We moved to Downtown Los Angeles in May of 2013 and in the past 20 months I’ve never seen more progress in a community than what I’ve observed Downtown under the leadership and vision of 14th District Councilmember Jose Huizar.
And it’s not just progress, it’s also his concern for how the progress evolves. I reached out to Councilmember Huizar’s office shortly after Nick passed away when I read that Huizar was looking into programs to further assist the homeless while also making our streets cleaner and safer. He was investigating the possibility of “parking” meters installed in various locations around the city that would accept change and credit card donations to support organizations that aid the homeless. Our dear Nick was always reaching out and wanting to help those who were living on the streets around us and, inspired by Nick’s concern, I felt this initiative would give people a place to donate and hopefully eliminate some of the drug sellers that prey on the homeless who depend on handouts to support their habit. While there is no perfect solution. I thought this one had possibilities.
Diana Edoyan in Councilmember Huizar’s office promptly responded to my request for a meeting and we had a very productive discussion around how helping the homeless could also be tied in with a greater city initiative around creating awareness for how we all live in the city together and how a spirit of kindness and social consciousness, the way Nick approached life, would continue to contribute to the livability of Downtown along with the physical revitalization efforts. Whether I was being overly optimistic or not, Diana was excited about what I was suggesting and was open to taking these ideas to her boss. I’d never been to City Hall before and this first experience was one of collaboration–even though I was just one citizen with an idea that I wanted to share.
A few months later, I attended Councilmember Huizar’s homeless solutions panel where multiple stakeholders and a vocal audience with differing opinions all had a chance to speak. It was a bold move on his part and Huizar handled it with great concern and sensitivity . I’ve heard Huizar speak to students at USC’s Price School of Public Policy and listened to his vision for Downtown. It doesn’t just focus on business and more buildings, it’s also about building community, livability and a place where families want to spend the day enjoying all that downtown has to offer. It also addressed the importance of being proud of who and what we are as a city.
The idea of Bringing Back Broadway was one of the reasons we wanted to live in the Eastern Columbia Building and have a front row seat to the beautification of our neighborhood. I had a big smile the day the bistro tables and red umbrellas went up on the street. It makes a statement that WE care but it took a leader like Councilmember Huizar to make that statement. I love to see all the people actually sitting at the tables that, along with the planters, create an ambiance on the street. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but you see people eating their lunch or enjoying a coffee with friends and it shows that we’ve come out from behind our walls and we’re meeting our neighbors.
Of course I love all the new retailers who have been attracted to the area and the shopping and dining discoveries that seem to pop up on a weekly basis within the blocks surrounding our building. Some people express concern about too much building. I recognize that I moved to a city and one that is changing, at that. I want to see history preserved and I want to see more green space, too. BUT if Jose Huizar is not re-elected I fear we’re going to stall our progress and lose all the momentum that he’s worked so hard to get going. I know first-hand he will listen and that he has an incredibly talented and dedicated staff that will help him stay aware of what his constituents’ needs are.
According to Wikipedia, Jose Huizar was born in Zacatecas, Mexico. His father was a migrant farm worker and later a machinist. His mother, Isidra Serrano, was a meatpacking plant worker. His family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Boyle Heights. Jose graduated from U.C. Berkeley, got his law degree from UCLA and received his Masters of Public Policy from Princeton. If I’m looking for the right person to hire for a challenging job, those papers alone shout “Qualified!” But character counts just as much–and no one is perfect…it’s how you move forward from a challenge that is the real test of character, and I believe Jose has proved that as well.
If you live in District 14 your vote is critical. Please be sure you get to the polls before they close tonight at 8 p.m. In case you haven’t figured it out…I hope you cast your vote for Councilmember Jose Huizar.
Tonight’s going to be another reason why we love living in DTLA. Since we moved to the Eastern Columbia Building in May of 2013 we’ve seen the changes on Broadway continue to accelerate and the ride just keeps getting better. Council Member Jose Huizar is the catalyst for this change and I’m actively supporting his re-election and getting involved in my precinct to get everyone registered to vote so they can cast their ballot for him to insure that his initiatives continue to move forward. It’s critical that we have a representative that appreciates the history of Downtown Los Angeles and wants to see it preserved as well as put to good use.
According to the book Downtown in Detail, with captivating architectural photographs of DTLA by Tom Zimmerman and foreword by Linda Dishman, “Los Angeles has the most intact pre-World War II downtown in the United States.”
On the 7th Anniversary of the Broadway initiative here are a few of the reasons the book gives us to appreciate and continue to revive and make use of the architectural treasures we have here in DTLA:
While several buildings on the west side of Downtown were demolished in the 1960s to build the Harbor Freeway, there was no reason to tear down the Historic Core because there was no desire to build anything new there.
in 1979 The Historic Core–Main, Spring, Broadway and Hill–was being drained of tenants as businesses and residents sought space in new, modern buildings, but the area became partially protected in 1979 when the Broadway Theater and Commercial District from Third to Ninth Streets and the Spring Street Financial District from Fourth to Seventh Streets were accepted on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the late 1970s on the Historic Core was intact but largely vacant. At street level, Broadway was the thriving center of Latin American culture and retail, however, the buildings were empty above the second floor.
