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This Community Group in Boyle Heights Took Matters Into Their Own Hands And Cleaned More Than 200,000 Pounds of Trash in a Year

4:41 PM PDT on November 3, 2021

t goes beyond clean streets. It’s about what we as a community deserve.” 

 That’s Veta Gashgai, community member and President of First Blocks of Whittier Boulevard, an advocacy and environmental group that conducts monthly community cleanups throughout Boyle Heights. She is one of six members of the group who said even before the almost two-year-long pandemic that enforced cleanliness, the streets of Boyle Heights have long been neglected. Neglect that has pushed many in the community, including herself, to take matters into their own hands. 

“We continue to have a trash problem, and it felt like the situation was only getting worse during the pandemic,” she said, describing trash she noticed one day while walking her son to school. “That’s why I decided to take action because we need to keep our community clean. Our kids deserve to walk through clean streets, not piles of trash.” 

Although the grassroots community group was organized in 2019, they didn’t begin documenting their big community clean-ups until last year, in February of 2020. Since then, they have had over 30 community events in which they have collected a total of what they said is over 200,000 pounds of trash in about a year, solely in Boyle Heights. Gashgai, who has been living in the area for over 14 years, said there are many reasons for the amount of trash in the streets. A big part is due to illegal dumping. She pointed to a recent report done by Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin. He indicates a rise of 450% in illegal dumping of debris and hazardous items in public areas from 2016 to 2020. 

trash pick up in Boyle Heights.
Jacobo Estrada and a team from First Blocks of Whittier Boulevard clean through rubble under the 101 freeway in Boyle Heights. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

Jacobo Estrada, Vice President of the group in Boyle Heights, said the other issue is homelessness and the lack of resources for their unhoused neighbors. Some of which have been regular volunteers at their cleanups. Estrada, who usually does some of the heavy lifting during trash pick-ups, is one of the members in the group who often initiates and builds relationships with their unhoused neighbors. 

“You need any more trash bags?” Estrada asked Angel, a homeless man who sometimes stays under the 101 and 5 freeway underpass on Soto St. “Yeah, man, we do,” replied Angel as he tied the trash bag in front of him. 

A before and after picture of the underpass, under the 101 freeway that was cleaned by the group. Photo: Michael Martinez,
A before and after picture of the underpass, under the 101 freeway that was cleaned by the group. Photo: Michael Martinez,

Angel said he is grateful for groups like First Blocks of Whittier, calling their treatment refreshing compared to the sweeps often done by the city. Sweeps are usually conducted under beautification, cleaning, or repairs. Still, they often call for the removal of encampments and those living in them, much like in Echo Park, where the homeless community was forcefully removed in March of this year. Or, more recently, in MacArthur Park, where a “rehabilitation” clean-up will be conducted, anyone living in the park must leave along with all of their belongings or face the same treatment seen in Echo Park and other areas of the city

“We're out here struggling, man, so it's good that they are helping out the community, including us, that’s how it should be, helping each other out,” Angel said as he looked for more trash to throw away. “I know people think that because we live out here that we want to be dirty or whatever, but that’s not true. This is our community too.” 

Other residents like Raquel Zamora, who has volunteered with her daughter a few times with the group, said the work they’re doing is extremely important. Once again, pointing not just at their clean-ups but at how they go about dealing with those who live in the streets.   

“It’s extremely important to bring compassion to what we are seeing that we understand that within that rubble of trash, there are human beings, and that’s why what they’re doing works,” she said. 

Zamora is one of many who have donated their time and food to feed everyone who volunteers. Other businesses in Boyle Heights, like Velarde’s Fruits Restaurant, had donated over 50 green smoothies to volunteers when they cleaned East Cesar Chavez Avenue. Hugo’s Woodfire Pizza who operates on Soto Street has also provided pizzas and ceviche on multiple occasions. Larger businesses like Smart & Final and a nearby gas station have donated trash bags, brooms, and rakes to help keep the volunteer group going. 

These donations were all a massive help for the group who at first started purchasing items out of pocket. Now,w they have a GoFundMe set up to help them continue serving their community.

Gashgai also explained that although it is great to see the community’s support, she points out that the city and city officials could do their part. Describing how for over a year, she has attempted to communicate with council member Kevin De Leon who overlooks District 14, sending up to 500 emails but has been unsuccessful. After seeing his effort in supporting other clean-up crews in the city, she hopes to see how they can work together to make Boyle Heights clean. She said the trash build-up makes people in the community feel like they aren’t important enough or deserving of a clean environment, something they are working towards changing.

“We have to keep pushing because it’s the only way we will see change in our community. If we are able to do this so can the city,” she said. “As ugly as it is to see our neighborhoods trashed and receive little to no help from our leaders, it is nice seeing that no matter what, community always finds a away to make things happen.” 

To find out when the next community clean-up will be, follow @firstblocksofwhittierblvd on Instagram.

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