My alarm goes off at a brisk 6:45am. For some people, the strange clan known as morning people, I hear that this is a lovely time of day where mist is rising off the asphalt and the sun is brimming over the horizon, just starting to warm the air. The city is quiet and those awake can enjoy a sense of peace that is difficult to grasp during the hustle and bustle of a day at work. For me… Well, I am not a morning person.
As I wipe the sleep from my eyes before getting behind the wheel of my vehicle, I can at least enjoy a sense of excitement about today’s schedule. You see, I am awake at this ungodly hour for a very specific reason, and that is Leadership Academy. While the LAX Coastal Leadership Academy as a whole is truly an amazing program, today is the morning of Session 5: Public Safety and the Environment, and it is my personal favorite. So, as I walk through the doors of the chamber office, meeting and greeting my fellow LA participants and stifling the jealousy I feel over their bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed mannerisms, I know I am ready to begin what is going to be a good day.
After everyone has had a chance to grab a quick coffee and granola breakfast—and I have been reminded at least 3 times that the water is in Judith’s car (thank you, Judith!)—we make our way onto our chartered bus to begin our Downtown journey to Session 5’s first stop: the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
The time is 9:15am. As we drive down Bauchet Street I am reminded that each year we are incredibly optimistic regarding traffic when, in reality, we are late (mental note: reschedule our tour to at least 9:20am for next year). I turn in my seat at the front of the bus to address the class, reminding them that all personal affects, except for a valid ID, are to be left behind in the care of Jose, our guardian for the day (AKA bus driver). And yes, that does include cell phones. Confession time: I love any excuse to leave my cell phone behind, but not all adults share my enthusiasm. Each year I watch a bus full of professionals balk at the idea of parting from their devices, as if someone has asked them to chop off a limb and walk away. You understand, right? Our reliance on technology these days has made it almost impossible to function without some sort of handheld device—even though I enjoy leaving my phone behind, I always experience at least 3 moments where I am upset at my inability to google something—but Twin Towers is not the place where cell phones are needed. Ladies and gentlemen, no flash photography please, this is not a photo op.
We leave our personal belongings with Jose, a stand-up gentleman that I have known for all of about 45 minutes, and walk into jail. With a quick head count of “…15, 16, 17, all here!” we meet our contact, Lieutenant Johnson of the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station, and begin the check-in process. After IDs had been collected and waivers had been signed, Lt. Johnson headed back to the office and left us in the hands of our Twin Tower’s tour guide, an extremely charismatic fellow who started the orientation process by asking us what we would do if an inmate suddenly sucker punched us in the face.
No, I am not kidding.
The correct answer here, for those that are wondering, is to fight back, but after a few uneasy laughs and one fantastic answer (I’ll leave the details up to your imagination), I reminded the class that in the 10 years the LAX Coastal Chamber has hosted Leadership Academy, no participant has ever been assaulted. While the question might have seemed intimidating, one thing I was grateful for was that it opened the eyes of our attendees and reminded them that yes, this was a tour to help inform them of the inner workings of our city, but it was still a jail. This was not going to the zoo, this was not touring a college you were interested in attending, this was an informative guide through one of Los Angeles’ public systems that was to be taken seriously and treated with respect. And, just like every other year, we understood.
As we were guided through the concrete halls of Twin Towers, we learn more about the inner workings of our jail system. From inmates known as Trustees (those due to be released in the next few months and trusted enough to perform basic services around the building) that can be seen walking around wearing green, to the educational opportunities provided to all who are interested (that include, but are not limited to, a high school diploma equivalency and 25 different certification courses), this tour is definitely eye-opening and nothing like Orange is the New Black. We even had the opportunity to speak to a female inmate who was due to be released in April 2018 for a non-violent offense. She had personally completed all educational courses available to her—side note: she said that the therapy course that helped her identify the true reasons as to why she committed an offense in the first place was the best course she had attended and highly recommended it to her fellow inmates—and was offered an early release due to exemplary behavior and work credits. She even taught us how women handled a lack of makeup on “the inside” that involved melting down leftover pencil eyeliner and mixing it with clear toothpaste to create a liquid liner that could then be applied with a sharpened #2 pencil… Yes, we were also amazed.
We were given tours of modules, a collection of 3 rooms that hold roughly 44 inmates each and was under constant monitoring by a group of officers, learned how colors were used to identify specific individuals suffering from suicidal tendencies, violent outburst, or mental illness, and were surprised to learn that Twin Towers Correctional Facility was now mostly us as mental health facility and was highly monitored by the Department of Health. Before we knew it, it was 10:55am and yet again time to meet our stand-up guy, Jose. Cutting the tour short brought groans of disappointment from my fellow Leadership Academy participants, proving that sometimes going to jail can be a good experience (but let’s stick to experiencing it from the outside, shall we?). We thanked our guide, walked back down the concrete halls where we were given back our IDs (phew!), and boarded back onto our bus.
Now, who’s hungry? Next stop: the El Segundo Beach Café.
The smells and sounds of the surf greeted us as we disembarked Jose’s carriage, joining on the sunlit patio of the El Segundo Beach Café. As I take my seat I remember that I try to tell myself every year that this place exists, and yet on the other 364 days I am not participating in Leadership Academy’s fifth session I often forget about this hidden gem. The view is phenomenal, the food delicious, and how can you dislike a place that reminds you when it’s time to eat dessert? We sat beneath the sun as we ate our freshly prepared turkey burgers and talked about our morning experiences, enjoying the freedom that was allowed to us as outside viewers to the jail system (rather than more permanent residents). After stories were told and food comas were given ample time to settle in, we took a few moments to enjoy the views of our amazing LAX Coastal neighborhood.
