Walk on the Wilshire Side You don't need to hike the John Muir Trail to open up new worlds. Downtown Los Angeles to the Beach will do.
by Judith Lewis
You can get out of South Los Angeles: Just walk the length of Wilshire Boulevard to the sea. At left, Eco Club hiker Joshua Harris attends Crenshaw High's program for intellectually gifted kids. Center, nearing the Pacific, a world away from South L.A. At right (from left), Eco Club president Dante Buford, club assistant Annice Muhammed, and faculty leader Bill Vanderberg.
THE EARLY-MORNING SUN GLINTS OFF THE SKYSCRAPERS of downtown Los Angeles. Mar'cel Stribling, a 19-year-old senior at gritty Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, stands on the steps of a gleaming white office tower, making up rhymes. "I don't wanna be nothing like Kanye West," he shouts. "I just want to tell you I'm the best."
Muthoni Gaciku, 14, rolls her eyes and goes back to chatting with her friend Wendy Velasco, 15, about her future career. "I want to be a food connoisseur," states the tiny Gaciku, a recent Kenyan immigrant, shifting back and forth in her pigtails and cropped pants. "That way, I can eat all the time."
The Eco Club, rested and ready.
A couple of steps behind them, Renee Kelly leans against the office building smiling, talking to no one. With her square-tipped, French-manicured fingernails, bejeweled sunglasses, and thick black hair twisted and tucked neatly under a black baseball hat, she looks poised and glamorous--but hardly prepared for the journey ahead: a 13-mile hike along the length of Wilshire Boulevard, the avenue that splits sprawling Los Angeles down the center, connecting downtown to the Pacific Ocean. I ask her if she knows what she's in for. "I did it three years ago," she says, "so let's see if I still got it. I'm middle-aged now."
Kelly is 19.
She and 17 other students and recent graduates of Crenshaw High School got up before dawn for this annual event for the school's Eco Club/Venture Crew. Other outings, like the five-day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park or the "Survivor Challenge" campout in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, a 370-acre urban park, may offer more in the way of communion with nature. But traversing the all-concrete length of Wilshire Boulevard has its own special allure--especially in a city where no one walks. "Three years ago, we did it in the rain," says Bill Vanderberg, the Eco Club's leader and Crenshaw's dean of students. "I said, 'I'm never doing this again.' But the kids never stopped talking about it. They just never stopped bugging me."
Building Bridges to the Outdoors
With help from the Sierra Club, future marine biologists set sail from Santa Cruz, California.
THE ECO CLUB/VENTURE CREW is now the largest after-school group at Crenshaw High School, and for more than four years the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors campaign has been proud to support it. Beyond introducing hundreds of students to the Santa Monica Mountains and Yosemite National Park, says Eco Club leader Bill Vanderberg, Building Bridges' programs have "helped create a new generation of environmental leaders who are as diverse as America."
Nationwide last year, Building Bridges worked with partners in education, hunting and angling groups, and law enforcement to get more than 11,000 children outdoors. This summer the campaign and the Sierra Student Coalition are cosponsoring two weeklong trainings, in Los Angeles and Glorieta, New Mexico, to help young people 18 and over acquire leadership skills. For information on these trainings and other Building Bridges programs, visit sierraclub.org/youth.
From its downtown source to its terminus at the Santa Monica Pier, in its meanders through Koreatown to the eight-lane swath it cuts through swanky Westside, Wilshire connects Los Angeles far more than touristy Sunset or Hollywood Boulevards do. Walking it is a proclamation of freedom for kids from the neighborhoods that surround Crenshaw. Because of the strife and stray bullets of warring gangs, few venture far from their home turf, and fewer still do so on foot. It pains Vanderberg, 53, who grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Most of his early outdoor adventures, he recalls, were urban ones: "We'd get up and hit the street and walk as far as we could just to see where it went. These kids can't do that, ever."
Vanderberg, a longtime Boy Scout leader who brought up his two sons camping and hiking, took over the Eco Club four years ago. He immediately saw it as a way to steer students away from gangs and keep them in school. Crenshaw's dropout rate is twice the already high L.A. average, and violence on campus is common. "I saw these kids with their worlds closing in on them," he says. "I wanted them to see what else is out there." Trips to the mountains offer them access to open space, but the Wilshire hike gives city-bound teens access to their own diverse hometown.
A fit, no-nonsense guy with an open, almost cherubic face, Vanderberg motivates people with a mix of encouragement and I'll-bet-you-can't-do-it daring. He emphasizes discipline and tenacity and does not coddle. "Here are the rules," he declares as the group assembles. "No CD players, no iPods, and no headphones. We're out here to hear the sounds of the city and talk to each other, not to check out and get through it.
"And learn how to cross the street," Vanderberg adds. "In California, people just walk and don't bother to look. I'm from New York. In New York, we look, no matter what the light says."