via Noema Magazine

Last October, on the ground floor of a white Boyle Heights building studded with mosaic tile, a group of Los Angeles street vendors were trying to decide how to spend $775,000. It seemed like a lot of money — the type of money that could solve most of their problems. The vendors, nearly all middle-aged women from Mexico or Central America, work in the informal economy and rely on face-to-face interaction to make money. They chatted in Spanish about eviction worries and the difficulty of making rent since the pandemic. “I usually need two or three jobs to survive,” a woman with bleached hair told the group.

When it came to the $775,000, though, they were hesitant about what they would do with official city dollars. A public engagement representative with the mayor’s office spoke about the history of the city’s discrimination against the neighborhood’s predominantly Chicano population. She connected the prevalence of asthma to the fact that the area was encircled by freeways — no accident, she said, either.

“This money is for Boyle Heights,” Andy Ruiz, a public interest lawyer who lives in the neighborhood, stressed.

“And for us, the vendors?” one asked.

“Why not?” the representative replied.

Hands started going up. Someone mentioned sustainable worker cooperatives. Another woman said she’d like a safe place to sell, somewhere people could stick together. Caridad Vasquez, a vendor from Colima, Mexico instrumental in the recent legalization of street vending in LA, piped up enthusiastically, encouraging participation. I noticed a few people filming the discussion on their phones, as if they were documenting history.

In a way, they were. The vendors were engaged in participatory budgeting, a process The New York Times has referred to as “revolutionary civics in action.” In 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti officially announced that the city would launch a participatory budgeting pilot program: $8.5 million for nine historically disenfranchised city zones, to be administered by the city’s newly minted Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department (CHRED, pronounced shred), with community members in charge of determining how to spend the cash. Unlike some participatory budgeting programs, which often result in municipal projects, this pilot — dubbed LA REPAIR — would place a preference on community programs. “Giving real people real power over real money,” its website proclaims.

In a way, the pilot has been a messy, real-time look at what can happen when a city tries to right some of the wrongs of its past. LA REPAIR has been quietly radical in some ways and wedded to the status quo in others; it has brought up weighty philosophical questions about race and power and resource allocation, deputizing ordinary people to try to answer them. It has also replicated some of the same problems it has aimed to address.

“What we’ve done as citizens, as individuals who vote, as the public — we’ve relinquished our responsibility,” Carrie Broadus, a veteran organizer selected by the city to help shepherd the committee members through LA REPAIR’s process, told me. “This is the opportunity to regain that. If you’re really honest about addressing systemic racism and structural biases, then you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Logistics Of Repair

When I first heard about the concept of participatory budgeting, I thought of a Jorge Luis Borges short story I’d read many years earlier called “The Zahir. “Money is abstract,” the narrator tells us, “money is future time. It can be an evening just outside the city, or a Brahms melody, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach the contempt of gold.”

This quote captivated me because of the way it gestures at the nearly infinite choices contained within a dollar. But what about ten million dollars? What about the budget for a city, a country? On this scale, money can be parks, parking meters and enforcement officers, or free parking. Money can be counseling services — or it can be police overtime.

If money is future time, budgets produce that future, signaling the kind of city, state, or country we want to live in. So often, though, they’re crafted by people who have vanishingly little in common with their constituents. The most extreme domestic example is the United States Congress, many of whose members live in a different world from the people they represent. But even in a city like LA, each councilmember votes on behalf of roughly 260,000 people — nearly half the constituency of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In response to precisely this dislocation, participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. Over the next two decades, the concept was adopted by nearly half of the country’s 250 largest cities; subsequent studies have found that those cities have much lower infant mortality rates than their counterparts. Participatory budgeting has since caught on all over the world. In the U.S., it has led to greater investment in education and public housing in New York, new bike lanes and school play areas in Chicago, and murals and safer street crossings in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Though it is not an inherent requirement, many projects in recent years have incorporated a focus on racial justice, and the LA program is no different: LA REPAIR stands for Los Angeles Reforms for Equity and Public Acknowledgment of Institutional Racism. In other words, it attempts to not only give citizens more control over the budgeting process, albeit in a very limited way, but also to remedy some of the city’s inequalities by doing so.