The south end of Hill Street was rescued by the burgeoning jewelry district that took over buildings and theaters while the buildings on the north end of Hill were abandoned.
The big change came in 1999 when the Los Angeles City Council (note the importance of a City Council with vision!) passed an Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance allowing conversion of former office buildings into living quarters. This was a key stimulus to the current loft revolution and reuse of the ornate architectural buildings constructed from 1908 to 1935 –all of which were still standing to be resurrected as apartments and condos.
So if you want to take a peak into all the old theaters on Broadway, experience the life of the city and celebrate our history as well as our progress, come downtown tonight. See you under the neon lights…on Broadway!
For the past two days there have been rigs testing the soil in the parking lot behind the Eastern Columbia Building at 9th & Hill. At one time a new building was in the plans for this space. Now it looks like construction might be back on the table. I’m feeling like one of those “Not in my backyard!” types. I love to see all the progress going on but when it hits this close to home and I think about looking out on another building I get a little nervous. But at the same time, this is one of those lots that was bound to get re-purposed at some point. I’ll definitely be at the hearing once the official plans are proposed!
You never know until you walk in, what you might find in DTLA’s new retail stores which are popping up everywhere these days . At Parker & Barrow, which just opened at 814 S. Broadway on the same block as Urban Outfitters, I discovered that this store offers women’s and men’s PB brand jeans off the rack or the option of getting a pair made to order with a custom fit and color choice.
Parker & Barrow is the vision realized of Thelma Siguenza who describes herself as a “fit architect.” She’s been responsible for the fit that has made Joe’s Jeans such a phenomena and she also lends her expertise to a myriad of other jeans and pants companies. By today’s price standards for jeans, PBs are reasonable–around $125–plus a nominal add-on if you go with custom made options that can include a little longer leg, waist adjustment or maybe narrower or wider at the bottom. Once you have your first custom order, your specs stay on file making it easy to order in another color or fabrication.
Men can also get custom shirts made in fabric combinations selected from bolts on display. These aren’t your father’s custom shirts — the Xeres (pronounced “series”) label, designed by Tarek Akaweih, takes the shirt to a whole new dimension with the finished product making a significant statement of individuality.
I tried on one of the PB jeans and couldn’t resist the soft brushed cotton with a slimming stretch to the fabric. There were about eight colors to choose from and I decided on a faded military green. The fit was perfect but I opted for an extra inch at the bottom and Thelma suggested tapering the leg a little bit more. Stay tuned for next week and I’ll show you how they turned out.
I have a hard time finding scented candles that I really love but I think my search may be over now that I’ve discovered The Fenix Candles which are also found at Parker & Barrow.
The Candles come in scents curated for women and men and just smelling each of them can become addictive. I settled on Greek Currant but it wasn’t easy to narrow it down. Fortunately the store is just across the street from where I live should a whiff of California Redwood beckon! There are 182 scents to choose from on the Fenix website. Thank goodness there are only about 20 choices at Parker & Barrow.
Every shopping trip deserves a break and the perfect new place to take it is at Verve. If you’re walking (and you should be) the shortcut from Parker & Barrow on Broadway to Verve at 833 Spring Street is through the parking lot next to Two Boots Pizza then to your right on Spring.
Even though they weren’t officially open, Verve managers Malvina and Katie invited us in for a look around. They offered to test out their new high-tech coffee machinery on us but we could tell they were still unpacking boxes so we promised we’d be back. Verve is based in Santa Cruz, CA where they have four locations and this is their first one outside of Santa Cruz. With the proximity to The Fashion Mart, I can see Verve fast becoming the fashion industry hangout packed with designers and buyers collaborating on the next trend within this creative and spacious environment.
In addition to the coffee choices, Verve shares its space with Juice Served Here, a LA company. Lots of fresh raw juice choices and cleanse options for those getting ready for fashion week!
The other intriguing feature of Verve is the back room which is the headquarters for the company that designed the space: MAI Studio. Verve is completely aligned with MAI Studio’s description on their website that states, “Our material expertise allows us to push the boundaries of design, creating products, interiors and alternative methods of construction which provide innovative solutions to the built environment. Our team draws on a wide range of backgrounds integrating fine art, branding, interior, graphic and industrial design. Our International portfolio includes boutique hotels and restaurants as well as residential and condominium projects.”
While Verve has been in the build-out, I’ve seen the spectacular wall garden in the making. Week after week plants were being carefully mounted onto the facing walls on each side of the patio. The seating area is a conservatory of exotic plants where you can breathe in this welcome oxygenation in the middle of the city while getting even healthier with a bottle of Clean Greens Juice made of Coconut Water, Cucumber, Kale, Spinach, Parsley and Romaine. On the other hand, there are those of us who need of a surge of caffeine through our veins, so the cupping ritual of a Verve coffee, carefully brewed from beans sourced in remote global villages, might be just what the doctor ordered!
