Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seeds of Change

Sowing a Green Movement in Glendale

From the January issue of Verdugo Monthly

Glendale may soon experience a new growth spurt. Not more shopping malls, but vegetables, fruit trees and flowers cropping up on vacant lots. The city — at the urging of mayor John Drayman — is partnering with a fledgling environmental group to plant at least one community garden. “The idea is to have gardens at properties the city isn’t using,” says Drayman, “And to provide a place where people — especially in highly populated areas with many multi-family dwellings — can walk to, and plant flowers, fruit trees, produce.”

The test case is an 11,000-square-foot vacant lot on Monterey Road, next to the Glendale Avenue off-ramp of the 134 freeway. On a recent morning, 22-year-old Alek Bartrosouf scoops up a crumpled soda can from the barren earth. “This is a house lot, abandoned since 1976. It’s owned by the city. Every now and then city employees clean out the weeds and the trash.”

A brick wall and a few palm trees are all that separate the lot from the hissing freeway. If all goes according to plan, this pocket of blight could become a verdant refuge: 20 or so neighbors would claim plots; others would be invited to workshops on gardening, water conservation and composting. The community garden would also feature a tool shed, fruit trees, and a demonstration garden displaying native and Mediterranean plants, watered with drip irrigation.

A floral perfume and the sweet-spicy aroma of sage might help to mask the gritty, metallic freeway smell. Other natives, such as California lilac and the red-berried toyon bush, would likely attract birds, butterflies and bees.

Bartrosouf sees it as a place to nurture environmental awareness: “What a community garden does, is it gets people together. They get to grow their own food, which is environmentally friendly. We won’t use pesticides. We’re also hoping to have a pergola that’s solar-powered, to feed power back to the grid.”

Bartrosouf grew up in Glendale, and credits a teacher at Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta with sparking his interest in environmental issues. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he returned home. “The first thing I noticed,” he recalls, “is there are no recycle bins in public areas. In Santa Cruz there are.”Despite his passion for the environment, Bartrosouf looks more Glendale than Santa Cruz. He’s clean-cut, not pierced or tattooed, and — with the exception of a small turquoise bracelet — dresses fairly conservatively. “I know when to be professional,” he says.

Two years ago, Bartrosouf reconnected with childhood friend Ana Khachatrian, a recent USC graduate. Through a friend, they met another Glendale native of Armenian descent, Garen Nadir. The three were impressed by how other Southland cities, such as Santa Monica and West Hollywood, were responding to environmental problems, and decided Glendale needed a green push from the grassroots. So they launched Coalition for a Green Glendale.

While trolling around the city’s web site, they learned about its Adopt-a-Block program. When they inquired about it, a city staffer suggested they start a garden. Bartrosouf, Khachatrian and Nadir didn’t have green thumbs, but they saw the opportunity to provide environmental education, especially on water conservation. So they signed on and dubbed the project an “eco-community garden.”

One day when the trio was handing out reusable shopping bags at the Montrose Harvest Market, they met landscape architect Guillaume Lemoine. The middle-aged French √©migr√© became their fourth member and designer of the Monterey Road community garden. 

Green Glendale and the city hope to make the place ready for gardeners in April or May. Fifteen people have already applied for plots. Among them is 81-year-old Beatrice Crain. “I’m interested because I love plants,” she says in Spanish. “In my house, my plants are my children.” Crain lives in an apartment. Her actual son, Raphael Cardona, says she has small potted plants on each of the 14 steps outside her home, but: “She’s running out of space. The landlord told her, ‘you really can’t have all these in an apartment.’ So she’s looking for a piece of land where she can freely grow a few tomatoes, some flowers...” “I have some seeds,” she beams, “Some very special peach seeds.”

The elderly and children are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of the eco-community garden, says Glen Dake, board member of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council. “[They] have a place to go. Elderly gardeners develop a better social network. Kids have a place to make mud pies. Among children, it develops stewardship — digging in the dirt, seeing bugs, eating vegetables that they see growing.”

Glendale Mayor John Drayman hopes the garden will also boost morale. “In an economy like this where folks are feeling the pinch, this becomes more important. For many residents who don’t have the economic wherewithal, they start to feel there’s nothing we can do to help ourselves. This is something you can do to directly affect your situation.”

The garden might also improve the participants’ health: A study of a community garden in Pacoima found gardeners there ate more fruits and vegetables than neighbors who didn’t grow food.