But because of a 1996 ballot measure, government institutions in California are prohibited from engaging in anything resembling affirmative action in employment, contracting and education decisions. (Over the course of this program, I would hear Proposition 209 invoked like a malevolent incantation, a reference people didn’t like and yet one that governed their actions).

So CHRED couldn’t use race in determining which neighborhoods received money. Instead, the policy team took a chart of the city and overlaid it with other patterns: Covid deaths, pollution levels, extremely rent-burdened households. “All these maps lit up the same colors in the same areas,” said CHRED spokesman Mark Pampanin. Unsurprisingly, those neighborhoods also turned out to be majority Black and Latino.

The city decided to divide its LA REPAIR pilot into two phases, with the first round focused on three of the program’s nine zones. These zones were the historically Black, now majority Latino Southeast LA, a vast territory stretching below the 10 freeway that infamously divided white LA from Black LA back in the ‘60s; the Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, on LA’s Eastside; and an economically depressed formerly industrial area in the San Fernando Valley that’s awkwardly referred to as Mission Hills  Panorama City  North Hills. Each zone would end up with at least $775,000, with bigger zones receiving more money — $1.5 million, in Southeast LA’s case.

The goal was to get input from anyone who lived, worked, studied or was caring for a child in school in the zone at each step in the process, from initial ideas to a vote on the community organizations that would implement the programs. It would be guided by an advisory committee of seven to nine community members from each zone, all of whom applied or were nominated for the position.

The group was racially diverse, a panoply of LA’s middle class, albeit less representative of the city when it came to educational background: nearly everyone seemed to have a college degree or even advanced degrees. There were a couple of high schoolers, but most of the participants were in their 30s or early 40s. They had heard about the program in all sorts of ways: in a grad school class, from a partner, or a sign in a park near their house.

Ruiz had moved to LA for college from San Diego and had been working in Boyle Heights for about a decade. Despite being wildly overbooked, they decided to give LA REPAIR a shot. “My mom always said, ‘rest when you die’ — it sounds better in Spanish, right?” Ruiz told me. “Because people hear it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, your mom’s a capitalist. But it’s what I’ve lived my life by, in the sense that my parents gave up on their dreams in Mexico to kind of fertilize the soil that they grew me in.”

Lorenzo Demery was a relative newcomer to Boyle Heights, but his Mexican American wife had been raised there; now, they lived there together with her parents and their four-year-old daughter. Demery was in the middle of a career pivot: After a decade in the nonprofit world, he had recently gone back to school for his MPA. Now, he was casting about for a city job. “Everyone has this idea of, like, LA as this big leftist, progressive space — and I believe that people are, but the inner workings of government kind of forces people to keep things the same,” he told me.

Natalie Champion, who grew up in Compton and bought a home in South LA with her husband in 2018, works for the nonprofit California Black Women’s Health Project on maternal health. She was alarmed at how many Black residents had been displaced from LA over her lifetime. “My husband and I, we both wanted to raise our children here,” she said. “Staying rooted in Los Angeles matters to us — it’s about making sure that we do what we can to influence the fact that our people don’t get pushed out.” And she was encouraged by innovative programs like San Francisco’s Abundant Birth Project, which gave a universal basic income to Black pregnant women, and hoped LA REPAIR would allow similar ideas to flourish. “It’s about trust,” she told me. “It’s about trusting that a community, and people, know what their needs are.”

Changing Neighborhoods

At the beginning of September, I attended one of LA REPAIR Advisory Committee’s first Zoom meetings. The zones were about to begin the process of collecting program ideas, and participants discussed the best ways to get community buy-in. Ruiz recommended giving schoolchildren bilingual flyers to take home to their parents in order to reach more monolingual Spanish speakers; Miguel Barragan, a designer and educator who’d recently bought a house in the Southeast LA zone with his husband, suggested putting up flyers with QR codes giving more program details. People seemed cognizant of the challenges of getting non-English speakers and people who were already less engaged for whatever reason — the much-discussed “low-propensity voter” — to participate.

