It ought to be quiet, but it's not.
Behind the garden walls of Astor Avenue, there's a chugging and a hissing and a clanking and a squeaking. Two yellow locomotives, hooked to cars piled high with metal containers, idle on the track of the Union Pacific. Their stacks spew gray plumes of smoke.
"We call this cancer alley," said Angelo Logan, who grew up on the city of Commerce street. "And we're fed up."
Logan, 42, is part of a new generation of urban, blue-collar environmentalists. The son of a janitor and the youngest of five children, he dropped out of school in 10th grade and went to work as a maintenance mechanic in an aerospace factory.
Now he is executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, with a paid staff of four and 200 members who join for $5 a year. They recruit door-to-door in Commerce, Bell Gardens, Montebello and East Los Angeles, where more than three-quarters of residents are working-class Latinos.
East Yard operates from a storefront on Commerce's Atlantic Avenue, a street lined with cheap motels and fast-food joints. It has no celebrities on its board, no publicity staff churning out press releases, no in-house attorneys to go toe-to-toe with $500-an-hour corporate law firms.
But in California, where Latinos, African Americans and Asians now collectively outnumber non-Hispanic whites, political power is shifting. Here especially, but also across the country, mainstream foundations, which had long supported environmental groups led by white lawyers and policy wonks, have begun to channel grants to community organizations run by Latinos and blacks who see clean air and water as civil rights.
In the Southland, these environmental justice activists, as they are called, wage war in the dense corridor that runs from the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through neighborhoods that line the 710 Freeway -- Wilmington, Carson, Compton, Huntington Park, Commerce-- and on through Riverside and San Bernardino counties, with their vast distribution warehouses.
"There are no buffer zones," said Gilbert Estrada, a teacher who co-founded the East Yard group with Logan. "We are the buffer zones."
Each year, pollution from ships, trucks and trains that move goods through the region contributes to an estimated 2,100 early deaths, 190,000 sick days for workers, and 360,000 school absences, according to the California Air Resources Board.
At a recent East Yard barbecue in Commerce's Bristow Park, hand-painted signs read "Salud Sí, Diesel No" -- Health Yes, Diesel No -- as a band played Mexican rancheras and trucks roared by on Interstate 5. Between a kids' finger-painting pavilion and a card table stacked with petitions, Logan, a soft-spoken man with a tidy beard, was working the hamburger line.
"We're having a demonstration on the 25th," he told Pepe Martinez, 44, a metal fabricator. "We're trying to stop the idling in the rail yards. Do you think you could come support us?"
Martinez said he would try. "I know people who live next to the yards," he added. The railroads "never turn those engines off, ever."
Logan headed for a banner-making table, where he showed Angel Armenta, an 11-year-old in a "Star Wars" T-shirt, how to smear black paint on a skull stencil. Logan drew two railroad-crossing signs for eyes, and showed the boy how to staple the banner to a stick. "Would you like to carry this at the demonstration?" he asked.
Armenta nodded vigorously.
Last year, 40% of the containerized cargo entering the United States flowed through the San Pedro Bay ports. That's $335 billion worth of goods, much of it from China and other Pacific Rim nations to be shipped over the Rockies.
Despite the current recession, the ports expect traffic to triple in coming decades -- a scenario that Logan calls "frightening." Like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, community groups want to block a massive rail yard expansion and a new yard that city officials say will be the greenest ever built. And they are battling a plan to add eight to 10 lanes to the 710 Freeway.
Railroad officials say diesel emissions from their trains will drop by two-thirds by 2020 due to new regulations -- an assertion that Logan disputes.
Commerce is home to about 12,000 people and four rail yards, including BNSF Railway's Hobart facility, the world's busiest "intermodal" yard, which transfers 1.2 million containers a year between trucks and trains. Giant cranes stand in rows like sentinels. Tall poles bristle with flood lights. Blue chassis are piled three-high near a maintenance yard where engines are tested at high-throttle.
"There's stadium lighting, and so much noise and vibration 24/7 that people suffer sleep deprivation and hypertension, " Logan said on a recent tour of the neighborhood. "People worry the stucco's shaking off their houses."
In his red Prius ("I had to stop driving a clunker"), he swung by a battery plant that spews out lead particles, an incinerator served by 150 trash trucks a day, a pesticide distributor, chrome platers, auto body shops.
"Its not just one issue," he said. "All these things are bombarding us. . . . These neighborhoods are targets because there isn't a base of people demanding a clean environment."
In Bandini Park, big rigs on the freeway thundered past the basketball court, drowning out conversation. Logan pointed to the home of a volunteer whose funeral he recently attended. "She was ill, but she would always come to testify," he said. "Folks who never smoked a day come down with lung cancer, throat cancer."
Logan, who dresses in shirt sleeves and sneakers, is no firebrand. He speaks in an even, almost flat tone. He admits to frustration with "professionalized environmentalists" and air pollution bureaucracy.
"My trade is as a mechanic," he said. "It's fixing things. We're community people. We're practical. Enough talk. Let's take action."
