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The Joys of Bringing Up Two Girls in the Heart of Downtown

9 Nov

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I have always felt a certain pride saying that. Growing up in Boyle Heights meant that we did not have malls or big shopping centers, so we would regularly take the Metro 68 bus Downtown to shop in the callejones with my mother, where we haggled for bargains. Not much has changed in the area or what people now call Santee Alley.

But a world of change has occurred in the rest of Downtown, and an even bigger change has happened to me: I am the mother now, and I don’t have to hop on the 68 to get Downtown, because I live here.

I never could have guessed that I would be a mother of two in my mid-20s, living in South Park, because this did not exist as a desirable residential location when I was a kid. But this is the neighborhood that Bella, Iza, Matt and I call home.

Every mother will tell you how annoying it can be to listen to the well-meaning advice of others when it comes to parenting choices. I constantly hear about how we should be in a house with a back yard and enough square footage so that the girls have their own room, a playroom, a family room and their own bathroom. The list goes on and on and I try not to cringe physically when other mothers seem appalled that we, a family of four, do very well sharing less than 1,000 square feet.

I have grown accustomed to the probing questions and confused looks I get when I take my girls to school on the Dash bus every morning. People seem to think that children do not exist outside the suburbs.

One thing I have learned is that with kids, people in Downtown will approach you. I am continually asked about the girls’ ages, where they go to school and where we live. People seem fascinated with the fact that they look like twins (they’re not). In fact, people asking Iza about her day at school or whatever outfit she has pulled together has helped her get rid of some of her shyness. Oddly enough, living in a big city has increased our human interaction and connections with strangers. Now it seems that people recognize us from the bus, and Bella and Iza have become sort of Downtown mascots whose silliness cheers up people on their way to work.

After living here for a little over a year, I noticed that my girls did not have friends to invite over on the weekend. I tried online parenting forums, but most of them seemed to be based on the Westside or in the Valley, both areas outside the parameters of my car-less lifestyle.

After dabbling in a few neighborhood council meetings and trying to attract parents to meetings, I decided to do that lazy, easy thing, and created a group on Facebook for Downtown parents. We started with three parents and it went through word of mouth from there. At first the group grew slowly, but after we had our first pool party — I invited about 15 people and 50 showed up — I knew I had hit upon a real need in Downtown.

A few months later, the group has more than 100 members, and if you show up at Grand Hope Park on a Saturday morning you will find at least 20 of us. Sometimes the crowd grows so large that we not only take over the playground, but swell over to the grass area as well.

I am proud to be a Downtown parent, proud to be providing my daughters with a childhood full of outings to MOCA, World City events at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and visual stimulation as we walk a different route home from school every day.

The girls know that they are lucky to have both a mommy and a daddy, and to have a roof over their head unlike the homeless people that they see every day. They are aware that living in Downtown seems odd to their friends, but they always seem to enjoy saying they are from Downtown Los Angeles, California — that’s exactly how they say it.

This Mother’s Day, I celebrate another year of feeling the beauty of unconditional love that you get from your children (at least until they hit puberty), and giving that love back tenfold.

I guess you can say that I have grown and matured along with Downtown. I’m no longer the 16-year old that used to skip class to sneak off to the Central Library. I’m a mother of two who has been continually involved in finding them a good school for the approaching kindergarten.

I love the fact that I get to do all this while walking through streets that never cease to amaze me with their charm. This makes the mothering experience much more exciting than if I tried to take a walk in the Valley — there, I’d only end up with a sunburn.

Published: Friday, April 30, 2010 4:32 PM PDT
page 15, 05/03/2010

Play Dates: Not Just for the Suburbs

9 Nov

Since the 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance breathed new life into our once-sleepy urban center, Downtown has become quite the booming neighborhood. Our streets no longer go to sleep at 6pm, and new restaurants, bars and lounges are now keeping us up late. Instead of hiding our residences in shame, Downtowners can now be proud of our neighborhood and invite friends to come gawk at how much Downtown has changed.