After a bit, they split up into groups to practice different ways of ensnaring skeptical neighbors. Broadus, the community partner for Southeast LA, commanded one breakout room. Tasked with making an initial case for LA REPAIR, a Boyle Heights member named Hugo Pelayo faltered, unsure. “I’m going to hang up on you because I think you’re a prank call!” Broadus chided. She switched places with him, launching into an enthusiastic pitch. Everyone seemed impressed. She was organizing the organizers.

Soon, the committee members were making their pitches for real, at churches and libraries and parks all over the city. One sweltering day in early October, Ruiz, Demery and Pelayo were manning a booth at a Boyle Heights block party hosted by Theodore Roosevelt High School, doing their best to draw the attention of passers-by clutching micheladas and skeins of cotton candy. Ruiz, who seemed to know everyone there, joked with a couple of middle-aged women, switching rapidly between English and Spanish. In between conversations, Pelayo turned to me and asked a question he had clearly been mulling over for some time: How do you better a community without making it so attractive to outsiders that it leads to massive gentrification?

Roosevelt High is Pelayo’s alma mater. His parents emigrated from the state of Jalisco in the late ‘70s, working multiple jobs — his father in kitchens, his mother doing piece work — until they could finally afford a home of their own. Eventually, Pelayo and his younger sister rented that house from their parents, and the two of them had made it through the pandemic watching foreign movies on Criterion and making matching meals and drinks: Fritz Lang and bratwurst, cognac cocktails and French New Wave.

Now, he was watching the neighborhood change around him, in good ways and bad. A couple of weeks later, he took me to El Mercadito, a three-story market that is a cultural and economic center in Boyle Heights. Its stalls overflowed with clothing, Mexican food products, spices, candy, jewelry, electronics. When Pelayo was growing up, his family would visit the market once a week as a treat. “As a kid, like, this was what I thought a mall was,” he told me. When he first experienced a traditional American shopping center as a teenager, he felt shocked by its sterility. In contrast, he said, “you walk around here, everything feels tangible and real, tactile.”

Growing up in Boyle Heights, Pelayo told me, “I rarely ever felt that I was the other.” It was a vibrant, utterly Chicano place, where the lingua franca was Spanish and it was rare to see a white face. But in recent years, the neighborhood has become somewhat of a contested zone. Cheap rents brought outsiders with more resources than the people who lived there — and life has grown more expensive. As art galleries and trendy restaurants started to move in, anti-gentrification activists fought back with in-your-face protests during openings, online criticism and graffiti with choice phrases like “FUCK WHITE ART”.

Built in 1968, El Mercadito was a living reminder of the old Boyle Heights. But even it was changing. When we walked up to the third floor, where Pelayo and his family used to share a meal and listen to mariachi bands, the entrance was boarded up. “If someone would give me a magic wand to revitalize something, this would probably be the thing,” he mused. “It was a focal point.”

Pelayo wasn’t out tagging galleries. He had never done any political work before; after working as a bouncer for years, he’d gone into marketing. But he thought deeply about what it meant for different sorts of people to live alongside one another, and he had the same concerns as anyone else about the community he’d called home for nearly all his life. LA REPAIR had put him in contact with people who cared about the same things he did; now they were organizing together, and he had recently joined another community board as well. “I enjoy it,” he said. “You get to actually participate and be part of it and make an influence — not just complain.”

Official Betrayal

The day after the Roosevelt High event, Los Angeles woke up to the bombshell revelation that a meeting between the head of the county’s labor federation and three city councilmembers had been secretly recorded a year earlier. During the conversation, the participants, all of whom are Latino, disparaged indigenous Mexicans and Black people, badmouthed colleagues, used racist language to refer to a colleague’s Black child, and spoke nakedly about consolidating power for themselves and their allies through the city’s redistricting process. In the aftermath, one of the councilmembers and the labor leader resigned; the other two councilmembers faced universal calls to step down.

