Q. Before we get to the historical value of the park, what was your role in the Cornfield fight and the Chinatown Yard Alliance effort?
Robert García: The City Project brought attorneys to the table. Within the legal struggle, The City Project uniquely focused on the civil rights and environmental justice component of the park. That is the unique role The City Project has played in the Cornfield, Río de Los Angeles State Park at Taylor Yard, greening the L.A. River, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and much of the greening work over the past 17 years in L.A.
My first meeting with others about the park was with Lewis McAdams, founder of FoLAR, Friends of the L.A. River, the late Chi Mui, who was a Chinatown activist and a staffer for an elected official, and Arthur Golding, who is an architect who had a drawing that served as our vision for the park. After lunch at the Chinatown Carousel restaurant, Chi Mui took me on a tour of the Cornfield site.
Richard Ríordan was the Mayor of L.A. He called me into his office and said, “Robert, you need to bring a civil rights law suit about park access in L.A. because the disparities are so unfair.” He was right.
We started mapping and analyzing park access with GreenInfo Network. We documented for the first time that L.A. is park poor. L.A. has fewer acres of park per thousand residents compared to any other major city in the country. Children of color living in poverty with no access to a car have the worst access to parks and recreation, have the highest levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, and are the most at-risk for gangs, crime, drugs, and violence. That was the environmental justice and civil rights claim right there.
Doug Carstens is an environmental lawyer. His law firm was in the same building as we were. Doug and I were at the water cooler. Doug mentioned he was working on a letter demanding a full environmental impact report for the Cornfield. I said there are federal subsidies for the warehouses so the civil rights laws apply. (We asked NRDC to join later.)
We filed an administrative complaint with Andrew Cuomo, who was Secretary of HUD at the time, on exactly these grounds in September 2000. The failure to consider the park alternative and the impact on people of color violated civil rights laws as well as environmental laws. Secretary Cuomo agreed and withheld federal subsidies.
To be clear, as California Senate President Kevin de León has emphasized, L.A. State Historic Park is not here because of any vision by a politician or any plan, it is here because of community agitation and community organizing led by the Chinatown Yard Alliance including The City Project and others. We started this struggle 17 years ago and we’re still struggling. The park is not finished yet. It’s very much a community-driven victory. When I say “we” in this interview, I am referring to the Chinatown Yard Alliance and all our allies, not just what The City Project did.
Next: Chi Mui
The California Department of Parks and Recreation arranged for Steven Simon to interview Robert García on October 17, 2016, for the forthcoming oral history. This post and this this longer four page excerpt have been edited and condensed for clarity. Thank you to Susie Ahn for her excellent work transcribing the audio files, and to Ken Kutcher and Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal LLP for their generous support.
Photo: Gabrielino-Tongva Chief Red Blood Anthony Morales and Guiding Young Cloud Andrew Morales celebrate the Grand Opening of Los Angeles State Historic Park 2017