Those changes are rapidly including more and more families. Hang out around one of our plentiful coffee shops and you’re likely to see a neighbor walking by pushing a stroller.

Downtown is an enticing place for young couples, even after the bundle of joy comes knocking. You get to live amongst historic buildings with beautiful architecture. You get to expose your child to an urban environment. Perhaps best, you get to stay late at work and still get home at the same time as you would living in the suburbs — or leave at the same time and get more hours at home.

Young professionals have long been the legs of Downtown redevelopment, but many of them will soon settle down and have children of their own. City officials need to sharpen their planning skills to make it easier for parents to retain their residence, income, and capital in Downtown.

Those involved in Downtown revitalization, including the Business Improvement Districts, need to realize that they now have a new constituent to serve – my toddler.
First off, she needs a good elementary school and a proper space to meet other kids and play in a safe, shaded and inviting park. She wants kid-friendly events year-round. She’d be especially happy if new ventures such as the Grand Avenue Project would take her into consideration when designing their developments. And what she really wants to know is whether Pershing Square will ever be a place she can hit up with her newfound buddies and furry four-legged friends.

Play Dates are a necessity to any parent living or working in Downtown. They are prime opportunities for networking, a rich resource for finding daycare, help around the house, a part-time babysitter, or for just enjoying a cup of coffee while sharing the latest news in Downtown. Yahoo groups such as DTLA Kids and CityKidsLA are emerging and inviting parents to meet each other and form a sense of community. The groups and outings provide a medium to de-stress from the woes of child-rearing and share experiences about urban parenting.

The Downtown Center BID says that it wants people to “Live, Work and Play” in Downtown L.A., but do they realize that the only place my toddler can really play is Grand Hope Park? Its foreboding high black iron-fence, lack of shade in the playground and couples that frolic romantically in the grass nearby do not make it exactly kid-friendly.
This is an ABC soup of ideas for parents to mull over and contribute what they would like to see in Downtown L.A.. Whether everyone likes it or not, kids will soon be a dominating issue in the question of which amenities need to be brought to Downtown.
In a few years many of the Downtown residents will be cruising Main street with a Bugaboo and baby in tow. Hopefully by starting this conversation sooner rather than later, those future parents will have a good school, kid-centric entertainment, and more green space waiting for them. Then they can set the stroller brakes for a moment and contemplate staying in Downtown for good.

Susana Benavidez lives in South Park and is the mother of two 3-year-old girls. She will be writing weekly about life Downtown with children.

Published December 11, 2008

Trying to Make It Work

9 Nov

A hectic weekday schedule usually prevents parents from spending the amount of quality time they would like with their children. I’m no exception to this rule. With the holidays near, this past weekend I decided to spend some quality time with my girls exploring the festivities and activities Downtown offers to families and kids.

Friday evening, my girls performed at their school – the Lumbini Development Center located at the Higashi Honganji Temple in Little Tokyo – which produced a mix of excitement, confusion, and expectation. We arrived and saw harried parents rushing their children to classrooms to prepare for the stage, with others scrambling to find prime seats for the show. Settling in as the entertainment began, we watched from the crowd as amusing toddlers shimmied and jammed to the Holiday music.
As I surveyed the room, I was astonished by the impressively high attendance of parents. Almost all of the 60 children enrolled at Lumbini attended the holiday performance, even though the event took place an hour after the school’s closing time.
Soon after the performances, we sat down for drinks and snacks, greeted and smiled at other parents, and let the girls run wild. However, we didn’t meet any new parents, too shy to approach and strike up a conversation. We had fun nonetheless and enjoyed the sense of community that is developing in Downtown.

Saturday afternoon, we walked over to Pershing Square to explore the Holiday festivities offered by the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks.
Children played on a large imported patch of snow, which created a bit of winter ambiance in the park. Shouts of glee filled the air with a refreshing energy as friendly snowball fights began and others sledded down a man-made track dug into the snow mound. A snowman bouncer was another diversion with a shorter wait for kids wanting to jump up and down. Tables set up on the perimeter of the park offered arts and crafts.
While cruising around with girls in tow, we craned our heads towards a loud shrieking sound and saw 30 kids, all kneeling on the floor around a puppet stage, laughing like hyenas. The free puppet show had the full attention of young children and parents alike. In the background, kids ran cheerfully around the park while skaters glided around on the ice rink. After running back and forth awhile, smelling the aromas from food vendors and people watching, we decided to continue our quest for novel, kid friendly entertainment.