A walk around the block these days has become an adventure and, while everything new is exciting, I also want to be sure to support places like il caffé which is connected to Acne Studios, the Swedish clothing retailer located in the Eastern Columbia Building . When I walk into il caffé they know my name and I inevitably run into one of my neighbors which reinforces the sense of community that continues to make DTLA feel like home.
Last night I attended a “Fireside Chat” with Hal Bastian and Brigham Yen. the two men who have been the most passionate voices and citizen activists in the renaissance of DTLA . The lounge-y lobby of The Standard Hotel was full of residents, the just curious, and the big investors who all hung on Hal’s and Brigham’s every word .
Hal recently launched his own firm, Hal Bastian Inc., after spending the past 20 years in commercial real estate followed by 13 years as the Director of Economic Development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID). While at DCBID, Hal was instrumental in bringing residential and retail development as well as friendly dogs and their owners to the streets of downtown that were once, not terribly long ago, deserted after 6 p.m.
Brigham told us about how he got his love for DTLA which started when his dad took him on a Greyhound Bus trip from Utah to Denver to Chicago to New York with each city destination getting another “really” in front of the “big.” His dad would preface their arrival at each destination by saying, “Son, this is a (add 1 REALLY for Denver, 2 for Chicago and 3 for New York) big city!” At one point Brigham was hired by Hal to work for the DCBID and now he focuses on DTLA real estate as well as his blog, DTLA Rising, where he uncovers all the latest news on what inquiring minds want to know about new developments, retail construction and renovation within each of the downtown districts.
Hal and Brigham, in many ways, reflect the two generations that are the embracers of the DTLA lifestyle–babyboomers and millennials. Both demographics have already discovered why downtown is so great. At the same time Hal acknowledges that the future of downtown must include better public schools such as Metro Charter School, that was started by DTLA parents a few years ago, along with more parks and activities for young children such as the annual Halloween Party in the FIDM Park. The goal is to make it attractive for parents to continue to live downtown when their children reach school age. Hal argues that young parents who work downtown might rethink the time they could lose with their kids due to commuting vs. the trade-off of the house and the back yard (not to mention upkeep!).
Brigham, a Cal Berkeley grad, said he could never understand why his Bay Area friends were always so down on LA. While he realized as a college student that Los Angeles was still lacking the city vibe that he found in San Francisco, he still wouldn’t give into the jibes. He described an enjoyable moment of vindication that came the other day, when he ran into two old friends from the Bay Area, one of whom owns several restaurants. Brigham said that he asked him, “Hey man, what are YOU doing here in DTLA?” “I love it here,” his friend replied, “There’s so much cool stuff happening.” For Brigham that was one of those ultimate reassurances of knowing that what you’ve been working so hard for has materialized.
Hal gave us a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I could think about this one for hours. Which of these two pictures is better? I don’t think it matters. I think we just embrace the change.
The photo above shows what the DTLA skyline will look like when the 1,100 Wilshire Grand Tower is completed at 7th and Figueroa in 2017. This photo was pulled from Brigham Yen’s DTLA Rising blog.
So yes, we can certainly compare one era to another, but we also revel in the uniqueness of our city. It’s not just the old and it’s not just the new, it’s how the pieces are all working together like the Broadway Trade Center building, formerly May Co. Department Store, formerly Hamburger’s Department Store. This structure bordered by Broadway, Hill & 8th Streets has been purchased and is going under a major renovation. No one has the definitive on what or who will occupy the building but the rumors are all intriguing. I’ve heard that one floor will be the world headquarters of Beats by Dre which is owned by Apple. Another inside scoop is that the ground floor will be a “world’s fair of mindfulness.” There have been talks of high-end retail, residences and creative office space within this structure which takes up nearly an entire city block. Most importantly, this building is just a spectacular piece of 1906 Beaux Art architecture that’s been a long time coming in being re-appreciated.
Hal loves to tell how long it took to convince a grocery store to come downtown and finally Ralphs agreed. 7 1/2 years later, this store does $1 million a week in sales and is the #1 take-out deli in the entire Kroger corporation (parent company of Ralphs). While on the topic of grocery stores there were cheers from the audience for Whole Foods that’s currently under construction at 8th and Grand and Trader Joe’s that agreed to build, not exactly downtown, but rather in the new University Village project by USC. And we were reminded to be grateful for City Target and Smart & Final Extra…both incredibly clean, well stocked, and super helpful. Except, and I ask your indulgence here… I still don’t like the idea of having to bag my own groceries the way they expect you to at Smart & Final. And while I’m on the subject, I think we’ve all gotten pretty good about bringing our own bags BUT, If I did happen to forget my bags, I am really annoyed with the ten cent, or whatever it is, charge after I’ve spent $50+ on groceries. Why don’t all the stores who have to abide by this new law have a jar for charity and if you have to buy a bag, put a donation in a jar for the homeless–don’t make me have to give it to the store!