The scandal further underscored the need for participatory budgeting: It may be hard to define exactly what democracy is, but in that moment it seemed very clear that it was poorly represented by elected leaders snickering while comparing a child to a luxury handbag. What happened laid bare for the entire country a truth that many Angelenos already deeply felt: The core issues that LA REPAIR was created to address are still very much alive.

The incident also revealed the divisions that can arise as a byproduct of longstanding inequality. “Here we are trying to work with the city and do something,” Barragan reflected over coffee near his home in Historic South Central, several months after the tapes became public. “And City Council has this racial scandal that happens in the middle of all of this. It feels terrible to try to do the right thing … (when) our leaders are the ones deceiving us. And especially in a neighborhood that’s so Latinx, and so Black.”

At the end of the day, Barragan said, Latino politicians pitting people of color against each other for their own aims only served to shore up the city’s enduring Anglo power structure. “We still end up the losers,” he said.

Much of the leaked conversation circled around the apparent belief of these community leaders that Black and Latino political power is a zero-sum game. South LA, which has seen an influx of Latino residents in recent decades but is still represented by three Black councilmembers, emerged as a focal point. The district has been brutalized by decades of disinvestment, neglect and police occupation: from racist housing policies to the Watts rebellion to the crack epidemic and the long fallout of the War on Drugs.

“It’s a traumatized community,” said Cheryl Branch, who works alongside Broadus at Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches. The organization was formed in the years following the ‘92 uprising. “We’re looking around our congregations in Los Angeles — where are all the Black men?” Branch recalled. “We hadn’t connected the dots. We didn’t have ‘smart justice.’ We didn’t have Michelle Alexander’s thesis. We didn’t have all the rappers and celebrities and Kim Kardashian talking about unfair sentencing. None of that had even happened yet.”

Nearly three decades on, the organizing efforts of LAMC and many other groups in South LA have contributed to a sea change in consciousness around redlining, the prison-industrial complex, and how it all fits together. But that hasn’t helped people stay in their communities. LA’s Black population has been steadily vanishing for years. In its place, Latino families have been moving in.

Barragan’s block alone bore the marks of that transition. “My next-door neighbor Miss Evelyn passed away recently, but she bought the house in the 1960s, as far north as African Americans could come,” he said. “And then my neighbor on the other side, she’s Salvadoran and got the house in 2000 — and now we’re sandwiched in, and we’re the queer interracial couple.”

Before, Barragan had been living in a predominantly Latino area, and the move had led him to question where he fit in his new neighborhood. “I felt a little bit isolated,” he said, “like, am I gentrifying? Gente-fying? Am I the problem? What am I?”

For the Southeast LA zone’s Black members and community partners, participatory budgeting meant recognizing that many newer residents had the same concerns, needs and desires that they did, and still striving to ensure that the unique harms visited on Black residents were addressed — all while walking the tightrope of Proposition 209.

“If you’re looking at how people have been impacted by government-mandated segregation, discrimination, how folks have been locked out of wealth building, locked out of being able to take advantage of resources — the Black community has suffered greatly,” Champion said. “It’s important if we’re going to talk about ‘repair,’ we take that into account.”

Fighting For Scraps

Though LA REPAIR represents the city’s first foray into participatory budgeting, the concept itself isn’t foreign to Los Angeles. Far from it: The pilot program debuted amid a longstanding debate about the billions the city spends on law enforcement each year – one that reached a zenith during the 2020 racial justice uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Back in 2003, the Youth Justice Coalition mounted a “dollar for dollar” campaign urging the city to invest at least as much into youth development as it did into carceral programming.  This effort has intensified in recent years, with Black Lives Matter’s LA chapter and other local organizations pointing at LA’s bloated roughly $3 billion police budget.