Walking onward to our next destination though, I wondered out loud why Pershing Square doesn’t appear to have someone who plans events like this year round. A full schedule of similarly well-designed soirees would go a long way in bringing locals, families, and tourists together. It would help reinvigorate the somewhat jaundiced and unattractive hodgepodge that is the Pershing Square I’ve grown accustomed to seeing on most days of the year.

After a twenty minute walk north past the 101 freeway, our journey for fun brought us to the Art Form Studio in Chinatown. On the second Saturday of each month, the salon offers arts and crafts (and food!) to children from 3 – 7pm, freeing up their parents to glam up a bit and get a haircut. I recently cut my locks at Salon Eleven, but I filed it for future reference. Where else can you go and get your hair done while kids make new friends and entertain themselves free of charge?

A gray and chilly Sunday dampened our enthusiasm to go outside until the sun crept up and broke through the clouds around noon. We packed a snack and made our way across the street to Grand Hope Park. As I wrote this article, children ages three to seven kept pouring into the playground with their parents.
I tried to make eye contact as I sat typing away but it was as if everyone was in an island, blocking social interaction by keeping their face down or up in the sky. Whatever they found fascinating on the ground or the now graying sky I found frustrating; how can I meet other parents that live in my neighborhood when they seem oblivious to my existence?
As we finished our evening by walking to L.A. Live for the light show and then back to Ralphs for ice cream, I realized just how much I don’t want to leave Downtown for some place more “conventionally kid-friendly.” I want to make this work. I already have a play date on my calendar and I’ll soon meet up with complete strangers: parents from DTLA Kids, and hopefully some future playmates for my girls (a brave measure, since I shy away from meeting new people).
I want to make long-term Downtown living work, and to do that I need to make Downtown parenting work.

This Week’s Kid-Friendly Downtown Picks


Take Free Pictures with Santa every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. 
Noon – 2pm (and Saturday, Dec. 20). Pets are welcome, too!

Enjoy live holiday entertainment every Friday and Saturday, noon – 1:30pm.

Kids Club Make Holiday Cards with the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Saturday, December 20, Noon – 2pm.

Las Posadas at Olvera Street

December 16th – 24th, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM. 
Entertainment and Pinata Breaking at 6:30pm. 
Procession from 7:30 – 8:15pm. Free! Champurado, Pan Dulce, Hot Punch and Plenty of Candy!!!

Published December 17, 2008

Weathering the Holidays

9 Nov

Christmas week was hectic. The flu flew into our home and took a stronghold in each of us, one at a time. Los Angeles is notorious for having non-Holiday weather during December, sometimes causing confusion in out of state guests as to how anyone can celebrate Christmas on a 70-degree day.
This year however, it was cold, windy and even rained in the days preceding. My younger daughter and I were the first victims to fever, cough and an awful cold. Just as we were getting better, my younger daughter and my 30 year-old baby (or so he seemed while he was sick) got the flu. Throw in some infected wisdom teeth on my part and stressful planning of two family celebrations and you get our happy but tired family.

The nausea and dizziness that I feel just typing away is not from the overeating I did on Christmas Eve and the days following. I had to have my wisdom teeth removed, making me look like a tottering chipmunk. Although we weren’t in the best health I didn’t allow that to damper our Holiday cheer.

Christmas Eve we went to my family’s home to have dinner, exchange gifts and enjoy each others company. My family is Hispanic, but ironically we did not have traditional cuisine. We opted instead to make a mixed greens salad (thank you Tom for the recipe!), pizza, and pasta. The only thing we had that was Latino-ish was flan, but I confess that came from Flan-king.

