Mt. Washington residents fill the gap the city left behind

What happens when the city lacks the money or interest in taking care of public property?  In Mount Washington, neighbors have raised cash and worked up a sweat to  clean up and maintain a public stairway and a traffic island in the northeastern part of the neighborhood.  Albert Winn, a photographer and teacher, has spearheaded efforts to landscape the hillside surrounding the Oneonta-Olancha Stairway.  Paula Sirola, meanwhile, worked with neighbors to tear out the asphalt and landscape a traffic island – known as the Jessica Triangle –  at Jessica Drive and Cleland Avenue. It’s not easy taking on such project. The DWP at one point wanted to tear up the Jessica Triangle garden to install a new sewer line. Winn took a tumble down the steep hill near the stairway and has struggled to get city help.  Still, earlier this year, more than $600 – much of it in $5 amounts – was raised by neighbors to pay a gardener to help maintain the Oneonta-Olancha Stairway and Jessica Triangle. What’s so special about these two spots that finds neighbors spending extra time and money? Winn explains:

“The stairs and the triangle are wonderful neighborhood assets. The triangle makes a lovely entrance to our neighborhood. The stairs are a wonderful place to exercise, meet other people, and see the view. The stairs act as public meeting place in the same way that a square or park does in other cities. Both places also offer an opportunity for neighbors to get involved in a community project that directly affects them, and for which they can see tangible results.”

Click on the link below to read a Q & A with Winn about these neighborhood DIY projects:

Q: What was the problem that required attention?

A: In the case of the triangle, it was paved over and just accumulated trash. Paula and some other volunteers dug up the asphalt. Now there is a garden and flowers and a path. The neighbors contribute water for watering the plants. About a year ago DWP was going to run a sewer line through the middle of it and dig it up, but Jose Huizar’s office got them to move it a few feet to the side and saved the garden.

The stairs were a whole other problem. The history of the stairs is long and convoluted. The stairs are an easement owned by the city. There are many such easements up here in the hills, most unimproved. I was told that they were originally intended as escape routes for fires, but that could just be an urban myth. Years ago the Oneonta-Olancha stairs were made of wood, but they were destroyed in a fire. Some of the neighbors got together and got help from Jackie Goldberg, when she was the representative for this district, and the stairs were rebuilt with concrete and brick with metal railings. A watering system and plants were also put in, and a mural was painted on the walls by a local artist. Unfortunately there was an abandoned house near by an the stairs and the vacant property became a hang out for gang kids. The stairs were often tagged and trashed. But still as neighbors we did our best to keep them clean and free of grafitti and a local Boy Scout Troop took on the stairs as a community service project and helped clean the stairs a few times a year. Sometime in the interim, I got appointed as the person to take care of the stairs. Then an arsonist came by and set fire to the properties next to the stairs and much of the planting alongside the stairs was destroyed, and the sprinkler system melted. DWP decided to shut off the water and the remaining plants began to die.

I appealed to The Mt. Washington Local Issues Committee and the ASNC and got some initial funding to buy California native drought tolerant plants to replace the old and dying plants. Neighbors pitched in to dig up the old plants and to begin the planting. Paula and I have done most of the work but we couldn’t have done it all by ourselves and we have a contingent of neighbors who pitch in. One of the neighbors supplies the water for the plants and we sweep and pick up[ trash regularly. It’s a daily project. The city has been helpful with graffiti removal. 311 works.

Q: Did residents every approach the city for help to maintain them?

A: The city has not always been responsive. We could never get anyone to fix the sprinkler system or turn the water back on. I have been shuffled back and forth between DWP, Streets Dept, and other City agencies who deny responsibility, tell me to go to another department, or just tell me this is a community problem and to take care of it ourselves, which of course is what we’ve done. Without the generosity of the neighbors there would be no water and the plants would never live. The police don’t always respond, either.

Q: Who came up with the idea to pay a gardener ? When did it start?  How often does he come around?

A: The hillside alongside the stairs is very steep. I fell down and injured myself once. We rely on volunteers and sometimes we need extra help. Many of the neighbors began offering us money since they couldn’t pitch in. It is difficult work, so we decided to accept the money and use it to hire someone when we need  more help. We started employing someone about a year ago. It isn’t steady work. We don’t have those kinds of funds.

Q: Is there a noticeable difference since the cleaning began?

A: There is a huge difference since the cleaning began. Also I forgot to mention that the original mural was ruined by some tagger about five or six years ago. The Mt. Washington Association gave us funds to hire a local muralist and we now have another mural. The difference is beginning to be noticeable. More and more people are using the stairs. They have been written about in a book about the stairs of NE Los Angeles. A few weeks ago there were a group of hikers climbing the stairs. The plants are beginning to take root and flowers are blooming every year and the neighbors like the results. People are still involved.

Q: What’s next? Got plans to clean other spots?

* Right now, this is enough for me. I will continue to take care of the stairs. We need more plants and, of course, we need the City to respond and supply us with a sprinkler system and water. There are other staircases in the area, as I mentioned, and I wish I had the time and energy to help out there. But what I hope is that we have set an example and other people who live near a set of stairs will begin to take care of the stairs in their area. NE LA could have a Stair Festival!

Top photo of Oneonta & Olancha by Martha Benedict; bottom photo of Jessica Triangle by The Eastsider

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