Semi-Permeable Borders: A Hindrance to Change and Solidarity

(SOURCE: The East Sider LA)

Written by Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson

There is a wall in South Pasadena. It sits, short and innocuous, between our city and El Sereno—a predominantly Latino neighborhood just to our north. This wall blocks off traffic from our neighboring community with a half-block of green “mini-park” space on South Pasadena’s side of the barrier. Via Del Rey, which used to be a through street, ends at the park. This wall caused controversy when it was constructed in the mid 1970s, and again when it was lowered and refurbished in 2002. Among the residents packed into the city council chambers, few spoke up against the wall, one resident calling it a “symbol of divided communities,” but the overwhelming majority were in support of keeping the wall. Today, understated and seemingly forgotten, this wall represents a larger issue in South Pasadena.

Our borders are semi-permeable. We South Pasadenans are free to go out and enjoy our proximity to Los Angeles, benefitting from the culture, art, and entertainment of the surrounding city. Our teens ride the metro to Chinatown and beyond for a fun night out. We pop into the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood of Highland Park for tapas and Donut Friend. We head to Pershing Square in droves for marches and protests organized by Black activists, proudly representing the city of Los Angeles. However, this freedom of movement, this dual membership in our suburb and our metropolis, does not go both ways. 

As a town, we claim our LA membership, while keeping LA out. Well-meaning liberal residents take pride in our reputation as a small, progressive suburb, part of Los Angeles’ perceived culture of activism and tolerance. Following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, South Pasadena City Council unanimously passed a Resolution of Diversity, wholeheartedly declaring that we value the experiences of all our neighbors, “native and immigrant.” This clear pushback against Trump’s inflammatory “Build the Wall” rhetoric along the campaign trail warmed the hearts and soothed the consciences of many a South Pasadenan. But we still built our own wall between our community and our neighbors. 

At times, the effects of this semi-permeable border go beyond exclusion, causing active harm at the expense of our neighbors. Just two weeks ago at their November 18th meeting, the City Council heard overwhelming opposition to the construction of a private street and luxury housing developments off of Lowell Drive, a street in El Sereno. This land sits on the border of South Pasadena, directly affecting our neighbors, and any construction passes the buck of noise pollution, contaminates, and traffic to the residents of Lowell Drive. I could not come up with a more fitting illustration of our semi-permeable borders even if I tried: it is a luxury development, emblematic of privilege and inaccessible to our low-income neighbors, with a private road, a pathway into our town that is literally not traversable to outsiders. 

This is part of the problem. This is South Pasadena, clinging to our privilege, while still taking a piece of the pie. South Pasadena, unanimously passing toothless anti-discrimination resolutions while still reproducing imbalanced power dynamics through policy. It’s NIMBY-ism* and keeping our neighbors out. It perpetuates disconnectedness and insularity in a time when lending a hand to our neighbors has never been more crucial. 

It was only through the rapid mobilization of both communities, South Pasadena and our neighbors to the north, that over 200 public comments were submitted opposing the luxury development and private road. City council voted to postpone the discussion of the development until December 16th, heeding the advice of LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis. 

This incident demonstrates with elegant simplicity the power of connecting with our neighbors. South Pasadena’s semi-permeable border is a hindrance to organizing for change. How much more could we achieve, beyond surface measures and incrementalist reforms, if we refused to go at it alone? If we refused to fall for the arbitrary borders dividing us from our neighbors?

For generations, Black and brown activists across Los Angeles have been shouldering the work of forging those regional coalitions, borders be damned. Alliances like LA’s Black Congress in the late 1960s and BLM Los Angeles today arose out of necessity, communities banding together for survival. It is time for South Pasadena to step up to the plate; we must refuse to be a weak link in Los Angeles’ fight against systemic racism. The onus is on us to cultivate relationships with our neighbors. We need border-free alliances to lend aid and ask for aid in a mutually beneficial relationship, to fight against luxury projects that harm our neighbors, and to kick down the barriers that divide us from them in the first place.

*Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) – Residents’ opposition to the development of hazardous or unpleasant projects in their region, or “back yard,” while having no such objection to developing those projects in other people’s back yards. This dynamic foists the burdens and risks of developments on other communities deemed less deserving of protection, or kills necessary projects completely because of perceived hazards. 

This article represents the views and opinions of the author solely and does not express the opinions of all ARC members.

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