December 6, 2012
The first storm of a Southern California winter can be welcome and even romantic. Not so the aftermath—or as clean-up crews at the beach wryly call it, “The First Flush.”
“Those big storms really clean out the creeks and the catch basins,” says Carlos Zimmerman, assistant chief in the facilities and property maintenance division at the county Department of Beaches & Harbors, and a 33-year employee of the department. “Everything washes down—trees, bushes, firewood, plastic bottles, foam containers. Tons and tons of trash. Dead dogs and cats. Snakes. All kinds of things, you wouldn’t believe it. I saw a BMW come out of Topanga Creek once.”
That’s why, as rainstorms pelted Southern California last weekend, county and municipal crews were hitting the beaches to clean up debris. Their efforts are just one of the ways—from pending litigation to an upcoming Clean Water, Clean Beaches ballot measure—in which runoff will be front and center this winter in Los Angeles County
“Things like education efforts and ordinances against single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers are making inroads, but it’s obviously an extreme problem,” notes Kirsten James, water quality director at Heal the Bay, the environmental advocacy organization.
Debris, she notes, is just the most visible pollution that courses into the ocean after a rainstorm. (This is one reason why health officials recommend staying out of the ocean for 72 hours after a rainstorm.)
“Heavy metals and bacteria are in there as well,” James says. “Some years, [the First Flush] looks like you’re not even in a First World country—more like you’re at a dump than at the beach.”
Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director at Beaches & Harbors, says that county beaches get runoff from more than 200 storm drains, as well as from Ballona Creek, which dumps runoff from miles inland into Santa Monica Bay. Though “trash catchers” installed throughout the system in recent years are intercepting more and more garbage, some still is making it down to the shoreline. Because storm water often continues to flow long after a heavy rainfall, and the debris it carries can churn on the waves for days before being washed up by high tide, the cleanup after a storm usually lasts long after the clouds part.
“That was one of the surprises when I first came to Beaches & Harbors,” says Silverstrom. “I had no idea that there was as much winter work on the beaches as summer work.”
That winter work, done by year-round maintenance crews, can mean anything from tending beach restrooms to piling sandbags to pulling lifeguard towers back from the pounding surf. Kenneth Foreman, chief of the department’s facilities and property maintenance division, says nearly 80 county workers were deployed at a dozen coastal beaches after last weekend’s rain storms, from equipment operators with sand-sanitizing machinery to hand crews who walked the high-tide line, plucking scraps of litter.
The winter crews, he adds, start at 6 a.m. and work every day, rain or shine, including weekends. “We worked Saturday and Sunday, even though it was storming,” he says. “Often by the time the general public hits the beach, they have no idea how dirty it was before they got there.”
There are things the public can do to help limit beach pollution, from proper disposal of motor oil and animal waste to keeping trash out of the storm drains to letting local stormwater coordinators know if flooding occurs in your neighborhood from trash-clogged catch basins.
On a longer-term level, the Board of Supervisors will conduct a January 15 public hearing on whether to seek property owner approval of the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure through a mail-in ballot. The measure, prompted in part by toughened federal clean water standards, would raise $270 million for stormwater projects in Los Angeles County by assessing parcel owners based on the amount of runoff they generate (about $54 a year for a typical single-family residence.)
Meanwhile, cleanup crews will be fighting the good fight on a landscape that, when the storms hit, still too often becomes long on odor and short on scenery. At a Santa Monica city beach near the Pico/Kenter storm drain, a Heal the Bay staffer blogged last Friday morning that the sight and stench were “shocking.”
“I . . . saw runoff flowing fast out onto the Santa Monica beach, carrying along with it strong smells reminiscent of motor oil and gasoline, hundreds of plastic cups, chip bags, soda cans, an unusually high number of tennis balls, plastic bags (some full of pet waste), bits of Styrofoam, bottle caps, and more urban detritus,” blogged interactive campaigns manager Ana Luisa Ahern, who posted some haunting pre-cleanup photos on the organization’s web site.
“It was a saddening and somber sight, to say the least.”
June 27, 2012
Bus passengers aren’t the only ones getting a slick new ride with this weekend’s opening of the Orange Line Extension.
The rapid transit busway features a dedicated bicycle/pedestrian path that’s being billed as the longest “transit-adjacent” bikeway of its kind in Los Angeles County. The path runs next to the new 4-mile northward extension of the Orange Line, which opens to the public this weekend with free bus rides on Saturday and Sunday, and connects with the original line’s 14-mile bikeway for a total of 18 miles. (By comparison, the newly-opened Expo Line bikeway is 6 miles long; it will grow to 16 miles when the line is completed to Santa Monica.)