Now back to the chat: Brigham said people used to say that LA “had no soul” referring to no appreciation for the history of the city and vibrancy of life in those historic areas. Let it be said, the soul of LA is awakening. It’s happening in the revitalization of the old and the boldness of the new, including the Broad Museum and Plaza along with new residences and fun places to congregate like Pez Cantina at 400 S. Hope.
No conversation about DTLA is complete without a discussion of the homeless, the lack of affordable housing and the scarcity of owner-occupied buildings vs. rentals. These are conditions that affect every income level and the complexion of the city. The housing issue is under constant discussion by the city while the County of Los Angeles as well as the State of California needs to step up and get more involved. The care of the homeless should not just be left to the City of Los Angeles to figure out. Drugs, alcoholism and mental illness are conditions for which the County Health Departments must find solutions and provide relief. Unfortunately it’s the urban locales that bear a disproportionate number of these cases which lead to homelessness.
The Midnight Mission is one of the most active resources for the homeless in DTLA . They bring together DTLA residents and volunteers for an annual event in The Old Bank District that gets everyone involved in supporting the great work of this 100-year-old center dedicated to helping the homeless get off the street and become productive citizens.
“Vacant parking lots suck the life out of the city,” was one of my favorite Hal Bastian observations of the evening. He’s so right but I never thought about it that way. Of course this led to one of the other items on the wish list of everyone who cares about DTLA –more green space. Grand Park has been a tremendous asset but south of that there’s a big need. I must say, though, that I have a hummingbird feeder on my 8th floor balcony and I’m visited daily by a shimmering green little avian . When I look out my window and down to the trees on the street below, I sometimes catch a yellow butterfly flitting among the tree tops . Just think what we could have if a few more parking lots were turned into parks! I’m anxiously awaiting what we’ll see when the building across Hill street, which I see out our window, finishes the pool and community deck. I have high hopes that I’ll be looking out on planters and trees.
Which leads me to what Hal and Brigham shared about the 5,000 new residential units that will all be completed by the end of 2015. Only 68 of those 5,000 were for-sale units and they were in The Barker Block in the Arts District. The reason for this disparity, according to Hal, is that lenders are still stinging from the real estate fallout that resulted in so many short sales and foreclosures. They want to go for occupancy first, which hopefully will be followed by residents being offered the eventual opportunity to buy.
Here are a few more of the good things that we learned:
Elysian Park just above DTLA has tennis courts, baseball fields, picnic areas, an awesome view of the city and great hiking trails. Hal is working on getting a corporate sponsorship for a DASH bus to take downtowners back and forth to this lovely place. Knowing Hal, he’ll make sure dogs are allowed on the bus, too!
DTLA is the hub of a multi-billion dollar mass transit system. Union Station is a pretty impressive confluence of transportation options.
And with all this good news, instead of taking Uber home, I decided to walk and see for myself what the streets of DTLA were like on a relatively “quiet” Thursday night. Who knew that Bill Nye the Science Guy would bring out a crowd that stretched down Broadway and wound around 7th Street.
It’s always fun to discover something going on–like Bill Nye the Science Guy– that you didn’t even know about. And the gorgeous high ceilings in Clifton’s that were visible by night gave me a peak at what this long-awaited, multi-level restaurant and bar has going for it in the way of a landmark restoration and destination attraction to Broadway.
As I walked I started thinking retail…remembering Hal’s and Brigham’s claims about everything that’s been opening on Broadway including the newest: a Gap Factory Store, and the others that have come along in the past year or so such as Acne Clothing, Aesop, Tanner Leather Goods, Oak, and Urban Outfitters. “What else haven’t I noticed?” I wondered.
In the 700 Block of Broadway I came across a project in the works. The store used to be Rainbow and I actually bought a sundress there for $10 the first summer we lived downtown. The dress held up pretty well but it looks like some deeper pockets have an even better idea for what they want to do with this space.
I have high expectations for what I see happening here .
A block further south on the corner of Broadway and 8th, I noticed some art had gone into the three store fronts along 8th street (but tonight there was paper covering these windows so we’ll have to see what’s next). Here’s what it looked like on Thursday:
Next to Farago was a new shop and I loved their honesty. The name is LA EX and the tagline is “The Tiny Flagship Store.” I will definitely check them out this weekend.
In the same series of shops, the guy who used to make keys and repair shoes at The Broadway Exchange has a much nicer storefront now on 8th at Broadway.
As I walked past all these examples of what Hal and Brigham talked about, I realized that it’s a unique experience to be living in the midst of so much change. I’m looking forward to the fist episode of the TV show Hal is working on with Ryan Morris, the producer of the late, great Huell Howser’s TV show about California points of interest. Hal is the perfect guy to take this on–especially with all the new material that DTLA is giving us. Watch for “What’s Up Downtown? with Hal Bastian.”
