Nothing says Los Angeles quite like the random pieces of furniture that line our city’s dumpy and unloved boulevards. Perhaps you already know the drill: First you see the mattress, propped up against a streetlamp. Then a couch. Then a chest of drawers. Then the individual drawers, piled up in an untidy heap on the curb.
Cynthia Ruiz thinks constantly about that furniture, and all of the other garbage moving through L.A.’s sewer lines, storm drains and trash bins. Picked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to lead the city’s powerful Board of Public Works, Ruiz wants to make the city’s streets a little less ugly through a mix of marketing, civic outreach and oddly infectious enthusiasm.
A resident of El Sereno, Ruiz is known to greet garbage collectors at 6 a.m. before they head off on their routes. Her eyes light up as she talks about plans for roving “bulky item” crews to seek out dumped furniture. And she can make a trip to the Hyperion Treatment Plant, the sewage processing facility north of El Segundo, sound like the most entertaining day of your life.
“More and more people are asking the question, ‘Where does our water go? Where does our solid waste go?’” says Ruiz, as she gives yet another pitch for her Hyperion tour. “And look, it’s right across the street from the beach!”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Ruiz saw her father work a day job as a financial planner, then play percussion at night in a Latin jazz band. Her mother, who is Cherokee with a bit of Irish, was a liaison between county government and the region’s Native American community. Throughout those years, Ruiz took note of the conservation-minded advertising aimed at the nation’s schoolchildren, from the jaunty “Don’t Be a Litterbug” to the tragic stare of Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American actor who got all misty at the sight of a smoggy, trash-strewn freeway.
At 17, when she was a student-body leader at Cal State Los Angeles, Ruiz met Villaraigosa, then enrolled at UCLA. The pair were introduced through MEChA, the Chicano student group that pushed for more students of color to attend college.
Decades later, Ruiz and Villaraigosa are collaborating on a different goal — getting Los Angeles to recycle 70 percent of its waste by 2015. To meet that target, Ruiz is working to bring a recycling program to the city’s renters and raise awareness in immigrant communities about the city’s “blue bins” — 95-gallon trash receptacles earmarked for glass, paper and plastic. And remembering the influence of the ads she saw growing up, Ruiz has embraced the use of an animated octopus character as part of a “Keep Los Angeles Beautiful” campaign.
“It was important to me to have a sea creature as a mascot, because I wanted kids to understand and make the connection — that when they throw trash in the gutter, it goes directly into the ocean untreated.”
With Ruiz at the helm, public works officials are even producing a Spanish-language glossary to translate the city’s conservation terms. But like everything else involving trash, that effort turned out to be more complicated than expected. “Everybody,” Ruiz points out, “was using a different word for ‘mulch.’”