By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Compton Creek has made the news just a handful of times in the last few years, mostly in connection with pollution or crime: This past winter, a woman’s body, still unidentified, was found floating in its still water, and it was along the creek’s grassy banks in June of last year that LAPD officers beat 36-year-old car-theft suspect Stanley Miller with a flashlight. Otherwise, few people know that Compton even has a creek, and almost no one who does know about it considers it more than a storm drain. To some, it’s no more than a dump: Refrigerators, sinks, toys, clothes, shoes, rusted car parts and Styrofoam containers turn up in the creek bed; used motor oil and paint thinners sometimes poison the water. In 1996, the condition of the creek got so bad that Arceneaux, who lived on the creek and “smelled it every single day,” went to Washington, D.C., to plead for help cleaning it up.
“The corps had neglected this creek,” she says. “They weren’t doing the job they were supposed to do — maintaining it as a flood-control channel for the people who live here.” The next year, the U.S. House Energy and Water Committee included $500,000 in its 1997 appropriations bill earmarked for the “Compton Creek Channel.” Soon after, the corps spent $600,000 on erecting a tall security fence to protect the creek from vandals.
Initially, Arceneaux got little media attention for her efforts. But in August of 2001, a black pit bull–Lab mix was found whimpering in the water, its back broken, possibly from a 35-foot fall from a bridge. The story made local and national news, and quickly took on mythic proportions: Reports circulated, never confirmed, that local teenagers were tossing the dogs, mostly pit bulls and pit-bull mixes, off bridges into the creek. Animal lovers, actor Ted Danson among them, were outraged. Worried parents speculated to local media that if dogs could be so cruelly discarded, children would be next.
Arceneaux admits now that she was dismayed that it took dogs to bring attention to a human health hazard. Still, she knew better than to let the moment slip by — she milked the spotlight for all it was worth. “Of course it is tragic that animals are being abused in this way,” City News Service reports her saying at the time. “However, what is even more tragic is what has led people to believe that it’s okay to throw dogs into the creek in the first place.
“It’s the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers simply has not been diligent in keeping the creek clean,” she said. “The reason pranksters find it to be a perfect dumping ground for dogs is because it appears to be abandoned. No one fears being caught because it’s obvious that no maintenance is going on there.” Arceneaux stopped just short of accusing the corps of racism. “I strongly doubt you would see this kind of mess in a Beverly Hills creek,” she said. “I definitely think this is allowed to go on because we are a minority community.”
Spokespeople for the corps objected to Arceneaux’s accusations, but it still took Sheriff Lee Baca, without the imprimatur of the federal government, to organize the first cleanup of the creek at the end of that August, enlisting prison inmates for his crew. Arceneaux used the momentum to organize the first meeting of the Compton Creek Task Force that winter.
Around the same time, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council recognized the creek as a tributary and got involved in its rehabilitation, and Heal the Bay began moving its operations inland with the understanding that healing the bay means healing the rivers that feed it. For the last three years, the organization has led twice-yearly cleanups of the creek, on Earth Day and again a few weeks after Labor Day. “Every year we pull out about 10 tons of trash,” says McCarthy.
To Arceneaux, the issues were about health and safety, not habitat or aesthetics, or even parks and open space. To this day, she talks about the creek as a flood channel that could get clogged and overflow. But from the start, the task force aimed higher, at a “regional garden park” project to beautify the creek. Many of its members, who meet the first Thursday of every month at Compton City Hall, saw a greenbelt of bike and equestrian trails, new fencing and trees, to be completed in early 2004. So far, the group has only produced a 2.3-mile bike path for cyclists from El Segundo Boulevard to Greenleaf Avenue, which opened in March of this year. “It’s moving a little slower than I would have liked,” says Arceneaux. “I have to be honest with you. I would like to have seen more by now.”
But to some people working on the task force, the cycling path has offered a little taste of what creek restoration, like fixing broken windows or cleaning trash off the streets, can do for a neighborhood. After a meeting in early July, one of the task-force members, a man named Faramarz Nabavi, of the Executive Partnership for Environmental Resources Training (ExPERT, Inc.), told me excitedly, “There have been concrete measurable improvements in this community because of improvements to the creek. There have been huge gains in terms of safety, and law enforcement, and illegal dumping.” Crime has moved away from the vicinity of the bike path, he said, and community morale is up. “We’re starting to see a place where people dumped cars and dead dogs turn into a place people care about. Kids from local schools did a tree planting on Earth Day, and it gave them a tremendous sense of ownership in the park.”