[insert a few moments of silence here]
Ahhhh… Wasn’t that nice? Look at the time; it’s 12:50pm and time for us to head to the next stop on today’s adventure: the Hyperion Treatment Plant across the street (literally, across the street).
For those who don’t know, the Hyperion Treatment Plant is a water reclamation plant that deals with LAX Coastal sewage (and beyond). Treating an average of 275 million gallons of water per day, the Hyperion might sound like a crappy job (hah!) but is actually a valuable resource and one of the most fascinating tours someone can take within our neighborhood.
Our tour started off with a one-on-many presentation by our amazing tour guide, a woman who is such a bundle of energy and information that she borders on intimidating, but is also entirely likeable. She regales us with such facts as the plant’s first opening in 1894, how the plant is currently producing 80% of its electricity usage on-site through steam and methane production (and in the next few years will increase that number to 100%!), and that it was possible to “scrub” air to remove bad smells. We were given fashionable hair nets and hard hats, climbed aboard a train of golf carts, and began our scenic drive around the plant.
The most striking thing about the Hyperion tour was the architecture. The juxtaposition of old versus new plus industrial was surprisingly pleasing, with colorful buildings inspired by the plant’s current infrastructure helping to make the pipelines running through the grounds seem at home rather than out of place. From older beige buildings to newer orange facilities, to light blue pipes (fresh water) comingling with bright white pipes (air scrubber system), the Hyperion plant is both larger and more vibrant than one would expect of a company that deals with sewage. And, with hills of green on one end and the ocean on the other, their surroundings aren’t half bad either.
We were allowed a closer look at different points in the tour to help us better understand the inner workings of our sewage. In one (if we are being honest, smelly) room, we saw water in its “natural state” as it first arrives to the plant. The water travels through different channels where it is separated by a large combing device aimed at separating large particles from the waste water, and many of us were shocked to see that some of the items most commonly flushed down our toilets included banana peels, Cheetos bags, and Lysol wipes (none of which are biodegradable, by the way, so please do your local water treatment plant a favor by being kinder to your waste system). We also saw the large pools where finely-strained water is separated from the last of its “scum”—technical term—and is deemed clean enough for local wildlife to alight on its surface. The best part of the tour (spoiler alert) was the Sanitation Learning Center at the end of our drive, with a hands-on exhibit that helped bring out the child in a room full of professionals. From a 3-on-3 recycling sorting game to a trash truck where you could pose as the driver, our class of leaders played and learned to their hearts content. Kirby signed an online pledge to save water—the binding contract of that agreement showing up in the form of a fish floating in the ocean bearing Kirby’s name—while the others learned fascinating tidbits like the average Angeleno uses up to 106 gallons of water per day. We explored, we mashed buttons, we spun levers, and then we headed on back to the bus, and the lovely Jose, to end our day at the Ballona Wetlands.
The parking lot close to the alley behind Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Restaurant might not be a secret, but the entrance gate painted with a brilliantly colored heron surely is. That gate is the entrance to the Ballona Wetlands, currently protected by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands nonprofit organization.
The tour starts as we walk past a recreation of a Tongva hut, the tribe that lived in the LAX Coastal region long before we did. We don’t stop here as we have in years past, as the display is sadly under construction due to extreme weather conditions that were just a little bit too much for the structure (we might be able to study the Tongva tribe, but we are not as skilled at building…). We pause for a moment in the trail, admiring a cottontail rabbit bouncing along the path, before grabbing our binoculars and learning more about the wetland’s boundaries. Once covering the majority of our region, the wetlands today are sadly only 577-acres and in desperate need of protection. They are the home to a variety of animals; from Green Herons to King Snakes to 2 adorable Willets that enjoyed a game of tag on our watch, the wetlands is a delicate ecosystem where even one cubic foot of the mud that lines their marsh can hold up to 40,000 living organisms.
As we made our way to the viewing platform, we sucked on lemonade berries and perfumed ourselves with cowboy cologne (aka California Sage), taking in the sights and enjoying a beautiful day in Playa del Rey. We were slightly disappointed to realize that our tour was scheduled during low tide, as the wetland’s water level ebbs and flows roughly every 6 hours, but we were happy to see that our recent influx of rain created a sort of tide pool in the marsh, attracting geese, ducks, and birds of all sizes. We sat in the sun, listened to our tour guide describe his hysterical adventures as a protector of this natural wonder, and fought the urge to take a nap in the middle of the greens, blues, and yellows of our surroundings. We experienced a sense of peace probably akin to what those aforementioned “morning people” did when they awoke before the sun, even though the time was 3:55pm in the middle of the work week. Maybe peace was something you found on your own schedule; something that had nothing to do with the time of day or even where you are, but rather your state of mind. Well, the state of mind that each Leadership Academy participant was in atop the wooden structure in the middle of our very own wetlands was definitely one of relaxation, and although many of us were tired after a long, albeit fun, day, our smiles never flagged.
It was 4pm, and time for us to head back to the LAX Coastal Chamber. The day was not yet done, as more than half of our class was planning on meeting up for happy hour after dismissal, but Leadership Academy Session 5 was officially closed. We were a few hours older but infinitely wiser than when we woke up this morning, full of knowledge and experience that we were lucky enough to have provided to us by our local chamber, and we could not be more grateful.
Thank you, LAX Coastal Chamber! Now who’s ready for a drink?
(Not me. I need a nap…)