Could 'Great Streets' lead to a healthier Boyle Heights?

Porfirio Torres, 74, pushes his wife Berta, 68, up Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. They say they've already broken one wheelchair because of the uneven sidewalks.
Porfirio Torres, 74, pushes his wife Berta, 68, up Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. They say they've already broken one wheelchair because of the uneven sidewalks.
Adrian Florido/KPCC

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The "Great Streets" initiative Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched last month is designed to boost the economy and local culture in the neighborhoods around 15 of the city's major boulevards.  But residents and neighborhood advocates who live near one of those streets -- Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights -- say an emphasis on promoting safe, healthy activity is just as important. 

People interviewed on the avenue singled out a variety of issues, including a lack of bike lanes and twisted sidewalks.

Maria Rivera leaned into her walker as she made her way up Cesar Chavez Avenue after leaving the doctor’s office. It was a slow walk, complicated by arthritis, and made no easier by the sidewalk ahead of her, pocked by cracks and uneven concrete.

"I have to lift my walker up, and it’s heavy," Rivera said while she took a break under the shade of a tree. "And I have spinal problems too. So all those little defects, they’re not so great for me."

Broken sidewalks are a persistent part of life in Los Angeles. But in Boyle Heights, where about a quarter of households have no car and therefore walk to school, stores, or bus stops, the need to fix them seems more acute. Many of Boyle Heights’ Latino residents also suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes, and a recent afternoon on Cesar Chavez Avenue illustrated how, as in Rivera’s case, the challenges that come with poor health are often made worse by deficient street infrastructure.

RELATED: What would make your street a "Great Street?"

Porfirio Torres, 74, was pushing his 68-year-old wife Berta in a wheelchair, navigating around cracks in the sidewalk.

"We’ve already broken one wheelchair," he said, demonstrating how the wheel bumped against a raised panel of concrete.

"When I want to go out, he has to come with me," Berta said. "I’m afraid my chair will tip over or I’ll run into someone."

That someone could be bicycle rider Juan Chavez, who was zig-zagging to avoid pedestrians while riding on the sidewalk. Since Cesar Chavez Avenue lacks bike lanes, and with little space between parked cars and the traffic whizzing by, many cyclists use the sidewalk.

"There’s a lot of reports of people being killed on the street," Chavez said. "So it’s safer to be on the sidewalk."

Simple things like improving the sidewalks and adding bike lanes would make a big difference in a community like Boyle Heights, said Maria Cabildo, president of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation. Creating the conditions for people to get more physical activity could help combat diabetes and other chronic diseases that afflict this community, she said. 

"Having a community where you can walk, not feel kind of oppressed by the cars speeding by, really can contribute to healing in a way that we don’t traditionally think of," Cabildo said.

At this point, Garcetti’s initiative has only been budgeted $800,000 in seed money. Those funds will be used to plan improvements for the first 15 streets slated for upgrades. The mayor’s hope is that those plans will then attract public and private financing to get the work done.

Fifty-nine-year-old Amilgar Rodas said he hopes the plan for Cesar Chavez Avenue includes one improvement in particular. Diabetes left him blind 15 years ago, and though he uses a cane to get around, he still struggles to cross major intersections when the lights change.

"There should be those beeps that tell you when to cross," he said.

Rodas said even a few seconds’ delay stepping into an intersection can leave him without enough time to get across. He said that more than once, he’s had his cane swiped away by a passing car.

"I have to use a very fine-tuned hear to listen for the traffic so I know when to cross," Rodas said. Like so many others who navigate Cesar Chavez Avenue every day, he said he just has to do the best he can.