I look forward to keeping up with all of Brigham Yen’s posts about what he’s hearing around town and hopefully continuing to discover one or two of my own.
We’re here for a reason and the only reason I can think of is to make this world a better place. Thank you Hal and Brigham for your passion, drive and commitment to this city we call home.
KNBC TV reporter, Kate Larsen, and her cameraman visited us in our loft today to shoot a segment for the evening news. Kate shares how Nick’s USC scholarship fund at the Price School of Public Policy will provide financial assistance to a transfer student who reflects Nick’s character, perseverance, and the desire to improve a community.
We were honored that Kate chose to do this follow-up story just a little over four months since Nick was killed by the lightning storm on Venice Beach. We hope to see Nick’s scholarship fund continue to grow and allow more students to follow in the footsteps of Nick’s dream to attend USC’s Price School and then give back through being involved in the revitalization of the Downtown Los Angeles community.
There’s a sign along the 10 Freeway in Santa Monica that designates it as the “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway.” It’s not something I ever noticed, but since returning home from the Dominican Republic, it’s now taken on a special significance.
Less than a week ago, in Santo Domingo, Jay and I stood overlooking the mouth of the Ozama River which brought Christopher Columbus to the land he designated as “The New World.”
Our return trip to Los Angeles a few days later was much more than a flight from one destination to another. We traveled in two days (with an overnight stay in Ft Lauderdale) what took centuries for explorers to accomplish. We were completing the first leg of an exploration of our own, looking for a new world of purpose to honor the life of our son, Nick. We discovered treasure in the Dominican Republic with nine other wonderful fellow voyagers and the dedicated translators and program administrators who were all part of our journey.
Our ultimate discovery centered around how a united effort can affect transformation within an entire community such as the one in Herrera where we want to continue to focus our resources on the Tia Tatiana school that serves 300 kids in one of the most impoverished sections of Santo Domingo .
While on this trip we had the opportunity to learn a little about the history of the Dominican Republic and the culture of its people . Of course there’s baseball; the reason why Nick had a special place in his heart for the Dominican. But more importantly there’s a spirit of the people, woven from long threads of a colorful but slightly frayed history, that continues to hold this country together all the way from its beginning as the first land in the Americas to experience the European way of life to a country that has one of the most racially intermixed populations while being almost 100% Christian.
The Vision Trust team took us to the site of several national monuments, including the mausoleum where the heroes of the country are entombed. Among the other old buildings on this site is the first fortress in the Americas.
Like any other country, the Dominican Republic has had its struggles. Of those who first welcomed Columbus to the land few, if any, native descendants of the indigenous population are left due to disease brought by the early settlers as well as the trials of enslavement the natives endured. Also Spanish settlers brought their African slaves with them and then brought more slaves directly from Africa to build up and, in some cases, defend the island. Slavery was first abolished in the Dominican in 1801, then reinstated. It was finally abolished permanently in 1822. The history of the island includes invasions by the English and the French and then a war against the Spanish rule by those, mostly from Spain, who had settled the island . And in the 20th Century, despite being a declared democracy, Dominican leaders came into power and became dictators. In 1965 there was an uprising and U.S. troops landed on the island much to the disapproval of many Dominicans. Eventually a truce was reached while fear in the U.S. was that the Dominican Republic would go the way of Cuba.
During each of these periods of turmoil, those who were poor suffered the most. Today a president of the Dominican Republic has a term limit of four consecutive years (but can be re-elected four years later) and within that short time, they try to make an impact on the county. The former president focused on infrastructure by building roads and bridges. The current president has committed to raise the country’s GDP budget allocated to education from a mere 2% to 4% which includes mandating all-day classes for grades 1-12. Currently, students only have a half-day of school. The changes have been a long time coming and are supposed to go into effect soon but the country is realizing there currently aren’t enough classrooms to accommodate this shift as previously classrooms doubled for two grades–one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So until enough classrooms are ready, the mandate can’t be fully activated.
Prior to our trip, Vision Trust sent us information explaining that the Dominican is a conservative country in terms of dress. For the most part, men and women don’t wear shorts (which was almost a deal-breaker for Jay..but he found some great lightweight Nike golf pants and got over it) and women cover their shoulders at least with short sleeves–even when the humidity is 85%.
The Dominican flag, established November 6, 1844 when the Dominican Republic declared independence from Haiti, was designed to tell the story of the country.
The coat of arms that appears at the center depicts an open bible and a cross. The bible verse is believed to state “And the truth shall make you free,” (John 8:32). The bay laurel branch and the palm branch bracket the flag-draped shield and the words “Dios, Patria, Libertad” (God, Fatherland, Liberty) appear overhead. The colors of the flag stand for the blood shed for freedom, the blue skies, and white for peace, dignity, faith, honor and pride. The cross appears again as it divides the flag into quadrants.
