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CSUN graduate student discusses El Monte history, development

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Dat Tran, a graduate student at California State University, Northridge, is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to the Asian American immigrant experience. The El Monte native, who participated in APIFM’s Bike to China program in 2013, has conducted extensive research on the history of Asian Americans in his hometown.

In June 2016, the city of El Monte partnered with Metro and other organizations to host Viva SGV Open Streets, and event during which streets in El Monte and South El Monte were closed off from cars for five hours. The purpose was to allow residents to reclaim the space, enjoying recreational activities in their city without having to worry about traffic.

APIFM (APIOPA at the time) was involved with Viva SGV, leading a bike tour of the city that featured Asian American history. Tran, who did the research for the tour, spent several months on the project, uncovering numerous tidbits in the process. For example, he discovered that there used to be a Japanese-owned vegetable stand on Valley Boulevard, right next to where El Monte’s city hall currently stands.

“I had to consult our local museums, I had to dig in into the weirdest parts of the internet that is not well known just to try to find snippets of Asian American existence,” Tran said.

The tour also highlighted local restaurants that promote healthy living, which is significant because El Monte has limited healthy eating options. Instead, the city is inundated with fast food restaurants.

On the day of the event, about 12 people rode the six mile route around El Monte, Tran said. His research culminated in an article entitled “The Asian Americans of El Monte, CA.”

Tran first got involved with APIFM during his second year as an undergraduate at California State University, Fullerton, when he and twenty other youth collectively biked 5,000 miles as part of the Bike to China program.

“It was a program to get youth involved in not only biking and fitness, but it was also kind of teaching us about bike advocacy, parks, environmental awareness, traffic safety, all that stuff,” Tran said.

As the group biked through different cities in the greater Los Angeles area, they developed a greater appreciation for bike lanes and accessible parks, Tran said. They would notice that, although some cities were very pedestrian and bike friendly, others were not.

Tran acknowledges that bike advocacy in Southern California is an uphill battle given that the region is highly car-centric. Nevertheless, he and others continue to stand up for cyclists’ rights, insistent that bikes also deserve vehicle status.

“When we do our bike events, we try to take up the entire lane because we don’t want to even risk cars having to swerve,” Tran said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that we have the right to be on the road too.”

Although Tran biked prior to Bike to China, it was never to the same extent: the group often biked for six hours a day, covering up to 40 miles. In fact, he considers the time he has spent with APIFM the fittest period of his life. Throughout 2016 and in early 2017, Tran trained for a marathon alongside APIFM staff.

He respects the work that APIFM does, noting that many people overlook certain issues in favor of others.

“With the state of our country, there are bigger issues people care about, so bike/pedestrian safety, park accessibility and air quality aren’t [considered] important issues,” Tran said. “But they should be.”

El Monte, a working-class community, is particularly afflicted by such issues. But although some city council members are concerned with their constituents’ health, most prioritize economic development.

Foreign investment is becoming increasingly common in El Monte, according to Tran. Investors, many of whom are from China, will pour money into businesses such as luxury hotels. They are incentivized by the EB-5 visa, a program that allows immigrant investors to become lawful permanent residents if they invest at least $500,000 in a business that will employ at least 10 Americans. Foreign investment on an increasingly large scale is already happening in parts of the San Gabriel Valley, such as in Monterey Park.

“The main focus of city hall has been geared toward recovering from the recession and boosting the economy in whatever manner,” Tran said.

Due to this general emphasis on economic development in El Monte, other issues fall by the wayside. Most parks are poorly maintained. Some are utilized by the homeless as temporary shelters. Many are not as safe than they used to be; during the recession, the city could only afford to leave half of the lights on at night. Overall, Tran said, people don’t use the parks as much as they used to.

One of the results of El Monte prioritizing economic growth over other issues is inadequate park land for residents. As of May 2016, the city only had 0.4 park acres per 1,000 residents — a far cry from the county average of 3.3 acres per 1,000.

“There’s a shortage of space to build parks, but at the same time, there’s plenty of space reserved for retail that is not utilized,” Tran said. “There are plazas that have one or two businesses open and then the rest of the lots are just completely empty.”

Change, however, when it comes to public and environmental health issues, can be slow.

“If you want to make visible change, you want to get as many people involved [as possible],” Tran said. “It’s a difficult process.”

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