Luckily our families celebrate on different days so we don’t have to rush from one place to another to split Christmas dinner. Christmas morning with the other side of the family was an endless parade of gifts that came passing through everyone’s hands, a train of clothing, toys, and books that took several bags to take home. I’m not sure that this is what Christmas is supposed to be about but it seems that we all did our part to better the slow sales at department stores.
That night for dinner we had (which is what I consider ironic) enchiladas, beans, rice, and flan. It’s a reminder of what a melting pot Los Angeles is: you go to a Hispanic’s home and eat pizza and pasta and then to an American home to get Mexican food.
Saturday was the big day, my planned play date! As we headed over I felt a pang of excitement and nervousness. What was I doing? I didn’t know anyone there and had only communicated by email, but I restrained my nervous habit and marched on.
The day was great. I met a kind, hospitable neighbor and her lovely daughter. Ten kids showed up and made perfect company for the girls. They looked like board members of a Fortune 500 company, discussing the newest invention of glitter markers and play-do.
As I spoke to the other moms, the same concern resonated in the room: Where are you taking your kid to elementary school? No one had a concrete answer; it’s such a difficult task to undertake. Should you shell out the extra cash and send them to private school, find a magnet school, or take your chances with the neighborhood school?

Unfortunately for anyone in Downtown, the neighborhood school is run down, has a low API score, low test scores, and is in an unsafe area.
I would like to see the parent community of Downtown come together and go before LAUSD and the city to see how they plan to educate our children. New high schools have been built around Downtown, but where is the new elementary school right in Downtown, not in Westlake or the Industrial area? Everyone paying property taxes should strongly consider writing a letter to the school district and the city demanding the amenities that any decent neighborhood enjoys.
I hope all of you were able to use the holidays to relax and spend time with your loved ones. Maybe while your tots are playing you can jot down notes on what you would like to see in our neighborhood as far as quality education.

Have any plans? Feel free to share! Moving out is not constructive; please share ideas or rumors concerning the education of Downtown Kids! We were able to weather the flu, wisdom teeth removal and lots of extended family visits, hopefully that prepares me for navigating LAUSD.

This Week’s Kid-Friendly Downtown Picks

Pershing Square

Downtown On Ice ends January 11th. Hurry out for some skating in the center of our metropolis.

Lunch time Concerts (12pm-2pm): Jan 2 – Taste Thieves / Jan 6 – Airplay Top 40 / Jan 8 Soul Dogs

Prepare a late snack and head out for Friday night Concerts (8-10pm): Jan 2 – Bella Donna and Petty Theft / Jan 9 – The Undercover Girls

Park Starved?

Alpine Recreation Center is 2 miles away and offers plenty of activities ranging from table tennis to Chinese Martial Arts. Hour of operation are Monday – Friday 8am-10pm, Saturday 9am-10pm and Sunday 9am-8pm.

Vista Hermosa Park: Let’s not forget the beautiful park opened and operated by the Santa Monica Conservancy group just west of the 110 freeway. It offers trails for children to hike, park rangers on site as guides, a huge soccer field and a kid-friendly play area at the top of the hill. This is where you can let the views of Downtown inspire you for you school building planning!

Franklin Canyon Park: A little further out, Beverly Hills that is, you can find movie events, hiking, and park rangers giving tours and talks on wildlife in a park! 2600 Franklin Canyon Drive / Beverly Hills CA 90210 / 310-858-7272 / January Activity List

Published January 2, 2009

Negotiating an Education for Downtown Kids

9 Nov

Writing for blogdowntown has opened my senses to everything dealing with children in our neighborhood. Suddenly I am in the middle of a burgeoning cause of concern for the future education of Downtown L.A.’s youngest residents.
I have been a loyal fan of blogdowntown and Downtown News since moving to South Park and I have seen a trend of the social issues that residents feel should be addressed.
When Kathryn Maese, of Downtown News, wrote “A Jarring Downtown Wake Up Call”, angry responses flooded in accusing her and her supporters of being self-entitled yuppies. Advocates for the homeless individual that harassed her child angrily defended Downtown as the rightful home to the homeless population and not that of the new “loft dwellers”.