Coalition for a Green Glendale wants to raise $50,000 — in cash and, especially, donated materials — for the project. So far the group has secured only a $5,000 grant, but it expects the city to contribute another $5,000 or more. If they fall short, Green Glendale could scale back plans and get started for far less, says LA Community Garden Council’s Glen Dake. Still, it’s a big project for a group of four volunteers.

City managers are eager for Green Glendale to build more community gardens. They’re already proposing a site on Geneva Street. “We’re getting a lot of support from the city,” says co-founder Bartrosouf, “Most people we’ve spoken with are encouraging for our coalition to get out there and do the work.”

To learn more or get involved visit Green-Glendale.org or lagardencouncil.org

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rio Los Angeles State Park

This park was born when LA River advocates and parents in nearby Glassell Park and Cypress Park sued the city of Los Angeles, Union Pacific and a developer to prevent more industrial development at the former freight switching yard.  According to Raul Macias of the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association, these communities, just north of downtown, urgently needed more parks.

Today the site, known as Rio Los Angeles State Park, features athletic fields, a playground, a picnic area, and a short, interpretive trail through an "oxbow" of willows, sycamores and other native plants. On a recent visit, I spotted a flock of meadow larks dashing around a soccer field. I was wowed by a sunset over Elysian Park, and a good look at the Verdugo Mountains (to the north).  Despite the name, this park is near--but not next to--Los Angeles River.  According to The River Project, the hope is the state will one day buy 62 adjacent, riverfront acres from Union Pacific.

My son loved the play structures here, as well as the exuberant little kids, and those fascinating preteens on skateboards. On weekdays, kids can watch freight and passenger trains running on nearby tracks. If you live fairly close, this is a nice place to take younger kids to play. (It's about 2 miles from the 110, 5 and 2 freeways.) I don't consider it a hiking destination. The trail is tiny. If you live on one side of town, and your friend with kids lives on the other, this is a great place to meet. The park is staffed and--despite the tough reputation of the surrounding community--I consider it safe. It's also clean and well cared for by LA City Parks and community volunteers.

1900 San Fernando Road
Los Angeles

From the 110 freeway, exit Avenue 26. Drive north until the road ends at San Fernando. Continue about a mile to Macon Road, and turn left into the park. There is a Goldline station 1.3 miles away at Ave 26.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Turtles Get Around

The Santa Monica Mountains are a refuge for many species that used to be common in LA County, but now face uncertain futures. One is the western pond turtle. Rosi Dagit, a biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, studies them. She says, "Who knew turtles lead such soap opera lives." Here's my report. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Less In the Season of Excess

Tips for a Green Holiday

From the December Issue of Verdugo Monthly

My husband says some day my mouth is going to get me killed. It’s the not profanities or my short fuse, but the little tidbits of neighborly advice I dispense. The way I tell people they should consider adjusting their sprinklers so they don’t irrigate the street, or use their leaf litter as mulch instead of blasting leaves (and pollution from the blower) around their property.

The end could come this holiday season. Many of my neighbors launch an all-out blitz: every shrub blinks; giant (electric-powered) blow-up Santas perch on roofs; Christmas trees glow around the clock. Entire North Poles are erected without irony. (Lighting my yard; melting the Arctic.) Garbage cans burst with things that shouldn’t be trashed. I don’t want to deprive people of their holiday pleasures. I just want to inject a little moderation. California waste officials say Americans throw away a million extra tons of trash a week from Turkey Day to the New Year.

An easy solution is to apply the conservation mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order. Buying sparingly means less energy consumed, fewer pollutants produced and resources depleted. Ditto for reusing; plus it keeps junk out of landfills. Recycling is great, but it takes energy to reformulate materials. Still, by all means recycle, and buy recycled products.

Looking for a little grinchy sympathy, I called a few people who have simplified their holidays. They left me less cranky — even inspired.

’Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Robert Lilienfeld, the stingy but sharp mind behind Use-Less-Stuff.com says, “The earlier you shop, and the more you plan, the more likely what you buy is something people will like. [The problem is] the last-minute trip where you buy whatever you see.” Lilienfeld likes experiential gifts. This year he’s giving his teenaged daughters tickets to the musical Wicked. He also recommends ball game tickets, and iTunes cards. “If you think about your holiday memories from when you were a kid,” he says, “what you remember are the experiences you had. Grandma drank too much eggnog. What you ate for dinner. ”

Last year, Los Angeles journalist and mom Julia Posey asked her family to skip the “stuff” and give memberships. She was delighted with the result: Free admission to the L.A. Zoo, the L.A. County Natural History Museum and Descanso Garden. Posey has simplified her family life and documents it on her blog, Ramshackle Solid. She makes lovely homemade gifts. She recently bought plain wooden nesting dolls and painted them with animals her son has seen at home and on hikes. “Kids don’t need a lot,” she reminded me. “You want to give them less, so their imagination has space to play.” She inspired me to sew finger puppets. For this, I’m using both naturally dyed wool felt and synthetic felt made of recycled plastic. The tiny bird puppets will also double as holiday ornaments. 

When you buy tangible gifts, pay attention to the amount of packaging. Is a tiny doodad encased in yards of plastic? If so, look for a better choice. Martin Schlageter with the L.A. environmental group Coalition for Clean Air advises, “Look at product labels. Look at where something is made, and if it has recycled or organic content.” He tries to buy things made locally, because of the pollution generated by transporting goods. Schlageter also evaluates durability: “Pay a little more for something that’s going to last.”

It’s a Re-Wrap

In the 1970s, my family was either a conservation pioneer — or just thrifty: We always opened gifts carefully and reused the paper, bows, and boxes. I still do. Use-Less-Stuff guy Robert Lilienfeld says the key is to have separate, marked boxes ready to collect the scraps as people unwrap. Don’t bother to wrap the really big stuff, put a bow on it or hide it. “Especially for little kids, they don’t care,” says Lilienfeld. “No one is ever going to say in therapy at age 35, ‘I wish my mom had wrapped gifts better.’” Get creative. You can use brown paper bags, old comic books, and scraps of fabric. 

Similarly, my friend Julie Wolfson offers this Chanukah tip: “If you are determined to give your kids a present every night, don't waste wrapping on all of them. Buy or make one gift bag for each kid, and put her gifts in it each night. My kids love to see what's in their ‘Chanukah bag.’”

To Tree or Not to Tree? 
Despite my reputation, I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of a Christmas tree. Burbank and other cities will mulch them. To cut pollution from trucks that haul the trees away, consider chopping up at least the fine branches at home and using them to mulch flowerbeds or improve your compost pile.

A couple of years ago I tried a Christmas rosemary bush — with mixed results. It was cheap, easy and smelled great. The idea was, after the holiday, I’d plant it or cook with it. It graced my Christmas day, but died before I could reuse it. Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier to chop up — and make mulch or compost from — a small shrub than a large tree. Some years, I’ve just decorated a few boughs, placed on the mantle.

For the trimmings, LED holiday lights — which use a lot less energy and last longer — are now widely available. The bulbs also fit some electric menorahs, says Liore Milgrom-Elcott of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “If it’s big enough,” she adds, “you can use compact fluorescents (CFLs).”

Adan Ortega, board member of the open space group Amigos de los Rios, decorates and reuses a tree made of recycled plastic. He says, “My preference is to celebrate the way Mary, Joseph and Jesus did: with humility. I prefer my son’s hand-made decorations.”

Waste Not

To prevent wasted food, Robert Lilienfeld advises a little planning: “You know there will be leftover turkey. Think what you want to do with it before you shop. Look at it as an ingredient for the next couple of meals. If your family loves soup, buy the ingredients at the same time.” Pay particular attention to poultry, meat, and dairy. It takes a lot of resources — and puts a lot of greenhouses gases into the air — to produce that protein at the top of the food chain.


Buying carbon offsets has become a fashionable way to unburden the consuming conscience. Why not undertake your own mitigation? To start, you can pay a junk-mail – removal service, such as Green Dimes, to remove your name from advertiser and catalogue mailing lists. Guilty of buying too many electronic gadgets? Make amends for the hazardous waste they create (when discarded) by investing in a battery charger and rechargeable batteries. You can even buy solar-powered battery chargers. Be sure to donate unwanted toys, housewares and clothes to charity. Many people here in southern California would appreciate things I see stuffed in trashcans.

If you must have Las Vegas on your lawn: unplug cell phone chargers, computers, and other electronics when you’re not using them. They draw down power even when they don’t need it. 

Saving energy will save you money. So embrace your inner Grinch. Being lean and green is a good strategy for our times.