During the 2020 protests, these organizations’ notion of an alternative “people’s budget,” which was explicitly influenced by participatory budgeting models and based on community desires and priorities gleaned from surveys and town halls, garnered widespread support. The uprising, and those demands, led Los Angeles officials to agree to reallocate $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department to programs benefiting communities of color (ultimately, $60 million of that went to balance the budget).

In November 2022, Kenneth Mejia, a member of the coalition who had gone viral putting up campaign billboards visualizing the city’s budget priorities, won his race for city controller in a blowout. At the county level, activists have been organizing for years to develop a budget that invests less money in probation and jails and more in community services. All these efforts culminated in a 2020 vote by LA county residents to permanently allocate 10% of the county’s annual locally-generated unrestricted funds toward alternatives to incarceration – several hundred million dollars a year.

Despite these successes, the county-level process has been hampered by endless bureaucracy, faltering commitments from the Board of Supervisors, and even a lawsuit from the Coalition of County Unions, which includes the powerful sheriff’s deputy union. (The broader vision behind the measure lays out a “care first, jails last” plan in which the budget of law enforcement departments like the sheriff and probation would be drastically reduced.)  And while some of the $150 million taken from the LAPD went toward participatory budgeting, the police department’s funding has only increased since.

Garcetti “did not engage with us at all” on the people’s budget, Melina Abdullah, BLM LA’s cofounder, told me. “Instead, what he tried to do is appropriate the language of participatory budgeting.” She dismissed LA REPAIR as “an exercise,” saying it felt characteristic of the city’s tendency toward gestures on race, injustice and policing — “symbolic but not substantive.”

When I tried to ask a former Garcetti spokesman about these criticisms, he didn’t get back to me.

But any way you slice it, the project’s $8.5 million allowance is an order of magnitude less than the amount the city divested from the LAPD and several orders of magnitude less than the amount Los Angeles County voters approved for community alternatives to incarceration later that year.

The program’s participants were all grappling with this reality in different ways. Most of the people I spoke to felt like the budget for LA REPAIR wasn’t nearly enough, but they participated anyway because they wanted the program to succeed; they hoped, too, that the city might grant more money in the future. The whole thing seemed like a Catch-22: CHRED maintained it wouldn’t be able to secure more funds without first showing results, but the relative lack of resources and modest programming and implementation budget had primed the program for a serious uphill battle to reach its ambitious goals.

Part of the problem has been LA REPAIR’s ability to reach the more than two million Angelenos who aren’t proficient in English — over 20% of the county’s population. CHRED acknowledged that the Spanish translation of its initial survey, which asked residents to weigh in on their community’s needs, had been unclear and may have affected participation. (The department was unable to provide me with data on the number of Spanish-language surveys and ballots it received by the time of publication.) Targeted outreach seemed to help some: Vasquez, the street vendor leader, told me later that many of the vendors who’d been present at the October info session ultimately filled out the survey after some nudging on her part.

But even its advisory committee wasn’t exactly representative of LA’s linguistic diversity. Boyle Heights has a high percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers, but only one of LA REPAIR’s committee members, Aracelly Cauich, is not a fluent English speaker. Cauich, who started a mutual-aid service during the pandemic and spends much of her free time doing outreach to the neighborhood’s unhoused, told me that it had been challenging for her to participate in meetings, especially given the speed at which committee members are expected to get through discussion items.

“Boyle Heights is a Latino community,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “LA REPAIR still isn’t prepared for both languages, especially when it comes to doing outreach to the community and (deciding which groups) to give the money to.” (David Price, CHRED’s director of racial equity, said that making the program accessible to non-English speakers is “one of our biggest barriers,” a difficulty compounded by the fact that nearly all of the first session was conducted on Zoom, where it’s harder to do simultaneous interpretation. CHRED does have funding for translators and is actively bringing on more bilingual staff, Price noted: “It is a top priority.”)