Even before the ribbon is cut on the Orange Line Extension—which extends the popular busway northward from Warner Center to Chatsworth—cyclists and walkers have been giving the new path a workout. One project official counted 257 bicyclists and pedestrians out enjoying the new 4-mile stretch on a recent evening.
“I use it every day,” said Manny Samuel. “It’s safer for me [than the street] with all these cars.”
For Samuel, the bikeway even makes possible an old-fashioned midday break that most modern-day Angelenos can only dream of. “I’m going home for lunch,” said Samuel, who works at a nutrition research company, as he prepared to pedal from Canoga Park to Woodland Hills.
Dan Flores, out walking on a recent sunny day, said he’s already hitting the path for an average of six or seven miles a day—on foot or on bike. It’s great exercise—and a nice way to beat high gas prices. “I have a big giant truck that costs me $10 just to turn it on,” he said.
For teenagers like Anthony Winn and Gianni Darienzo, the new bike path has emerged as the preferred route to that time-honored summer destination: the mall. Compared to getting a lift in the car, “riding a bike’s better,” Darienzo said, as he and Winn returned from a trip to the Westfield Topanga Shopping Mall.
Most of the wide, asphalt-surfaced path has separate, dedicated lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians. Still, there are some “multiuse” areas in which walkers and cyclists will share space. Wider-than-usual 6-foot curb ramps also will allow cyclists and pedestrians to get on and off the path more easily, especially when it’s crowded.
Landscaping remains nonexistent along much of the path, but several hundred trees, such as incense cedars and Chinese flame trees, are set to go in soon, along with drought-tolerant plants including trailing rosemary and fortnight lilies.
The overall bus project is coming in ahead of schedule and under budget by $61.6 million, having used just $154 million of the $215.6 allocated. The acceleration was made possible, in large part, by the passage of Measure R by county voters in 2008, said project manager Hitesh Patel. Patel said the bicycle/pedestrian path is only part of a host of healthy and environmentally friendly elements incorporated into the new busway, which also has some solar-powered lighting panels, bioswales to naturally filter runoff water and even recycled construction debris from the 405 Project, which has been crushed and used as an underground base.
Those who want to ride the new busway extension can do so for free on Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1. (The free rides are being offered only on the extension portion of the Orange Line running from Canoga Park to Chatsworth.) There also will be family-friendly festivities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Canoga Park and Chatsworth stations.
Those include a group ride with Valley Bikery, which sets out from the Canoga station at 1 p.m. and finishes at the Chatsworth station.
Nathan Baird, bicycle coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said he expects to see cyclists using the bike path—and the Orange Line itself—in a variety of ways.
“Having the bike path right next to the transit gives you a whole slew of options,” he said.
And the sheer 18-mile length of the path is a major plus, he said.
“The miles are important,” Baird said. “It connects across the entire Valley.”
Those connections eventually will go even further.
In the not too distant future, he said, cyclists will be able to start on the Browns Creek bike path in Chatsworth, connect with the Orange Line bikeway, travel along dedicated bike lanes through stretches of Los Angeles and Burbank and end up on the L.A. River bike path, which in turn will open up new connections stretching all the way to Long Beach.
As Patel, the project manager, puts it: “It’s going to be a wonderful asset for the San Fernando Valley…and for bicyclists, runners and nature lovers across the county.”
June 14, 2012
Summer is almost here, with news from the coastline: More than 80% of the county’s beaches are clean.
Or are they?
Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, says he views beach grades and report cards as a rough-but-useful guide to a beach’s overall cleanliness and history. Beach grades aren’t same-day evaluations, he notes, and they don’t yet say enough about why a beach’s bacteria level may be elevated.
“Any given beach can be clean on any given day, but these kinds of report cards look at the average,” says Nelsen. “They can tell you if a beach is chronically polluted or typically clean.”
Beach grades are culled from ocean water samples collected from hundreds of coastal locations. In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Health samples the water weekly at 40 sites between the Ventura County line and the Redondo Beach Pier, plus five sites between April and October at Avalon Beach on Catalina Island.
In addition, the department reviews monitoring results from scores of samples taken by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, the Hyperion water treatment plant and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.
Those samples are tested for total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus bacteria—so-called “indicator” bacteria that signal the presence of agents that can make swimmers sick. The results are compared to state water quality standards and updated each week by the Department of Public Health. Then they are turned into a rolling 30-day online “report card” that grades the water quality at each beach from A to F.
