive size, but it would also disrupt the wildlife corridor leading to Ernest E. Debs Regional Park. It would turn a communal space into a private asset in an area where there are already vacant, uncompleted homes encroaching on the hill.

An unfinished home on the hillside behind a fence. It's a structure with exposed plywood.
One of the unfinished homes near the base of the hill.
(Caitlin Hernández

“There aren’t that many places in the city where you get a 360-degree view, where you can look 40 miles in all directions. It's mind-boggling,” she said. “You look at having a resource like that, in a low-income community of color like Lincoln Heights, it’s awesome that we have that. We are under-parked.”

DeLyser is one of the dozens of residents who protested the development during a zoning hearing with the L.A. Department of City Planning in November, including Chicano Moratorium activist and writer Rosalio Muñoz. A determination has yet to be made on the case.

‘Boom, Boom, Boom… Suddenly You Have A Cul De Sac’

While Trumika Corp. representative Ricardo Moura did not agree to an interview with LAist, he doesn’t think the community has an issue with the project. According to Moura in the zoning hearing, he and Truong “presented the project to all of the adjacent neighbors.” Everyone signed a letter in support, except for one person where there was a language barrier. More than half of adult residents in the ZIP code primarily in Lincoln Heights speak Spanish at home, according to census data.

In the hearing, Moura said the home is “good for the city at large given the housing crisis” and it makes use of “abandoned” land that collects trash.

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Sara Clendening, who was a community activist before being elected president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council in 2021, says the land isn’t abandoned. The community does cleanups at Flat Top to purge the broken glass and debris. They are concerned, though, that the proposed construction will lead to more development on the hill.

A round BuzzBallz container sits empty in the dirt with plants around it.
BuzzBallz containers and other alcoholic drinks are commonly found at the Flat Top. As an informal park, there aren't trash cans available for visitors.
(Caitlin Hernández

“You know what’s trash? A mansion on a hill. That’s not an improvement,” Clendening said. “It busts [development] wide open, like the infrastructure that gets set, where then all of a sudden, you have a little road going up and boom, boom, boom … suddenly [you] have a cul de sac of houses.”

If the project is approved, part of Thomas Street would have to be expanded. The Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council, which functions as an elected advisory body to the city, has opposed Trumika Corp.’s plan.

Holding The Line To Preserve History

Flat Top’s history runs beyond Lincoln Heights. The state of California’s Native American Heritage Commission, which is the agency responsible for identifying and protecting Native American cultural resources, has a sacred lands file for the location.

Andrew Salas, chief of the Kizh Nation in the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, is the person to call when there’s a file in East L.A. While he knows it hasn’t stopped land development before, he says Flat Top shouldn’t be developed because of the historic role the hills played as signal and burial sites.

“You go up to the highest point of the hill, and you bury your people there because you feel that the higher you go, or the closer you are to the heavens, your spirit is closer to the creator,” Salas said.

When he was in high school, Salas would go up to Flat Top to drink a couple of beers with his friends. He’d tell them stories about the hills and the different parts of the city they overlooked. “The hills had resources that provided and sustained our people for thousands and thousands of years,” he said.

Flat Top is also a bit of an unconventional time capsule. It’s where a holotype whale skull fossil was discovered, meaning it was the basis for the species Mixocetus elysius, according to the Natural History Museum. Chicano R&B band Tierra, popular on the Eastside for its soulful sound, even shot its album cover for City Nights on the peak. And of course, there’s that famous hillside fight in “Blood In, Blood Out.”

Holding the line at Flat Top is about more than just one house, as DeLyser and Clendening point out, but the solution could boil down to that. Clendening wants the city to buy back the land and turn it into a full park, but their bare minimum request is for the zoning department to deny this single project.

They want Flat Top, which has survived for decades in one of the largest metro areas of the country, to continue as a place with an open ridge line for all to enjoy.

“You remember going up with your grandparents when you were a kid, you know, and your grandparents went up with their grandparents,” Clendening said. “It's just ingrained in the blood of the collective memory of the people here.”

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