Meanwhile, Broadus and Branch were frustrated that the responsibility for shepherding community engagement had been placed on the shoulders of people like them without what they saw as adequate financial compensation; the accelerated timeline and few actual resources devoted to getting community members to participate further primed them for suspicion. Given those constraints, they sometimes felt LA REPAIR might be more performative than genuine. “I’m not here at 73 to see the same thing done over and over and over again,” Broadus said.

“What is an example of a ‘public acknowledgement of institutional racism’?” Branch asked when we spoke at the end of October, probing the meaning of LA REPAIR’s acronym. “Somebody, explain to me what you think that means. Do we need an apology at this point? Like, what are you going to do different, city of LA?”

When I posed the money question to the Boyle Heights group at Roosevelt High, Ruiz told me that it felt like the scope of the advisory committee’s work had extended beyond advice to encompass a lot of legwork, which members had to find a way to juggle alongside their own paid jobs, other volunteer commitments and personal responsibilities. Echoing Broadus and Branch’s point, they saw a certain irony in the arrangement: “You’re helping disenfranchised neighborhoods by using the labor of community leaders who are also disenfranchised — and not being paid.”

At the end of the day, Pelayo said, he’d rather have $775,000 to do something in the neighborhood than not have it. Then he paused. “It’s so weird to think that’s one house,” he said, gesturing at a nondescript bungalow across the street.

Obviously, the rough equivalent of one single-family home in rapidly gentrifying Boyle Heights was not going to solve the issue of skyrocketing rents that were making life impossible for many residents who live off street vendor and day laborer wages. At best, it could stave off eviction for a few hundred people. Even Southeast LA’s allotment, $1.5 million, was not going to make public parks and tree canopy magically sprout from the cement.

No one had ever promised that LA REPAIR was going to undo a century and a half of racist policy. But its attempt to atone in some small way for the city’s sins inevitably invoked the empty promises and reneged-upon commitments that had previously accompanied such reckonings. The magnitude of the problems, which had been clearly established and documented for decades, seemed to demand more radical solutions — and even larger investments.

And frankly, the people running the program thought so, too. In late May, when I spoke with Price, Pampanin and LA REPAIR program manager Alison Wilhite about how things had gone, Price told me he was frustrated to learn that the city charter prohibited giving stipends to advisory committee members. “I didn’t know that the city attorney was going to say, ‘No, I can’t pay people to do this work,’” he said. (A CHRED report would later find that “the lack of financial support to Advisory Committee members is a significant barrier to their full participation, and is antithetical to the program’s core values of empowering marginalized communities”; the department said it is exploring other options).

For Price, all the obstacles underscored the difficulty of doing something innovative in a huge bureaucracy like Los Angeles. But having grown up in the Southeast LA REPAIR zone himself, in Watts, he said, “It is the only program that has allowed me to go back to people and say, ‘Hey, can you vote for this so that we can figure out how we’re going to do something in our community?’ I literally have something tangible that I can bring to people — which is everything that I hoped for.”

Pampanin added: “It’s a crack in a window to a possible future that the city could embrace. Should it so choose.”

Uncertain Endings & Unexpected Gifts

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, committee members from each zone gathered on Zoom and hammered the ideas submitted by the community (133 for Boyle Heights, and just over 70 for each of the other two zones) into three program concepts.  They were intentionally broad, and each touched on familiar concerns, like Champion’s worry about longtime residents being priced out of her neighborhood, vendors’ anxiety about making rent and Demery’s desire for a community garden.

Boyle Heights focused on rent assistance, wellness memberships, and a community tree planting or street cleaning program that would also provide jobs to local day laborers or other community residents. Southeast LA decided on financial literacy and college application workshops for students, ideally with a stipend for students’ tuition at the end; rental assistance and programs to transition unhoused people off the street; and culturally responsive mental health services. Mission Hills – Panorama City – North Hills chose public landscaping to create more green space, a service to help people in need of housing and a community garden program.