The test results also are shared with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group that analyzes water quality at hundreds of beaches along the West Coast and posts its own weekly beach-by-beach assessment, as well as a comprehensive annual report published in May.
Surfrider’s Nelsen compares beach grades to “a spelling class, with a bunch of weekly quizzes.”
“You might get an A or a B or even an F on a given week, but if the scores average out to an A at the end of the month or the end of the year, you’re probably doing pretty well.”
This year’s Heal the Bay report had mixed reviews for L.A. County: Some 82% of the county’s beaches had earned dry-weather grades of A or B last year, a 7-point improvement over the prior year. But the county was still below the statewide average, and trouble spots persisted in places like Avalon and Malibu.
The reasons for those scores tend to defy simplification.
Ken Murray, who directs the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Protection, says the test results, and therefore the grades, are impacted by all sorts of factors—weather, water depth, whether the sample was taken near or far from the mouth of a storm drain, even the number of birds in the area.
Pollution control efforts inland can make a big difference. Malibu’s new Legacy Park, for example, is essentially a grassy, state-of-the-art system for capturing urban runoff. And Murray says a new rainwater harvesting system at Penmar Park in Venice “is really going to help the water quality in the beaches because runoff there is going to be captured and treated—and used to water the Penmar Park golf course—before it can hit the bay.”
Precipitation is also a major factor. A beach that is Grade A in dry weather can be rendered unfit overnight by a heavy rain and the ensuing runoff, and be perfectly swimmable again in less than a week as bad bacteria are dispersed by waves and killed by sunshine.
Long Beach, for instance, was a coastal success story this year, partly because of big projects upstream that diverted runoff, upgraded sewers and reduced the tons of debris that the Los Angeles River dumps out onto its beaches. But city officials noted that part of that sharp improvement—93 percent of the city’s beaches recorded A or B grades on the Heal the Bay scorecard—may also have simply stemmed from a relative lack of rain.
Avalon, meanwhile, has been a chronic low scorer and officials have spent years trying to pin down the reasons. “We had thought the problem was sewage lines around Avalon Harbor,” Murray says. “But they spent millions to repair that, and the bacteria levels are still high.”
More tests—these ones on boats—were similarly inconclusive. Now Avalon’s antiquated sewers are undergoing a new, multi-million-dollar round of repairs, and the city is under a cease-and-desist order from the state to clean up its water. Also, Murray says, a team of UC Irvine researchers is studying Avalon “to give us a new set of eyes.”
Amanda Griesbach, a Heal the Bay water quality scientist, says the science is evolving. Someday, she predicts, beachgoers will be able to tell the cleanliness of the water with a single, same-day dipstick test that will be posted at each beach and may even suggest a pollutant’s origin.
“When that happens—and that’s where the science is heading—it will be awesome,” says Griesbach. “But right now, the existing methods are the best we have.”
February 27, 2012
Legacy Park in Malibu has wildlife, sculptures, outdoor classrooms and five coastal habitats. But to understand why Los Angeles County’s most innovative new recreational area recently racked up its sixth award in 16 months of existence, you have to look deeper—underground, in fact.
Beneath its meandering walkways and drought-tolerant plantings, the 15-acre central park at Cross Creek Road and Pacific Coast Highway is actually a state-of-the-art system for capturing and cleaning urban runoff that would otherwise course to the ocean, carrying bacteria and trash.
Hidden pipes and filters, working in tandem with the park’s landscaping and Malibu’s existing storm water treatment facility, have trapped and decontaminated tens of millions of gallons of toxic storm water since the park opened in October, 2010.
“It’s pretty unique,” says Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen, noting that the park was just named the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2011 Project of the Year for California—the latest in a long string of accolades.
“I don’t know of any other places that not only capture and treat their storm water, but then build a park around it and make it possible for visitors to come in and learn.”
The park grew out of longstanding concerns about bacterial contamination from runoff at Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach. When winter storms strike in Southern California, the rains carry chemicals and debris into the Santa Monica Bay from as far away as Thousand Oaks and the Santa Monica Mountains, poisoning the ocean and polluting the beach.
Under pressure to comply with clean water mandates, the city bought a vacant lot and—with $13 million in funding amassed from private and public donors, including $700,000 in Proposition A park funds—began turning the dusty tract into what Thorsen has dubbed “an environmental cleaning machine.”
