The United Neighborhoods Organization, which began in East Los Angeles more than a decade ago and successfully tackled issues such as exorbitant auto insurance rates, has formed a southeast Los Angeles County chapter of 11 church and community groups.
Christened earlier this week at St. Matthias Catholic Church in Huntington Park, the church-based community group has identified illegally long and potentially dangerous train stoppages in the Southeast as the immediate focus of its neighborhood activism, said Father Rody Gorman , pastor at St. Matthias and an organizer of the Southeast branch.
"Little kids as well as adults cross over and under these trains trying to get to school and work," Gorman said. "We're also concerned about ambulances, fire engines and police not being able to respond to emergency calls."
Drug abuse and gang activity, unemployment and underemployment, and the flight of immigrants from the area because of the new immigration law are other concerns the Southeast chapter plans to address, he said.
After 11 months of meetings and leadership training workshops, the group was officially kicked off Sunday during a ceremony attended by more than 300 people, Gorman said. Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Carl Fisher, Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner attended the ceremony.
Interest in Local Group
Area clergymen approached the East Los Angeles-based parent group a little over a year ago to inquire about establishing a southeast chapter, said Mike Clements, UNO's lead organizer.
"People haven't had an opportunity to act on their own strategies, to pursue their own dreams," Clements said. "UNO is a vehicle. They will take responsibility for their own lives for the future of their families."
Lengthy train stoppages have plagued the Southeast area for years.
Last month, the district attorney's office charged Southern Pacific Transportation Co. with allowing its trains to block roads on five occasions in Pico Rivera and Whittier in violation of a state Public Utilities Commission rule.
The PUC prohibits stops of longer than 10 minutes unless there are mechanical problems or other unforeseeable factors.
A June 30 arraignment on the five misdemeanor charges has been scheduled in Whittier Municipal Court. Each count could carry a penalty of up to $1,000 and one year in County Jail. Only the company and no individuals have been charged, said Deputy District Atty. Sayre Weaver. The allegedly illegal blockages occurred from November to last month, Weaver said. One of the stoppages, on April 29, lasted for 48 minutes, blocking Pico Rivera's three major north-south roadways, city officials said.
On that day, children passed between the cars of the stopped train to avoid being late to school on the other side of the tracks, a potentially lethal situation if the train had moved, officials said. Officials also fear police or fire vehicles responding to an emergency could be blocked by lingering trains.
In 1985, the railroad was fined $6,000 for illegally blocking intersections in Pico Rivera and nearby Santa Fe Springs. A Whittier Municipal Court judge imposed a $1,000 fine for each of six counts to which Southern Pacific pleaded no contest.
While no one has been reported injured in the Southeast area, Gorman said he feared a repeat of an accident that took the life of a 27-year-old La Puente woman May 22. Debra G. Resendez was trying to cross between the cars of a stopped Southern Pacific train in Industry, when the train started moving, Sheriff's Sgt. John Laurie said. Resendez fell to the tracks and was crushed by the train.
The death was ruled accidental, said county Coroner's spokesman Bill Gold.
D.A. to Seek Meeting
In an interview, Reiner said UNO is just what the area needs to deal with Southern Pacific and other area problems. Reiner said he will arrange a meeting with UNO leaders and Southern Pacific to try to eliminate the lengthy train stoppages.
"They've (Southern Pacific) adopted something of a public-be-damned attitude," Reiner said. "Southern Pacific is going to sign a friendship treaty with UNO and do everything the community wants them to do. The only thing is how long it's going to take before Southern Pacific realizes it's outnumbered."
Southern Pacific spokesman John Tierney said he was not aware that UNO had targeted the railroad, but added that the delays usually are caused by train traffic congestion, signal problems or engine failure.
"We're concerned about moving trains as quickly as possible," he said.
UNO was founded in 1976 to address the concerns of residents on the eastside. Clements said the group represents 93,000 families in central and east Los Angeles.
UNO has worked alone and with another Los Angeles-based community organization--the South-Central Organizing Committee--to establish a solid track record in campaigns against such problems from exorbitant auto insurance rates to dirty supermarkets. They also have pressured police into cracking down on drug trafficking.
In one of its first campaigns in the late 1970s, UNO won a marketplace agreement with the Mercury Insurance Group to lower auto insurance rates by more than 38% in East Los Angeles, Clements said. Other insurance companies followed suit.
Sought Toxic Cleanup
Among other accomplishments, UNO worked closely with Reiner, who was then city attorney, to successfully press for the $1.3 million cleanup of the Capri toxic waste site in East Los Angeles in 1984.
The member organizations of the southeast chapter are: St. Matthias, St. Marianne de Paredes church in Pico Rivera, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Los Nietos, St. Aloysius church in the Florence area of Los Angeles County, the Church of the Incarnation in Norwalk, United Methodist churches in Pico Rivera and Maywood, the United Methodist Christ church in Norwalk, Trinity United Methodist church in Whittier and St. Luke Lutheran church in Huntington Park. A group of professors and students from Whittier College also belong to UNO's southeast chapter, Gorman said.
"Ten churches is only the beginning really," he said. "There are many, many more churches we hope to recruit."