The flag is also connected to the national dish called “La Bandera” (translation: “the flag”) referring to the fact that the colors of the food on the plate are like those of the flag (although I’ve yet to see blue appear on any of the plates I was served). The staples of La Bandera are rice, beans and chicken–usually served with salad, a sweet side dish like caramelized ripe plantains, and a fried side dish such as tostones (fried green plantains) or torrejas de berenjena (fried eggplant). Every main meal we ate came with rice and beans, sometimes with chickenandothertimes with delicious casseroles combining traditional ingredients by mixing the fried, sweet and savory flavors. Only when we ate at Josiah’s house, where they have their own organic garden, were we told it was OK to eat the salad. We were warned never to even sip tap water and the likelihood that salad is washed from the sink kept it off our menu during the trip.
Bottled water is everywhere and you can be fairly sure that ice in all the restaurants is made with purified water. No one in our group had any food or water issues. And speaking of food, breakfast every morning was scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, and–being a big fan of dried cereal–I was very excited to have the option of the Dominican version of “Total.” I looked forward each morning to these big, crunchy, multi-grained flakes that held up nicely in a bowl of milk with sliced bananas on top. Since I tended to be the last one up in the morning, this quick breakfast was just perfect.
We were also treated to the ingredient most critical to starting the day: rich, smooth and toasty Santo Domingo coffee! It gave all of us coffee drinkers the jump-start we needed to accomplish our daily goals. Some on the team couldn’t get enough of it– and there was always a fresh pot available until the last person called it a night.
In terms of the accommodations, we were perfectly comfortable on our bunk bed mattresses and we even had our sheets change half-way through our visit. All eleven of us managed to get fairly decent water pressure and warm temperature when it came to sharing the 3 showers in the house. (there was an additional bath without a shower, too). Most of us packed pretty light for the trip which was never a problem since our “house moms,” would launder anything we needed.
The internet in the house worked great and usually there was an hour or so every evening where everyone silently sat around the table at their computers answering emails or updating friends and family on how the trip was going.
Evenings sometimes involved group excursions walking up the street for ice cream or sweet empeñadas. We also had to visit Bravo, the modern supermarket one block away, that featured a glassed-in exotic bird aviary across the entire front of the store. This store was our source for the coveted bags of ground and whole bean Santo Domingo coffee that us caffeine cravers squeezed into every available space in our suitcases to insure we would have a stash back home.
By the time our trip was coming to an end, the people who facilitated all our activities and needs were like extended family to us. Nelson, who is the Executive Director of Vision Trust Dominicana, was an encouraging presence coming and going from his office in the mission house. He has an amazing staff that supports him in managing the 11 projects they serve including Tia Tatiana School in Herrera and the Remar orphanage, plus an orphanage for deaf children, an orphanage on the Haitian border, and a house for girls who have been rescued from human trafficking . Nelson was with us almost every day either joining us for breakfast, visiting Tia Tatiana School with us as well as taking us to his favorite Dominican rotisserie chicken restaurant (which was right on par with the incredible food his mother and her helper cooked for us every day in the mission house). The last night Nelson shared his fascinating life story with us– which I won’t spoil for you. It’s one of the many reasons that makes it worthwhile to plan a Vision Trust trip to the Dominican to hear it for yourself.
Nacho (real name: Ramón) was our cheerleader, translator, driver, and new best friend. His constant smile and great stories kept us going. Daniel, a Vision Trust Director, was a real trooper in getting us around Santo Domingo shopping for items for the school. And Doris was truly an angelic presence every day, helping with translating and surprising us at the Sunday service where her soulful singing voice and her expressive translation made sharing that morning of thanks for the blessings in each of our lives– without measure or comparison– a deeply emotional experience.
In previous posts I’ve covered our activities day by day so this final recap is just going to focus on what I think our whole team would agree we’re most proud of, namely what we accomplished at Tia Tatiana School.
From speaking with Nelson we learned that the area of Herrera, where we decided to focus our resources at the Tia Tatiana school, came about as people from the country, who had not previously been welcome in the city, built their own community without any planning or government oversight. Herrera is a ramshackle assortment of structures, one on top of the other, with narrow passageways and few streets (see previous Dominican Republic posts). There are no public areas, parks, or playgrounds and it continues to be one of the poorest sections of the Dominican Republic with the lowest per capita income level (average is $200 a month) and only 19% of the students complete a high school education.
We each easily transported through customs the computers that our hero, Mark Haney, was able to secure and distribute to us prior to our trip. With the expertise of Mark, Todd, Sarah, Rosie, Anne, and Judy, the computers were successfully installed, connected to wireless internet service, and received the finishing touch of getting the wires hidden below the tables. These portals to yet another type of new world stood ready to help guide the Herrera children, many of whom have never stepped beyond a 10-mile radius of their neighborhood. Instead of 30 kids peering over each other’s shoulders at only five barely-functioning computers with limited, if any, internet access there are now 30 top quality systems in place. The installation day brought out our sense of accomplishment along with lots of sweat and empty water bottles!