Runoff from some 337 surrounding acres flows into the park via three major storm drains, then is filtered through a system of screens to catch plastic bags, paper cups and other litter. Then the water runs through more filters to a 2.6 million gallon retention pond at the park’s center, where it sits while contaminants settle at the bottom of a natural sedimentation basin.
Finally, the water is piped to the other side of Civic Center Way, where the city’s storm water treatment facility can clean and disinfect it with ozone. Then the cleaned water is used to irrigate the park, or, on rare occasions, is discharged back into Malibu Creek.
“What has really surprised us is how well it has functioned,” says Thorsen. “We’ve seen water go in, the pond fill, the pumps and the system work to perfection, and the water recycle back into the park. It has worked out exactly as it was supposed to work.”
Kathy Haynes, who chaired the ASCE awards committee, calls the park “an innovative example of incorporating sustainability, showing environmental responsibility and using forward thinking.”
For Thorsen, however, the reward is in the number of calls he’s been getting from developers and communities interested in similar projects, and in the public response over the past year as Legacy Park has come to life.
“It looked like a barren desert, when we first planted it,” he says, “but everyone—the people, the birds, the animals—seems to love it. I’m amazed at how much things have grown in just one year.”
Want to be part of the solution? Some expert tips on how you can avoid contributing to urban runoff are here.
February 15, 2012
The San Fernando Valley is about to get a little greener. Phase II of the Tujunga Wash Ecosystem Restoration project breaks ground next Wednesday. By the time it’s completed, it will have restored ten acres of open space and created a sustainable stream system in the neighborhood of Valley Glen.
The $7 million project is a joint effort by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The area to be restored is 3,000 feet long and 65 feet wide on each side of the wash. The finished section will link two existing “greenbelts”—Phase I of the project and an “original” greenway from the 1970s, forming 13,200 consecutive feet of revitalized land.
For the ecosystem, the project means nesting for migratory birds and a corridor for wildlife movement. Native vegetation will be installed, and the new stream will give local plants a chance to take root. The stream will replenish groundwater and act as a natural filter to urban runoff.
“The goal is to mimic Tujunga Wash in its natural state, but on a smaller scale,” said Richard Gomez, project manager for Department of Public Works.
For humans, the project offers a place to walk, learn and explore. Ornamental gates will mark entry points, a 12-foot-wide path will give pedestrians and bicycles room to meander and educational signage will teach visitors about the local ecosystem and the project itself. Benches and rock wall seating will offer folks a place to rest amid the greenery. Existing chain-link fencing will be replaced with more aesthetically pleasing material.
A ceremonial groundbreaking will take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 22, at the intersection of Vanowen Street and Fulton Avenue. Speakers include Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Colonel R. Mark Toy and Public Works Director Gail Farber. The public is invited to attend.
The Tujunga Wash feeds into the Los Angeles River in Studio City. In the first half of the 20th century, repeated flooding of the channel caused widespread property damage and even some deaths. As a result, in the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers lined nine miles of it with concrete. This and other human activity had the unintended effect of eliminating the natural habitat of the waterway.
The longterm hope is revitalization of the entire length of the Tujunga Wash, said Gomez. When the current project is completed this fall, that goal will be 3,000 feet closer.
February 6, 2012
Malibu made a prizewinning environmental “cleaning machine” out of a vacant lot that had been the community’s annual chili cook-off site. You don’t need to own a spread like Legacy Park, though, to help curb urban run-off.
Paul Herzog, coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean-Friendly Gardens Program, recommends “CPR”—conservation of water, permeability in your soil and retention devices such as rain barrels and rain gardens—to homeowners who would like to build water cleanliness into their landscaping.
And even small changes can help. Here are few:
Apply mulch. “It’s a simple thing to do, and it makes a big difference,” says Herzog. “Some areas even offer mulch from the city for free.” Mulching keeps weeds down, and, more importantly for the oceans, captures and holds water that might otherwise make its way down to the beach.
Redirect your rain gutter onto your landscape. Don’t let water wash over your roof and then send it directly into a storm drain. Turn your downspout or, if necessary, buy an attachment at the hardware store to send that water onto your lawn or garden, where it’ll do more good.
Reset your irrigation timers when you reset your clocks. You know how you spring forward and fall back for Daylight Savings Time? Well when you reset your clocks in the fall, adjust your irrigation to account for the rainier winter weather. And when spring arrives, set them again for the drier summer days.
Go native. Think about what naturally grows here the next time you landscape. Native plants don’t have to be dull. (Click here for ideas.) “Monarch butterflies journey from Canada to Mexico and there’s only one plant that baby Monarchs will feed on,” he says. “Milkweed. And some varieties are native to this place.”
