The Springs is a vegan restaurant that just opened in the downtown Arts District. It sits across from a bag warehouse, offers yoga classes and sells juice for $9. It's one of Sara Hernandez's favorite haunts.
Hernandez, 31, is Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar's downtown director. When anyone in downtown L.A. needs something from city government, she is their point of contact. From that perch, she has witnessed tremendous evolution in just a few years.
“Downtown is growing a city within a city,” Hernandez says, and she's in charge of managing that growth. Residents want their sidewalks fixed and better street furniture. Dog owners want a dog park.
And, of course, there's the homeless issue. “People want you to solve homelessness,” she says.
Residents who pay $500,000 or more for a downtown loft don't like living so close to an open-air drug market. “It's become Hamsterdam,” she says, referring to the zone where drugs were legalized on The Wire. “It's terrible. It's something that absolutely has to be addressed.”
It's a lot of responsibility for someone who is young and new to City Hall. Hernandez grew up in Salinas, among the children of Latino farmworkers. Her parents are activist lawyers who met working for California Rural Legal Assistance. “They're definitely certified hippies,” she says.
Out of 700 students in her high school class, Hernandez was one of just 35 who went to a four-year college. After graduating from Duke University, she signed up with Teach for America and began teaching middle school in South L.A. She was struck by the way communities in L.A. are segregated. In Salinas, there is no diversity — the whole town is Latino. In L.A. there's diversity, but each community is isolated.
“Everyone's a liberal progressive, but no one's going south of the 10 or east of La Brea.” As a teacher, she says, “The most depressing day you could have is to teach all day in Watts and then go to a dinner party in Santa Monica.”
Hernandez ended up launching a nonprofit, HYPE Los Angeles, which helps low-income middle-school students obtain scholarships to attend elite private schools.
After law school, Hernandez became involved in education policy, taking a job with the California Charter Schools Association. She was not prepared for the bitter trench warfare of school board politics, and after a year she jumped to Huizar's office.
Working for the city, she's been involved in a wider range of issues, including proposals to develop a downtown streetcar and refurbish Pershing Square. She moved downtown in 2009, joining the influx of young professionals who are remaking the area.
Growing up in Salinas, she says, “I wanted to live in an urban environment. … This was my idea of what an urban environment is.”
Naturally, people have encouraged Hernandez to run for office someday, and she has given it some thought. “I would always be open to it,” she says. “It has to be the right moment.”