Greetings from East L.A. (2016-Present)


Greetings from East L.A. is an art, design, urban planning and community journalism project. Students from East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy at Esteban E. Torres High School (ELARA) work with Public Matters and Theresa Hwang of the Dept. of Places to explore, document and interpret the value and values that the high school students assign to people and places in East L.A., while responding to questions about representation and equity.


During the pilot semester in Spring 2016, students made an East L.A. version of the “map of the stars” found in more affluent Los Angeles communities and other media. The focus of the 2016-2017 academic year is that of Main Streets and “What makes an East L.A. Main Street?”

ELARA is one of three high schools with an urban planning and design focus in the country. Through the project, ELARA students connect to the school’s mission and to place. They are introduced to the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy and collaborate with a cohort of USC Price interns who are interested in civically engaged urban planning and policy. They also create and present work through Los Angeles Times High School Insider. In the classroom and out in the community, ELARA students interrogate history, learn new skills, and define their own neighborhood development goals. The project’s ultimate goal is to prepare ELARA students for attendance at USC Price.

Our Role

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Assembled the project team and developed multi-year partnerships

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Works with team member Theresa Hwang to develop the project’s curriculum

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Co-plans and leads student field trips to expand learning beyond the classroom

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Guides the creation of student presentations and the dissemination of learning outcomes through web-based publications and presentations

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Manages the project-based work of Public Matters Fellows


Oversees  GELA’s overall vision and direction.


“East Los Angeles is a special community, a mix of cultures and people from all over the world finding their way to this 7.4 mile, boot-shaped piece of land hoping for a better future. East L.A. started in the mid-1870’s as a community of hardworking immigrants, where people could live affordably.


Today, East L.A. is not as diverse as it once was. With an area spanning 7.47 miles, East L.A.’s population is 97.7% Hispanic and highly dense with about 127,000 inhabitants. 1.1% of residents consider themselves to be White, 1.0% consider themselves to be Asian, and .03% consider themselves to be Black.


As a community we are considered to be “low-income,” at a median of $40,177 and a per capita income of $12,742. We are considered to be underpriviledged, meaning that we do not develop politically, economically, or socially at a rapid pace. We are uneducated as well. 46.7% of the population are High School graduates. 6% of the population have a Bachelor’s degree. We are also considered “violent,” with the overall crime rate in East Los Angeles being 153% igher than the national average. For every 100,000 people, there are 20.5 daily crimes that occur in East L.A.; if you live in the neighborhood, there is a 1 in 14 chance that you will be a victim of a crime. On paper, East L.A. might be a community that one would want to avoid at all costs. (


Statistics do not portray an accurate picture of East L.A. though. East Los Angeles is more than race, income, and social status. East L.A. focuses more on family virtues, work ethic, and progressivism. We have entrepreneurs in surplus. East L.A. is a community that has formed leaders, celebrities, and heroes. This map [project] highlights some of the individuals who took a chance at making a difference for themselves and for their community. These East L.A. stars are people who are well-recognized within the community. These are the men and women who put smiles on the faces of community members every single day. Some of them are hardworking immigrants who came to this country in search of a better life and also provide a better future for their family. Each person from East L.A. has a story worth telling.”

– Andy Alvarez, ELARA Graduate and Public Matters Urban Futures Lab Fellow


Dept of Places applies the power of participatory design and creative placemaking to strengthen neighborhoods so that all residents live in safe, healthy, and joyful places. Projects range from architectural services for installations, renovations and new construction projects, to design education and workshop facilitation, to strategic development and organizational capacity building. All services and processes are community-engaged and rooted in shared decision-making with the people directly impacted by the project. Dept of Places is founded and directed by Theresa Hwang, a community-engaged architect and educator based in Los Angeles, CA.

ELARA is a Pilot School, an innovative model developed in a collaboration of LAUSD, UTLA, and the LA Small Schools Center. It is a result of LAUSD’s Public School Choice program, year one, and won its place at Torres in a public competition. The campus itself is the result of years of community activism, and ELARA’s proposal was developed in collaboration with a variety of community partners. It is one of only three high schools in the United States with an Urban Planning/Design focus.

