EL SERENO — On a clear Saturday morning, composer Guillermo Brown sifts through mounds of trash dumped off Burr Street on the west end of Elephant Hill, El Sereno’s largest remaining open space. Wearing a black trucker hat, yellow t-shirt, and jeans, the 48-year-old former drummer for “The Late Late Show with James Corden” joins about 15 other community members and an LA Sanitation truck driver who help remove nearly four tons of garbage at these Heroes of Elephant Hill cleanups. 

Brown wraps discarded gray buckets with yellow rope and turns them over to make drums. He dismantles plungers and affixes them with dusty green tennis balls to make mallets for a makeshift metal gong. He repurposes these materials into instruments for Voices from the Hill, an upcoming musical procession he’s composing that takes participants through the rugged Northeast LA terrain. Here, activists have fought condo development, illegal dumping, and off-roading for nearly 20 years.

Guillermo Brown. (Synchromy)
Repurposed items used to make music. (Guillermo Brown)

At the upcoming event on May 11, performers like poet, author, and Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural cofounder Luis J. Rodriguez, Samoan and Mexican palm frond weaver Maria Maea, and Mesoamerican teaching artist Raul Baltazar help activate the space. Then on May 18, Pasadena’s public Arlington Garden will host a more accessible event educating folks about Elephant Hill. 

Brown, who is Afrolatine and originally from Connecticut and New York, has been living in Highland Park for 10 years. He created a graphic score that maps his responses to the natural environment of Elephant Hill, and invites musicians and participants to think contemplatively about the hillside.

Samoan and Mexican palm frond weaver Maria Maea on the floor of her space with some of her palm frond creations. (Abdi Ibrahim)

“I was playing with the idea of being an invasive species and also being a species that has survived,” said Brown. “A map may or may not lead you to the same place because the landscape shifts or human interference impedes your ability to traverse a boundary or a coyote is looking for lunch.”

Synchromy, an LA-based composer collective that produces local music events, organized Voices from the Hill. Executive director Elizabeth Huston recruited Talia Greene, a visual artist from Berkeley, to direct. Greene connected with Elva Yañez, who for six years fought tirelessly to stop condo development on the hillside and formed Save Elephant Hill with other local activists. Today, the organization works to stop offroading, a regular neighborhood nuisance that destroys habitat, erodes soil, and poses major fire and safety risks.

Elva Yañez. (Synchromy)

Back in 2003, when a developer wanted to build 24 luxury homes on Elephant Hill, Yañez began her mission to protect the sacred space she calls home. With the help of allies in city government, community members, and environmental organizations, she discovered the developer illegally expanded his project by 50% and used an outdated Environmental Impact Report that failed to mention the underground stream flowing beneath the hill. The plan posed a serious landslide risk. When the city required the developer to undergo an additional environmental review, he sued. 

Finally, in 2009, the city settled with Monterey Hills Investors for $9 million and acquired 20 acres of Elephant Hill. In 2014, the MRCA purchased five acres from the city and today owns eight. There are over 300 private landowners, which makes creating hiking trails difficult. 

Amidst the land battle, Yañez helped birth the Northeast Hillside Ordinance (NEHO), a zoning regulation that protects open spaces in the community. Last year, the MRCA received a $1.2 million grant from California’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation to mitigate offroading here and in another area in Antelope Valley. Save Elephant Hill received a small subcontract to divide amongst local environmental groups, including Academia Anawakalmekak, Coyotl + Macehualli, and the El Sereno Community Land Trust.  

Voices from the Hill activates the space with art and invites people to experience its magic, which is a dream realized for Yañez. “I love this kind of collective generative effort,” she said while passing out flyers for the event in her neighborhood. “It’s always been my goal to change the narrative about the hillside from one that is generally negative to one that contributes to community wellbeing.”

At Voices from the Hill’s upcoming performance, the procession will start at the Pullman Street entrance on the westside of Elephant Hill. There are six performance stops, ending on the east, where local land steward Joey Farewell tends to a native restoration garden known as Test Plot. An off roading-scarred crossroads is the stage for Baltazar to perform a healing ritual. 

“I grew up in El Sereno running through the hills,” said Baltazar, who is playing a character he calls Tochtli 7 the Aztec Bunny. He considers hilltops sacred as they inspired Aztec temples and pyramids and are the closest we get to Gods. “We were like The Little Rascals. This was our playground.”

Mesoamerican teaching artist Raul Baltazar. (Synchromy)

Save Elephant Hill recently hosted an event at the El Sereno Senior Center, where community members shared memories and visions for Elephant Hill. Longtime residents reminisced about playing on the hillside until sundown as kids. Many want native plants restored, animals protected, trails created, and water features added. Mostly, they want to feel safe. These ideas are the muse for Voices from the Hill. 

“The words came to me after reflecting on land, song, beauty, and bounty,” said Rodriguez, who wrote the libretto and visited Elephant Hill with his wife Trini, a Mexican healer/curandera who sang a Nahuatl song on top. 

“A lot of the people who grew up here remember going up to the hills,” said Yañez. “It was their way of getting out into nature. They didn’t go camping. One neighbor said this is our Yosemite.”

For one day in May, it may not look like the seven wonders of the world, but it’ll feel like it. 

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