As I probe the possibility of educating my daughters here in downtown and not having to move to find decent education, I have met several parents that share my concern. Residents in Historic Core, South Park, and Little Tokyo have voiced their frustration for lack of a good school or any school within walking distance to any of those locations.

I knew I would find parents that felt the same way I do, that we deserve a school in return for the property tax that we contribute. Along the journey of exploring a solution, though, I stumbled upon another demographic that is underserved in downtown.
Residents of the affordable housing units, of the hotels that lease monthly rooms, of the Midnight Mission, which school do you think they have to go to? The creation of a downtown elementary school, available to all downtown residents, would satisfy the hunger of education-starved young students. When I walk to Ralph’s or Grand Hope Park, I see dozens of young school-aged children that cling to their parents and peer at my daughters with interest. It strikes a chord in me as I recall growing up and the poor resources that my community had to make do with. Ridiculous is what defines the circumstances in which these young children are being raised. One of the reasons I love downtown is that it exposes my children to diversity and that is exactly what should be found in a school for downtown residents.

I have no tolerance for under-educating an individual, but to educate a young child with the misconception that it is acceptable to have to live in poverty and be weighed down in the economic-climb of adult hood with a faltering education is unacceptable.
Navigating the political and bureaucratic landscape of LAUSD requires a GPS composed of an extensive network of parents and residents who someday hope to have children in downtown. For all the meetings, calls, and emails that I make; it amounts to nothing if no one steps forward to demand the necessities of a functioning and thriving residential neighborhood. Parents have been contacting me, expressing their support, knowledge, and initiative in bringing a proper education institution to downtown.

Young children deprived of a school are an issue that should not exist in downtown Los Angeles. Residents have created an economic anchor that has inspired small business owners and restaurants to open in what used to be a sleepy downtown. My kids, as much as the children that live in temporary or low-income housing, deserve the time and attention from Los Angeles politicians to create a proper learning environment.

Published January 8, 2009

You Always Have a Choice: Charter, Magnet or Zoned School

9 Nov

The quest for a school in Downtown L.A. has brought me in contact with wonderful people. I met with Ted Morris, founder of FuturoPrep Charter School, who proved to be a wealth of information and a perfect source for little nudges in the right direction. I contacted Councilwoman Jan Perry, whom responded incredibly fast and referred me to a few charter schools and to her Education Director: Pamela Huntoon.

The meeting we set up at Urth Caffé, which was attended by parents and Ted Morris, was successful in identifying that we need a guide to find the right elementary school. Through research on the LAUSD website, and individual school websites, I was able to compile data on test scores, the diversity breakdown, and state ratings on the public, charter, and magnet schools that surround Downtown.

First a little information on what each type of school means.
You have public schools, which you are zoned to based on your residence. Go to to find your school. There are vouchers and permits provided by LAUSD to send your child to a specific school in order to promote diversity in “good” schools; information on permits and vouchers will be discussed in future articles.
Charter schools are open enrollment, funded by state and federal sources. One of the perks of a charter is that you can apply to as many schools as you want in all of California. You are not forced to go to a charter based on your address. All students and parents at a charter school are there by choice; you need to apply to get in. Most deadlines to apply are the last week of March or first week of April. Charters have the freedom to hire non-union teachers, focus on a teaching method or subject. Charter schools are still held to California state testing and core curriculum standards.