When we found that the computer lab installation task went by so fast, we felt like we needed to take on something else. Knowing we still had the donations from St. Brendan School and some contributions from ROI, we hit on the idea of an extreme classroom makeover. We told Evalise, the principal, what we wanted to do and, with her blessing, we went from classroom to classroom assessing the needs and talking, via a translator, to each teacher to see what they most wanted for their classroom. The number one request was to get rid of the old, dilapidated desks and replace them with communal work stations. Teachers’ desks were also in bad shape and many of the classrooms needed basic supplies, books, and learning aids for math, biology and geography.
Here are examples of what we saw in the various classrooms (and keep in mind that the classrooms for grades 5-8 have to be shared with high school students in the afternoon).
For the extreme classroom makeover we decided to pick the 6th grade classroom with its bare walls, worn-out and desks and lack of storage space and supplies.
Let the shopping begin!
Ikea had exactly the right tables and we were able to find seven where the tabletop color and the table legs would all be the same.
The next challenge was loading …
And the assembly:
The final results blew both the students and the teachers away! Even we were amazed at the complete transformation…
But the best part was when the students came into the classroom the next morning:
When we saw the impact this change made on the students it affirmed that we had discovered a way we could really impact change for these kids. We figured that for $3,500 per classroom/ about $117 per student we could give them another reason to want to learn and reach for goals here at Tia Tatiana school. We could show them that their lives can get better and there is hope for their future. And we saw how these students appreciated this investment we made in their school and we felt certain they would put it to good use.
But if the looks on the students faces weren’t enough to convey their appreciation, the words of the boys who raised their hands to come up to the front on the class and share their feelings with us, left no doubt in our minds that we’ve started something very special at this school.
We knew that if we were going to do one classroom, we’d have to eventually…and in fairly short time…upgrade the other nine. And after that there’s also a library to redo…
Evalise also took us up to the top floor of the school building and shared with us her dream for a vocational training center that could go into an unused space that was formerly Vision Trust’s offices.
The center would teach sewing and other vocational and life skills to those students who may or may not be college-bound.
With the full wish list now compiled, we know we want to stay focused on our first goal of providing every student and teacher the optimal learning environment with new, properly sized work stations, comfortable chairs, modern learning aids, and creative thinking tools.
One generous member of our team who made the trip with us has agreed to match the first $3,000 we raise, which will take us to $6,000. My company, Chain Store Age, has already committed $4,500 and Jay and I are in for $2,000. Another friend of ours said she’ll bake a coffee cake for anyone who donates $50 (and I promise to help her as I make a pretty mean sour cream, bundt coffee cake myself!). So let’s say between the two of us we make 50 coffee cakes (we’re willing to do more though)–that’s another $2,500 which puts us almost half way to our budget of $3,500 per classroom for nine classrooms (total goal is $31,500).
Our next trip is going to be April 16-22. We have four months to raise the money and sign up the volunteers to join us on our return to Santo Domingo. We’re also in the process of setting up the Nick Fagnano Foundation but in the meantime, Wilshire Sports, Nick’s former neighborhood baseball organization is allowing us to use their 501 C3 to provide tax deductible status to all donations made in Nick’s name which will be earmarked for the Tia Tatiana school project.
Like early explorers who sought the riches of the lands they discovered; we, too, made this journey to find a new way to enrich our lives. What we take back with us are treasures in the form of smiles and gratitude from the people and children that we’ve met. We thank Nick for leading us here and filling our hearts with a new sense of purpose where there is still a very large hole that will never completely close. We invite you to join us on this journey whether it be with your well-wishes and prayers or any other way you’d like to come aboard.
Maybe some of us will be sitting here on April 16th, 2015 sharing stories and our first beer in six days (oh, did I forget to tell you that the mission house is dry?). We’ll be waiting for our flight to take us home after a week of impacting positive change throughout an entire community by making a difference at Tia Tatiana school.
A few weeks ago, the students at St. Brendan School in Hancock Park invited Jay & me to come to their assembly where they honored our son, Nick, (SBS class of 2008) who passed away on July 27th. The assembly was the kick off for their Crazy Day fundraising effort to assist the children of orphanages and poor schools in the Dominican Republic that we would be visiting in November in Nick’s honor .
Crazy Day was wildly successful. The students each had to pay $1 to get creative with their uniforms and they held a bake sale. All the funds for the Crazy Day entry fee and the bake sale were donated and we were overwhelmed by the students’generosity. Over $2,000 was raised!
Last night Jay & I arrived in the Dominican Republic and one of the first things our group did was go to Jumbo, the store that is most like a Target in the U.S.
We picked out lots of sporting goods equipment for the kids.
This morning Jay & I woke up in bunk beds in a house run by an organization called Vision Trust in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Santo Domingo is the site of the first university, cathedral, castle, monastery, and fortress in the New World–that was back in the 1500s.
