WHITTIER — Sunlight peeks through the windows of Aura’s World as owner Laura Garcia and her team prepare incense for customers gathered for a group cleansing. The small business was created as a safe space for people who need help with their emotional well-being. It hosts weekly events and sells crystals, jewelry, and meditation books.

The entrance to Aura’s World. (Rudy Juarez-Pinedo / LA Public Press)

Afternoons are the hottest near Garcia’s store, located in Uptown Whittier. A row of 40-foot-tall ficus trees stands above, providing shade to over 90 businesses. However, this tree canopy could soon become a thing of the past, as the city considers chopping down over 100 trees along Greenleaf Avenue for a proposed revitalization project. After the final design of the Greenleaf Promenade was approved in December, a divide emerged within the city over the future of Whittier’s Uptown business district.

Justin Tipton, president of the Whittier Uptown Association, which represents several small businesses in the area, supports the idea. “With no major improvements in Uptown Whittier since [the 1987 Whittier earthquake], there is strong support from the majority of our members for these much-needed upgrades,” Tipton said.

Others, like Garcia, who is not part of the association, said that preserving the trees is critical in a world that is getting hotter and drier due to climate change. “I refuse to accept that there’s only one solution,” Garcia said.

Mary Gorman-Sullens, president of the Whittier Conservancy, believes residents want to support Uptown businesses but also want a healthy place to go. She said, “I don’t think changing the environment and cutting down trees is going to help; I think it’s going to put [small businesses] out of business.”

Whittier’s City Manager, Brian Saeki, said he understands the community’s concerns and aims for a balanced path forward that supports businesses and property owners. “The Ficus trees, while grand, […] have many problems that have resulted in removal and replacement with street trees more suitable to Uptown’s urban condition.”

A mature ficus tree canopy provides shade in Whittier. (Rudy Juarez-Pinedo / LA Public Press)

Ficus trees were planted by the tens of thousands throughout Southern California in the ’50s and early ’60s because of their ability to thrive in harsh urban landscapes. They later grew to become notorious for upending sidewalks and damaging pipes — but also reputable for providing shade and an ecosystem for wildlife. A 2018 study found ficus trees had some of the greatest levels of carbon capture in an urban forest, each being able to absorb up to 40 tons of carbon a year.

In Whittier, the mature ficus trees are over 60 years old. During a city council meeting in April, a consultant hired by the city said new trees would capture more carbon than mature ones, but that it would take nearly 25 years after planting for that to happen.

But the Whittier Conservancy, a nonprofit advocating for environmental justice and preserving the city’s history, said that not only is the statement false, but the city’s tree replacement plan will also cover less than half of the urban forest Uptown currently has. 

Whittier is one of the few Gateway Cities with a higher than average tree canopy. According to one tree survey, nearly a quarter of Whittier is covered in canopy, which is more than double what neighboring cities like South Gate, Huntington Park, and Santa Fe Springs have. Los Angeles County has an expansive urban forest, but within its shade are hidden inequities.

Some neighborhoods, like much of SELA and East LA County, virtually live on treeless streets dominated by pavement. Communities there suffer from some of the county’s most extreme heat and climate-exposed days. One study found that areas within LA County with fewer trees and green space experienced increased numbers of asthma-related emergency room visits and deaths. Researchers from the University of California Davis also found that on nights with extreme heat, the poorest 10% of neighborhoods were 4°F hotter than the richest 10% of neighborhoods in LA.

Whittier’s mature ficus tree tops are taller than some buildings. (Rudy Juarez-Pinedo / LA Public Press)

Discriminatory practices like racially restrictive housing and urban redevelopment have led to a lack of investment in much-needed infrastructure in certain neighborhoods. Redlining is another dark reason why Whittier is the only town among the Gateway Cities to have a lush urban forest. Between 1935 and 1940, the federal government launched the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency that assessed the “security” of American neighborhoods for mortgage lenders during the Great Depression. They graded neighborhoods from A for the best to D for hazardous, which were shaded red on HOLC maps. This led to the practice of denying mortgages not only to Black, Latino, and immigrant families but also to entire neighborhoods of color. 

The zone that makes up a portion of Uptown Whittier and east of Painter Avenue today was originally designated for white people, with restrictions in full force to protect “against racial hazards.” One Federal HOLC document even praised Whittier’s trees, mentioning they “added to the appeal of the district.”

Today, neighborhoods that were historically redlined face fewer resources, including homes west of Painter Avenue in Whittier. Helen Rahder, executive director of the Whittier Conservancy, said the nonprofit has given the city over $200,000 in grant money to plant trees in underserved areas of the city, all of which she said has since gone unspent. “A lot of families living in apartments [in the area] don’t feel secure being vocal for more greenspace. They are at the mercy of a landlord,” Rahder said. 

A look up at the tree canopy from the mature ficus trees in Whittier. (Rudy Juarez-Pinedo / LA Public Press)

Although climate change impacts everyone, a report from USC said disadvantaged Black and Brown communities bear the brunt of its effects. “When compared with broader LA County, households in the Gateway Cities fare worse across health, housing, and other social factors,” the report said. 

Another report examining the risks climate change will bring to people living in LA County said that South Gate, Huntington Park, Bellflower, and other nearby neighborhoods are expected to become more vulnerable to extreme heat by 2050 because of a lack of tree canopy cover. A green urban forest can help mitigate rising temperatures, but in a county still facing segregation, shade is a luxury.

However, county leaders are working to reverse that. Later this summer, the LA County Board of Supervisors is expected to recommend a first-of-its-kind community forest management plan. That plan includes an ambitious blueprint for planting new trees, while setting goals for protecting mature ones throughout the county. “The community forest is a regional resource that we all share. Because of this, [the plan] requires a regional approach, with all decision-makers working together to manage and grow our forest,” the plan said.

The City of Whittier is expected to hold its next city council meeting on the Greenleaf Promenade on Tuesday, June 18. Both the Whittier Conservancy and the City of Whittier provide updates on future council meetings on social media.

Garcia is all for improving Uptown but believes chopping the historical trees down would be a step backward in the effort to right the historical wrongs of redlining. She challenges all residents to take a test. Go for a drive, bike, or walk, she said. “Cuando andes en una área donde no hay árboles, the energy feels a certain way. Los árboles limpian la energía. Nature doesn’t need us. But we need nature.”

Laura Garcia inside Aura’s World. (Rudy Juarez-Pinedo / LA Public Press)

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