Magnet schools have an emphasis in a field: math and science, performing arts, liberal science, music, etc. You must have applied by the January 9th deadline. You can find more information on magnets at

At our meeting on Sunday, we were able to pick the brain of Ted Morris. Charter schools seem to be the new answer for parents zoned to low-performing schools. It was refreshing to listen to Mr. Morris break down what you need to look for in a charter to identify it as a good school. API scores can be deceiving since they are based on test scores, socio-economic backgrounds, diversity, etc. The best thing to do is choose a few schools that interest you, look for test scores and diversity (if that is what you want) and then plan a visit to the school. Finding the right school is like finding your first home: you have a wish list, you go on a house hunt and then you see which one “feels right”, sometimes compromising a few items on the list.
Morris is currently working to open a charter elementary school named FuturoPrep in Boyle Heights or possibly Little Tokyo. It is amazing to see the possibilities that are opened once you delve into the “charter” world. The parents at the meeting and myself were excited to hear of the possibility of FuturoPrep coming to Little Tokyo. He has two other locations in mind that are in Boyle Heights (which doesn’t seem so far with the Gold Line opening soon). If you would like to contact Mr. Morris or know of any other interested parents, please email me at

Pamela Huntoon sent me a booklet with a list of elementary schools. She would be happy to send more out to any interested parties.
This article is more data and less emotion. When your child’s education is at stake, you are bound to get frustrated, upset and very emotional. The best you can do is focus on what YOU can do to prep your young one for school. Reading every day, whether it be a kids book or your favorite newspaper, encourages literacy and creates family bonding. You can make flash cards of the alphabet, numbers and even phonics so that they are as advanced as possible when they start kindergarten.
The best thing about living in Downtown L.A. as far as raising children is that we are rich in resources such as the public libraries, MOCA, JANM , the Music Center, and public transportation to take you anywhere else!

For the spreadsheet:

Published January 16, 2009

Taking a Break from the School Search to Party!

9 Nov

After the chaos of the Holidays — the flu, an infected tooth, way too many gifts and an empty wallet — we decided to raise the stress-o-meter by throwing a kid’s birthday party in Downtown!

My daughter turned four and since she has been asking for a party since the day after she turned three, I caved in. In my defense, before you start labeling me a pushover I should note that she is well behaved, likes school and does her chores.

The first obstacle was trying not go overboard: on the guest list, the food, the presents, and goodie bags.

Mission failed.

It doesn’t help that I have seven aunts and uncles, each of which averages 3-5 kids. That made my guest list about 60.
Then I decided to cook the food myself, all vegetarian. At this point I felt I had already broken the barrier of comfortable hostess to overdrive maniac so I figured, how much harder is cooking?
It turned out well. We ate Mexican tostadas with fried pinto beans, soy meat, cheese, garnished with cabbage, bell peppers, sour cream, salsa, tomatoes and onions. Hmmm… I’m craving it now. I made pizza, guacamole, and salsa and chips for appetizers, and bought (thank you Flan-King) flan from the Farmer’s Market for dessert. I am happy to report that my family (Mexican) did not realize it wasn’t “real” meat. They were also very flexible when it came to driving and parking instructions (the lot at 8th/Grand).

Even though it was stressful to organize the party so close after the New Year, it was great to buy everything local. I went to the Piñata District where I found all the Princess paraphernalia any four year old would dream of. At Escamex, a party supply store, I bought everything I needed for the tableware and goodie bags.
My next stop was the Toy District. I found Princess notebooks, stamps, tiaras, wands, glasses — everything that meant I was going overboard. My daughter scored a nice present from me thanks to the vendors at this hidden gem in Downtown. Where else can you get books, a playhouse, a toy stroller, puzzles, a book bag, goodie bag fillers, and a school activity set for under $100?
Dear Ralphs, where would I be without you? You might make me pinch my wallet but when you have a sale, the clasp comes undone and out pours the green. The tomatoes, avocados, and ice cream were on sale the days before the party, score! That subdued the pain I felt when I saw the prices for soy meat.
Thanks to the farmers market, I found good deals on fresh produce and Flan-King had a discount on their flans that week. I was feeling lucky.

The party turned out great: it was 75 degrees in the middle of winter, the kids loved their treats, swimming, the improvised puppet show, the tiaras and wands and the food was devoured! It was convenient to have the party at the Club Room in our building, which eliminated any concern for space. It was easy to set-up, have fun and clean up. A success I would say, but not a feat I look forward to repeating anytime soon.

Next year, she’s getting a library card, the gift that keeps on giving.

Published January 23, 2009

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