His activism, he said, grew out of the influence of a Mexican American grandmother, who talked to him about social justice, and an Irish American grandfather, who took part in a mine workers strike.
As a young man, Logan joined a union, and eventually became an organizer for a statewide group, Communities for a Better Environment.
Eight years ago, he ran into an old friend at a sweatshop protest in a Glendale mall: Gilbert Estrada was working on a master's thesis on highway building through East L.A.'s Mexican neighborhoods. They traded tales of aching chests from air pollution, of chemical spills that sparked evacuations in elementary school, and of playing around 55-gallon drums marked with skulls and crossbones.
Logan told him, "I want to start an environmental justice group."
Soon they were passing out fliers. At first, Logan worked odd jobs as a handyman and financed East Yard activities out of his own pocket. "We were literally working out of the trunks of our cars," Estrada recalled.
It took more than a year to get their first grant, a small sum from the L.A.-based Liberty Hill Foundation. It allowed them to buy a computer.
East Yard now gets money from a dozen philanthropies, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation. Its budget tops $400,000 a year.
Logan has also forged alliances with national groups, recently joining as co-plaintiff a Natural Resources Defense Council lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency. "Angelo is politically savvy," says NRDC attorney David Pettit. "People listen to him."
One city official, who asked not to be named, put it more bluntly: "The combination of the race card and NIMBYism is pretty potent."
Logan shrugs off the accusation. "NIMBYism is complicated," he said. "We're not interested in just saying 'Don't do it here.' We are saying, 'Don't do it in other oversaturated communities either.' "
At a recent community meeting, Logan held up a map of concentric circles showing cancer risk from rail yards. "I grew up here," he told the group. "Diesel soot is the No. 1 carcinogen. The dark circle has the highest level of cancer. That's where we are."
But Logan maintains cordial relations with adversaries. "Angelo is not dogmatic," said Kirk Marckwald, the railroads' Sacramento lobbyist who has sat across the table from Logan. "He honestly reviews technical complexities."
If Logan spends time these days strategizing, grant-writing and lobbying, it is partly because he can leave street-level duties to the loquacious Isella Ramirez, East Yard's 24-year-old lead organizer. Ramirez grew up in Commerce, where, she said, "The 5:30 train was my alarm clock."
She didn't think about pollution until she went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on scholarship. "The word 'environmental' turned me off," she said. "You look at the sky. You think, 'Its fine.' Then I got to college and said, 'Oh, so this is what a blue sky looks like!' "
Wearing a short denim skirt and tights, a tattoo of a dragon-fly peeking out from her tank top, Ramirez marched from door to door on a hot afternoon last month. "Buenos días," she greeted a woman who opened the door a crack, with a suspicious look.
Ramirez launched into rapid-fire talking points in fluent Spanish. "We are the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice . . . stop the idling near schools and homes . . . these yards are killing us . . . asthma . . . cancer . . . you can sign here . . ."
The woman signed her name. A train rumbled by, loaded with containers stamped "China Shipping."
"Allí van," the woman said -- "There they go" -- lifting her chin in a quick, contemptuous gesture.
On the corner of Noakes Street, Ana Godoy opened the gate to a yard filled with red and green play sets. This time, Ramirez's pitch was in English as she said that the state is considering rules to stop trains from idling.
Godoy's house is a soccer ball's kick away from where the 710, with an average of 50,000 truck trips a day, vaults the Union Pacific rail yard. Her two children, ages 2 and 4, have asthma. Her brother lives next door, with a teenage son who developed asthma after they moved here from Downey.
The trains "park here and let this crap out," she said. She keeps her windows closed. Amid the vibrations of trucks and trains, "we can't even feel the earthquakes."
Meanwhile, Logan slogs through meetings with local mayors, engineers and state policymakers on the intricacies of pollution regulations. He sits on a half-dozen official committees. He pops up to Sacramento on a regular basis.
Recently, a port official told him flatly, "What poor people want is jobs."
But Logan mused, "I don't know if he knows what it's like to be poor. Or to be poor and sick. If you don't have your health, what do you have? The construction jobs are temporary. The permanent jobs are minimal."
Back when he was a factory worker, Logan thought environmentalism was "about saving the whales."
Now he defines it in terms of local victories: stopping the expansion of a rail yard in Bell, a hazardous-waste plant in Commerce, or even saving the neighborhood's old ficus trees from being razed.
More broadly, he credits environmental justice groups with "changing the mentality. Before we got engaged, people weren't saying, 'Let's make this the cleanest, greenest city.' That came about because people in power had to respond to the anger."
Nonetheless, Logan admits to feeling "overwhelmed" most of the time. "We're up against huge forces. The railroads, the shippers, the Wal-Marts, companies with money and lobbyists and PR firms."
As for moving where the air might be cleaner, the working-class families can't afford it, Logan said. "And they feel: 'Why should we move? Why can't industry be a good neighbor?' "
"I don't think we'll ever get back to a point where it's pristine. But this is home."