But today, only about 52% of Dominican Republic kids get an 8th grade education and, in rural schools, education stops at the 5th grade. So here we are in this community far from Los Angeles, to spend time with kids that don’t have anywhere near what most U.S. kids are used to. Our goal is to bring them love, have some fun and encourage them to stay in school.
Today started with breakfast and really good coffee served by the women who take care of the volunteers who stay at the Vision Trust house. There are 10 of us on this trip from all over the U.S. Each of us, prior to the trip, had been shipped three donated laptop computers. One of our jobs was to hand carry the computers on the plane to insure they made it safely here. Tomorrow, we’ll be setting up these computers at a school in Herrera, which is considered one of the poorest sections of Santo Domingo. We’re told that squatters have built makeshift houses so randomly in Herrera that they’ve taken over streets even preventing cars from driving through some areas.
Our time today was spent at an orphanage called Remar which consists of 3 houses–one for girls and younger boys, one for the older boys and one for children that are HIV positive. The orphanage is run by a man they call “Gallito,”and the older kids who live there have responsibility for the younger ones. It’s remarkable how it works. We pretty much spent the day playing with the children. Jay went out to what they designated as the soccer field–a large patch filled with rocks, vines and stumps–and he got a baseball game going.
I did some craft bracelets with the kids until they took turns as my official photographer and used my iPhone to take pictures of the day’s activities. My new friend, Stefana, even mastered the selfie!
We had a big barbecue, which we were told is a rarity. The kids get two meals a day where rice and beans are the staple and if there’s chicken, that’s a big deal. Today we all got rice, beans, chicken, pork chops, AND sausage. We were told this feast was equivalent to a Thanksgiving dinner.
Remar is just on the other side of the road from the ocean about ten miles past the Santo Domingo airport. We heard a story today of a fashion designer who happened to be passing the building on her way from the airport and she asked her driver to pull over so she could see what was there. In discovering the orphanage and seeing that it was in need of quite a few things, she decided to ask the girls from the orphanage if they’d like to be models in her next fashion show which is taking place in a hotel in Santo Domingo next Sunday. She’ll be donating proceeds from the fashion show to the orphanage. The girls are very excited about this and they each practiced their best struts down the catwalk for us.
It was an amazing day to see how content these kids are living in bare minimum accommodations including only 1 bathroom for about 15 boys as the second one isn’t working and no one has time to find someone to fix it. And the kitchen for the boys’ house is moving outside because they say it’s less dangerous there. Some of this is hard to comprehend.
Thanks to the generosity of the St. Brendan Students, and also to members of Notre Dame Knights baseball team who donated mitts, the children at the Remar orphanage had an especially good day today. If Stefana hadn’t taken so many pictures and drained my phone battery, I’d be able to show the basketball hoop that got set up, all the soccer and volley balls, a new volley ball net, jump ropes, tumbling mats, game tables and baseball bats that we were able to deliver to these kids today. And I’d be able to show you a picture of the beautiful rainbow that appeared in the sky just as we were getting ready to leave while some warm sprinkles came down from the clouds. The rainbow that I know means that Nick was with us today.
Jay and I are a bit out of our comfort zone and I think the next few days may push us even further. Jay couldn’t wait to lie down on his bunk after a full day of baseball in the hot Dominican sun! I’m finding my limited Spanish doesn’t get me very far–but I know we’re both looking forward to what tomorrow will bring –maybe even a real professional Dominican baseball game, Rumor has it one of Nick’s former Dodgers favorites, Manny Ramirez, is playing on a Dominican team that’s in town tomorrow night.
Thursday Nights at Grand Central Market is the topic of my article today in The Larchmont Buzz. I’m glad Jay and I were able to get over to the market the other night because now I have to get busy packing. I leave on Monday for Florida where I’m attending Chain Store Age‘s Executive SPECS Conference. We’ll stay in the West Palm Beach area until November 7th when we leave for Santo Domingo, the capital of The Dominican Republic. It’s going to be an entirely different downtown experience working at a school for 500 children, many of whom are orphans. We’ll be helping to install a computer lab and then spending the rest of our time playing with the children at this school as well as spending time with the children at a few other schools and orphanages in the area . The Dominican trip is very much inspired by Nick who at 13 years-old wanted to help kids in the Dominican Republic knowing how much baseball is part of their culture. Nick collected used baseball equipment from his little league teammates and sent it over to The Dominican. For our trip the Notre Dame High School team is donating between 15-20 used baseball gloves for Jay to bring with him on the trip. He better be sure there’s ice over there to put on his elbow!
In the meantime, work will be finishing up on the loft we purchased in the Eastern Columbia Building. We plan to move in on Sunday, November 16th. Before and after pictures will be coming!
I was thrilled when Mary Hawley and Julie Grist, the founders of the Larchmont Buzz, asked if I’d like to write a column about what it’s like to live in Downtown Los Angeles. My first column debuted yesterday. If you haven’t read it yet, check in out. Would love to answer your questions about where to go and what to do downtown and please feel free to give me your requests for future columns.