Community groups were invited to submit proposals around these ideas, and after CHRED made sure offerings met program criteria, they went back to stakeholders: Anyone 15 or older who lived, worked, studied, or had a kid studying in the zone got to vote for their top three choices. On the last day of March, the city held a press conference in Watts to kick off voting for the Southeast LA REPAIR zone. Up to six of 14 possible program proposals — including street medicine, a clean tap water program and a service to connect young people with elderly residents — were eligible to win some, or all, of the $1.5 million pot. A couple of city councilmembers spoke, then Broadus. “Power in the people!” she said, eliciting a rousing cheer.

Broadus had, at times, felt pessimistic about the program’s prospects and scope. When I caught up with her after the press conference, she took the opportunity to put down her cane and handbag and sink into a nearby chair, but she seemed somehow energized. “I feel hopeful for our city,” she told me. We watched as people jostled into the hall to cast their ballots. There was genuine excitement afoot. It made me wonder how people might react if the city had devoted even more resources to LA REPAIR. If this gesture meant so much on a small scale, what effect might it have multiplied many times over?

Whether a serious investment in participatory budgeting is in the cards for LA remains uncertain. Funding to extend the program wasn’t included in this year’s proposed budget, but that’s not necessarily a bad sign; CHRED told me that the city first wants to see how its pilot sessions go. (The second round, which is already funded, is expected to start soon and run through mid-2024.) When I reached out to new mayor Karen Bass’s office to ask about the likelihood of the program being funded — or expanded — next year, her spokesman responded, “the mayor remains committed to citizen engagement in the budget process.”

“No one had ever promised that LA REPAIR was going to undo centuries of racist policy. But its attempt … inevitably invoked the empty promises and reneged-upon commitments that had previously accompanied such reckonings.”
The winners were announced in mid-June. In the end, nearly 400 Boyle Heights voters chose two rental assistance programs that would try to stop evictions and prevent broader displacement. Mission Hills – Panorama City – North Hills voters decided to fund an existing urban farm foundation in the Valley that hoped to plant another community garden. And with over 1,200 ballots cast, the money for Southeast LA went to a free, mobile street medicine unit and an afterschool program (“A tough zip code should not determine a child’s life!” their ballot description ran). Once the city council approves the contracts, the programs must be implemented, and the money spent, within a year.

As a mercurial summer came over Los Angeles and its jacaranda trees finally bloomed, casting their purple shadow over blocks throughout the city, the inaugural advisory committee participants suddenly found themselves with time to reflect on the whirlwind that had been their brush with city government.

“A little messy,” was Demery’s review. “But I want to give it some grace as well,” he said. “We are building the plane as we fly it.”

For a civic program that is fundamentally about participation, LA REPAIR had, in the end, only reached a tiny percentage of each repair zone’s stakeholders; for example, the vote turnout equated to less than 0.5% of Boyle Heights residents alone. Pelayo told me he wasn’t surprised, given the limited time and resources they’d had, and how new the whole thing was. But he hoped that the pilot’s second phase could build on what he and his committee members had learned and increase turnout.

On a personal level, LA REPAIR had helped Demery, who is Black, feel more connected to his new, mostly Latino neighborhood. “There is somewhat of a language barrier for me living here,” he said. “I know some of my wife’s friends who grew up here. But just meeting some people on my own …. that’s been amazing as far as like, keeping me grounded in the community.”

That included meeting Pelayo — who, unbeknownst to him, had been living only a few blocks away the entire time. The two enjoyed talking about local politics and had started volunteering outside the program. “I would never have known he existed if I didn’t do this,” Demery said.

Meanwhile, as Barragan’s work with the program led him to engage with his neighbors about what more they want from their city, his own anxieties about fitting into the historically Black neighborhood quieted. Now, he said, “I don’t feel like there’s my neighbors and there’s me. There’s us together.”

It was, perhaps, too early to detect whether this program they had all dedicated nearly a year of their lives to would achieve what it intended. But it seemed clear that, in having set out to repair their community, they had in some small way strengthened its fabric, and remarkably, in the process, also knit back together something within themselves.

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