November 16, 2011
Yes, fall is fertilizer season in Southern California. And as the autumn air grows pungent over the lawns of Los Angeles County, homeowners are being reminded to spread the wealth responsibly.
“The same nutrients that make your grass grow also will make algal blooms grow if they wash down the storm drains and into the waterways,” notes Susie Santilena, an environmental engineer in water quality at Heal the Bay.
The nitrogen and phosphorus that are so good for plants may contribute to toxic red tides in the ocean and can make algae run wild in freshwater areas like Malibu Creek, creating dead zones as the green scum blocks sunlight and inhibits the growth of other plants and animals, Santilena says.
“When you don’t have oxygen in your waterway, your marine life suffocates and you get fish die-offs because there’s no dissolved oxygen in your water,” she says. “And there are aesthetic issues—algae growth can create pond scum, which is just kind of gross to look at in waterways.”
So what to do? It’s tricky, environmental advocates say, because while organic fertilizers such as steer manure and worm castings have advantages that chemical fertilizers don’t share, both can create destructive runoff if they aren’t applied carefully.
Manure tends to adhere to the soil better, so its runoff is less concentrated, but it also can introduce harmful bacteria into the water.
“I have a personal preference for worm castings for multiple other benefits, including environmental impact of production, but they can be overused like the other fertilizers,” says Santilena, noting that worm castings also can be hard to obtain in sufficient quantities for large-scale application.
“It’s how and when the fertilizer is applied that matters most.”
Environmental consultant and master gardener Curtis Thomsen, who conducts the Countywide Smart Gardening program, recommends a half-and-half mix of compost and fertilizer, sprinkled lightly over a lawn that has been aerated.
If you don’t have compost, he adds, there are sites in Los Angeles that offer free mulch that you can shred to make some and low-cost bins can be purchased at Smart Gardening workshops countywide. “The worms smell the organics in it and pull them down, which allows water to penetrate deeper,” he says, adding that compost is especially good for getting nutrients to the roots of thick grasses that tend to thatch. Also, he says, if you add that mixture to your garden plot this fall, it will improve yields, reduce disease in the soil and produce healthier, stronger plants next year.
Meanwhile, Rudy Valenzuela, regional grounds maintenance supervisor for the county Department of Parks and Recreation, notes that the county aerates and fertilizes its park lawns with a commercial chemical blend of nitrogen, potassium and iron that is geared to its sturdy mixture of grasses. He notes, however, that the crews wait until after dark to water and then do it judiciously, turning off the sprinklers after about 15 minutes per station to avoid runoff.
Both approaches keep in mind the need to keep your fertilizer on your own grass. Here are some dos and don’ts from Heal the Bay:
– Do use fertilizer as sparingly as possible, no matter what type you use. Less is more.
– Don’t ever apply fertilizer right before a rainstorm, and never overwater after applying. Too much water will just lift your fertilizer and wash it off.
–Don’t apply to highly compacted or steeply sloped grasses, which also prevent fertilizers from fully soaking into the soil.
–Do consider creating a rain garden, using rain barrels and other containers that will keep rain in your hard and out of the street.
September 14, 2011
It’s not much to look at now. But when Sun Valley’s Strathern Pit is reborn as the Strathern Wetlands Park, the new facility is expected to offer picnic spots, walking trails, basketball and tennis courts, an exercise station, wildlife habitat and landscaped ponds.
Those water features aren’t just ornamental—they are being designed to play an important role in diverting and treating storm water runoff.
The park’s proposed recreational features were developed at a community workshop in April. Get a look at what’s being planned at a community meeting this Saturday, September 17, at the Richard E. Byrd Middle School Auditorium, 8501 Arleta Avenue in Sun Valley. The meeting runs from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Reservations aren’t required but if you’d like to RSVP, you can do so by contacting project manager Mark Lombos at (626) 458-7143 or by emailing email@example.com.
Construction on the wetlands park is expected to begin in the fall of 2013. The $50 million project is being funded by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, City of Los Angeles Proposition O and the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
August 30, 2011
Every city has its hidden treasures. Take “The Great Wall of Los Angeles”.
More than three decades old and 13 feet high, it unfurls like a vibrant tattoo for nearly a half-mile, recounting the history of human struggle and achievement along a concrete retaining wall in the Tujunga Flood Control Channel.