High School Insider enables students to post their stories on and report on issues that matter to them and their communities. Through HS Insider, students are provided the opportunity to join a network of more than 100 local schools, attend conferences and reach thousands with their reporting.

The LEAP (Learning to Excel Academically and Professionally) Undergraduate Program  supports undergraduate education at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. The LEAP Program is an important investment in the academic and professional success of Price undergraduate students, who go on to solve the most important social, environmental, and urban issues of our day. It empowers USC students to be true agents of change within their communities.


Greetings from East L.A. enables ELARA students to develop interdisciplinary skills in the arts, design, urban planning and community journalism while creating an authentic East L.A. narrative that celebrates the community and its residents. It creates a process that informs and engages with East L.A. planning and economic development goals and decision makers.

Pilot Project – 2016 Spring Semester

In Spring 2016, students generated ideas for the First Street corridor – a corridor planned for redevelopment. The project hopes to insert the students’ vision for their community into this process from the get-go, rather than later, in response to someone else’s vision for the place they call home.


The project team met twice weekly with two classes of seniors. Students learned about East L.A. history and plans for its future through a study of its built and planned environment.

  • Students engaged in participant observation, took a group field trip to “see” the neighborhood with greater acuity, and visited the Office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis (District 1).
  • Each student reflected on his/her relationship to East L.A. through writing and visual art assignments.
  • Collectively, they undertook a visioning exercise on the future of First Street.
  • Throughout the semester, they took workshops in writing, drawing, letter, graphic design, and photography.


The project engaged a wide range of expertise:

  • Daniela Gerson and Kyle Finck of the Los Angeles Times provided students with journalistic counsel.
  • Through a partnership with the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, undergraduate and graduate planning students Katie Jagodka, Evan Kort, and Justin Pascone introduced the ELARA students to basic tools and concepts used in urban planning, policy, and design.
  • Two recent ELARA graduates – Andy Alvarez, a Public Matters Urban Futures Lab Fellow, and Shirley Ramirez, a policy student at UC Riverside – helped to ground and deepen the students’ understanding of East L.A. from a local perspective.
  • ELARA Assistant Principal and Greetings from East L.A. classroom teacher Martin Buchman was instrumental in guiding project and classroom direction.


The semester culminated with two public presentations:

2016 – 2017 Academic Year

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Beyond providing youth with art, design, and urban planning skills, Greetings from East L.A. builds a greater sense of community through civic participation. Students connect to the people and places they are already familiar with through intentional observation and interaction, increasing their awareness and heightening their sense of belonging and ownership.

Education (Spring 2016)
  • Created an art, design and urban planning program for high school students
  • Engaged local youth to create print (postcards, map) and digital (High School Insider postings) media about their neighborhood
  • Taught ELARA students art and planning skills they otherwise wouldn’t learn in school
  • Deepened ELARA students’ interest and investment in their new community by directly introducing them to people who work in, on, and influence the community
  • Gave students authority to imagine the future of their own community
  • Created a relationship between the USC Price School of Policy and ELARA that opened up pathways to learning and internships
  • Supported the hands-on training of an Urban Futures Lab Fellow
  • Facilitated the first visit of ELARA students to USC Price’s campus, including the opportunity to present to students, faculty, and staff
Content Development (Spring 2016)
  • In Spring 2016, Greeting from East L.A. created 1 student-generated map that included:
    • 42 unique points of interest
    • Student- and Fellow-written content about local history, celebrities, and landmarks
    • Hand-drawn postcards for the neighborhood
  • ELARA students also created unique presentations that were given on two separate occasions: 1) at the USC Price School of Policy to USC students, faculty and staff; and 2) in the Torres Library to fellow students, teachers and East Los Angeles community leaders.


The project team is committed to developing East L.A.’s next generation of designers, planners, and civic leaders.  We continue to seek out partnerships that will secure the students’ and project’s futures.


Greetings from East L.A. was awarded 1 of 11 2015 LRNG Innovators Challenge awards.