The corner of Cacique and Voluntario Streets in Santa Barbara’s lower Eastside neighborhood was full of and cheer and excitement last Saturday despite the unseasonably gray skies that threatened thunder and lightening. A hardy bunch of area residents and Milpas Community Association (MCA) members gathered in front of Art’s Market to enjoy fresh fruit and juice, complements of Tri-County Produce, and to discuss the day’s events. Armed with brooms, rakes, plastic bags, orange vests, two large dumpsters, and a young California Live Oak tree, the group — led by Sharon Byrne, who co-founded the MCA and is a city council candidate — set off to plant the tree and clean up the neighborhood.
Byrne, accompanied by her campaign manager, videographer, and photographer, led the group of about 35 folks to a “barren patch of land in need of some love,” as she called it, on the 1200 block of Punta Gorda Street. With a few brief words and a moment of silence, the group planted the tree in memory of George Ied, beaten to death on that block last year by alleged gang members. Several young men from the Boys and Girls Club were present, as well as former Assemblymember Pedro Nava and Mayor Helene Schneider, who appreciated the choice of tree, saying, “Oaks are native and hardy and grow big strong branches.” But it was an area neighbor who really stepped up to the plate by digging the hole and opening the root ball of the tree, also taking responsibility for watering the young tree once in the ground. “He just got involved,” said Byrne, “This is how it works — this is how you spread it.”
The neighborhood cleanup was the most recent activity spearheaded by Byrne in an effort to make the lower Eastside safer and nicer for its residents. Angela Barrera, a resident since 1992, said that keeping the area clean “shows a little respect for the neighborhood.” She first got involved in the ongoing effort by joining the Neighborhood Watch Program that Byrne helped set up. For many of the residents, such as James Graham, this was their first public cleanup, though they regularly keep their personal yard spaces tidy. Graham has lived in the area for 48 years and said that the jalapeños and tomatoes in his yard are “the envy of the neighborhood.”
Despite the cleanup’s good intentions, some of the participants felt that the litterers themselves where conspicuously absent, that the effects may not last, and that it is an educational issue not being addressed. For Robin Unander, who is on the MCA board and lives in the house her great grandfather built, the cleanup serves to “raise awareness that the Eastside is not a dumping ground, literally and figuratively.” She said she routinely picks trash out of the planters she spent her own money on to beautify the sidewalk in front of her house. But it is the transients that are her biggest concern. With the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter close by, she explained, she routinely finds people sleeping, smoking, and drinking in front of her home. The laws meant to discourage disruptive behavior associated with homeless people have been one of the things Byrne and the MCA have pushed hard to be better enforced.
According to Byrne, the MCA put fliers up announcing the cleanup in Spanish and English “on every telephone pole,” and expressed excitement that so many more people than she anticipated turned out. A few residents not associated with the MCA or Saturday’s event could be seen on their own cutting grass and raking leaves, taking advantage of the large dumpster the city provided. Enrique Rojas was one such man. He had never heard of the MCA but expressed interest in joining, and said he cleans the grassy area in front of his house every week.
The cleanup lasted from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and then the participants had lunch, donated by five nearby restaurants. According to Byrne, the workers had been instructed to find abandoned shopping carts to put the trash bags inside. At the end of the day, she said, they filled 43 carts with bags of trash and grass and weed clippings. The dumpster on Cacique Street was filled halfway with items such as mattresses, frames, and old TV’s. Sebastian Aldana, the other co-founder of the MCA and also running for city council, was not present during the cleanup as he was participating in another beautification project by putting mulch down on the Milpas Street roundabout.