Flanked by a narrow park, it’s easy to miss what’s believed to be the longest mural on the planet. And yet it is this singular work—painted by hundreds of hands in the course of five summers—that launched Los Angeles’ reputation as the world’s mural capital.
Despite such rich origins, few public artworks have had to endure so many indignities. It’s been soiled by car exhaust, corroded by smog, bleached by fertilizer runoff and baked by the relentless sun of the San Fernando Valley. What’s more, political crosscurrents over the decades have generally put the kibosh on obvious possibilities for expanding the project, even as its once radical-seeming material—from the sins of the Spanish missionaries to the Japanese internment—has crossed into the historical mainstream.
“One would think it would have completely disappeared by now, given all it’s gone through,” marvels Judy Baca, the Watts-born activist, artist and UCLA professor whose vision has, since 1976, been the guiding light behind the project. “But what’s remarkable is how much of it is still there.”
Los Angeles has more than 3,000 murals, and their upkeep has been an ongoing civic battle. But next month will bring good news from “The Great Wall.”
For the past three years, Baca and a crew of artists, volunteers and interns have been painstakingly restoring the artwork. In mid-September, the project is expected to be finished. A ribbon-cutting and celebration are being planned for September 17 at the park near the wall, which lies between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street off Coldwater Canyon Avenue. (Click here for driving directions.)
After that, Baca says, signage, lighting and a solar-lit “green” bridge with interpretive stations will be added, the better to see and understand the monument to L.A.’s multi-cultural history.
The entire $2.1 million improvement—spearheaded by the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), with funding and assistance from the City of Los Angeles, L.A. County, the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, and others—should be finished late next year.
That, in turn, will set the stage for a fundraising drive to finish the next four decades of the mural (it now stops in the 1950s) using already-designed sketches that will take the narrative through the Vietnam War and the Los Angeles riots up to the 21st century.
For Baca, now an iconic figure on the Los Angeles art scene, the restoration is both a personal and civic milestone. A one-time high school art teacher in the San Fernando Valley, she has spent the better part of her life as a fiery advocate for public art.
As a summer art teacher in 1970 for the City of Los Angeles, she organized rival gang members in East Los Angeles to paint “Mi Abuelita,” a mural of a grandmother with outstretched arms that for many years was a Hollenbeck Park landmark. The project landed Baca a job as the head of a citywide mural program manned by at-risk teenagers, and led from there to the creation of SPARC, the nonprofit community arts organization.
“The Great Wall,” commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the behest of the L.A. County Flood Control District to help improve the area around the Tujunga Wash, was SPARC’s first project. Since then, SPARC, for which Baca is artistic director, has produced hundreds of murals throughout the city, commissioning hundreds of artists and training thousands of youth apprentices.
More than 400 at-risk youths, along with scores of artists and historians and hundreds of community members, worked on “The Great Wall” between 1976 and 1984, when painting stopped due to rising costs and safety concerns and the changing political climate during the Reagan Era. Many of those who worked on it found the experience to be life-altering, as this video recounts.
Although the mural’s initial segments were designed by at least 10 artists, each taking a different historical period, it was Baca who created the overall aesthetic beginning with the 1920s mural panel. When the “Great Wall” was started, she was 30. By the time she and her crews celebrate its restoration, she’ll be a week shy of 65. Time, she laughs, has taken a toll on the artist as well as the art.
“We have a funny thing going on down there,” she says of the restoration. “We have the senior citizens, who aren’t body-agile but have great hands, and then we have the younger ones, whose hands aren’t as adept but who have the bodies to continue. We’re transferring knowledge and teaching them to collaborate—it’s a very important moment.”
But, she adds: “I think this will be my last year on the channel. It’s incredibly physically demanding. I think it’s time for the younger people to take over.”
Meanwhile, she says, she’s had the privilege of revisiting a formative period in her life.
“I’m having these dialogues with my younger self on a daily basis,” she says. Simple decisions—what color to use in restoring the image of an Okie, or whether to underscore the Madonna-and-child subtext of a migrant worker holding a baby—“give me this visual of who I was when I painted it,” Baca says.
“That Judy was working with this incredible passion. She had boundless energy and this incredible willingness to put it all out there. This Judy, at 65, would probably say, ‘This is way too hard.’”
If she had to do it all over again, she says wouldn’t change a thing.
Although the project, in retrospect, was an “incredible marathon” and a massive undertaking, she says, it also was “a great labor of love”—and of youthful idealism.
“I may have much more wisdom now, but that girl was limitless,” says Baca. “She was limitless.”