LOS ANGELES — By 10 p.m. Tuesday, at least a dozen activists had taken to Cattaraugus Avenue’s Interstate 10 underpass, handcarts and wheeled dollies in tow, to right what they considered an injustice: dozens of boulders, placed to deter unhoused people from camping there.
As they moved the boulders out of the way, to the ends of the tunnel, they met the man who claimed responsibility for placing them there — a screenwriter and director who lives in the neighborhood. He told them that he and his neighbors had bought and paid for the boulders as “our way to take our tunnel back” from the unhoused individuals he said had frightened and threatened people as they crossed from one side of the tunnel to the other.
It was the coda to a sweeping day of social media posts, complaints, and more than 70 callers at what is typically a quiet meeting of the local neighborhood council’s committee on public safety. In less than a week, and with pressure from city officials, the boulders would be gone entirely, hauled away by the people who paid for their installation.
On Tuesday morning, social media began to buzz about a new development at the Cattaraugus Tunnel, a freeway underpass beneath Interstate 10 that provides pedestrian and vehicle access from Los Angeles’s South Robertson neighborhoods to Culver City’s Helms Bakery district. The tunnel has also been the site of encampments for unhoused individuals.
At some point over the Labor Day weekend, more than five dozen boulders were installed on the sidewalks along the tunnel. It appeared to be in keeping with other forms of hostile architecture, designed to prevent the unhoused from comfortably resting in places they might otherwise bunk down.
Activists, like Twitter user StreetWatchLA, asserted that the rocks were placed there by people who claimed to be acting on behalf of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council, or SORO NC, an advisory body elected by the residents of the South Robertson area that responds to neighborhood-level issues as an extension of the Los Angeles city government. (Disclosure: This reporter has a personal relationship with Holly Craig-Wehrle, a candidate for election to the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council.)
On Tuesday morning, StreetWatchLA’s tweets started to gain traction. Via Twitter, SORO NC denied that the council had approved such action.
On Sept. 10, a draft letter of a statement appeared on SORO NC’s website, intended for discussion at a special meeting scheduled for Sept. 11.
The letter reads:
“The South Robertson Neighborhoods Council respects all of its residents, both housed and unhoused. We do not support any effort to marginalize or endanger any of our residents, and we do not support the recent effort by some community members to install "hostile architecture" along the sidewalk within the Cattaraugus Underpass. To be clear, this project did not come before our Council, nor did we vote to provide any funds towards this project, however we fully intend to cooperate with law enforcement to help determine the origin and participants involved in this action.”
Though most SORO NC board members, including Board President Martin Epstein, declined comment, a handful of board members confirmed that no public funds were used, and that the board did not vote on actions to be taken in the Cattaraugus Tunnel. A review of the board’s public agenda items confirms this.
“I knew nothing about this prior to it happening,” said SORO NC Public Safety Committee Chair Michael Lynn. Lynn also represents SORO’s Zone 6, the South Eastern district that includes the Cattaraugus Tunnel. He admits to being a bit out of the loop, though — he’s spent the last two months out of state for personal reasons. But Lynn knows that the Cattaraugus Tunnel has been a thorny issue for residents during his time on the board.
“Over the past few years, there’ve definitely been several reports from residents that it felt unsafe. I know there was at least one homeless person who was scaring a lot of residents,” Lynn told Spectrum News 1. “There have been problems with residents being able to walk through there…and several calls to the police.”
As the day progressed, activists continued digging. A GoFundMe page raising money for a Cattaraugus Tunnel “safety and beautification project,” started by resident Peter Iliff was found—it had raised $3,650. A SORO NC board member, Terrence Gomes, was also accused of participating in placing the boulders.
When reached for comment, Gomes said that he “didn’t know how they got there.” Gomes confirmed to Spectrum News 1 that he arranged for a community cleanup of the area on Sunday of Labor Day weekend “because the trash, debris, abandoned sofas, everything, has overwhelmed that area.”
“The only thing I did was to provide city services,” Gomes said. When reached for further clarification, Gomes said that he called the offices of Councilmember Herb Wesson to ask if he could get street cleaning services — and insisted that he did so as a private citizen, not a SORO board member.
“They know me at the Council office. I asked if I could get a special street sweeping. You could do that through 311,” Gomes said.
Residents, he presumed, were “getting sick and tired of the city not doing anything. We’ve tried as much as we can, as neighborhood council members,” Gomes said. “If that’s something (residents) did, that’s something they did.”
By the evening, StreetWatch LA’s social media accounts and allies had reached out to other activist groups for a joint action: bombarding SORO NC’s regularly-scheduled Public Safety Committee meeting, chaired by Lynn. At that meeting, Gomes was named co-chair.
The meeting, which took place over Zoom, started cordially. Lynn attempted to start the meeting in his usual custom, asking everyone on the call — panelists and audience members alike — to introduce themselves. Then he was told how many people were on the line.
“Sixty-three? Are you serious?” Lynn said. “I didn’t realize that there were so many people there.”
More than 70 people eventually made some statement before the board, an overwhelming majority of whom felt the boulders had no place in that underpass.
“I’ve been a resident for almost three years and continue to be really touched by the sense of community that I’ve received from my neighbors here,” said SORO resident Matt Hing. “But like many of the other callers tonight, it’s become urgently clear from the placement of these boulders on Cattaraugus that not everyone receives that level of welcome, especially our unhoused neighbors…I would hope that if I were in that situation, my neighbors would extend empathy and help me move forward, not place a boulder in my path.”
Peter Iliff was next chosen for public comment.
“I’m one of the people who put the boulders in the tunnel,” Iliff said. “You’ve had a number of safety issues. You’ve had attacks…no homeless were displaced,”
When reached for an interview after the meeting, Iliff explained that he and his neighbors waited for the final unhoused person living in the tunnel to be gone for three days. Then, they moved to clean up the area. Cleaners found drugs and jugs of urine among the detritus.
“Of course, not all homeless are like this; there are people trying to get back. But we didn’t see people like that. We saw the worst of the bunch,” Iliff said. The idea, he said, was to discourage tents and to discourage tent encampments. He told stories of people who were living in the tunnel who refused housing assistance and homelessness services.
He told Spectrum News 1 in that interview that the GoFundMe was used to fund the steam cleaning, the trash removal, and the placement of a mural, which, he acknowledged, would need a permit.
Iliff said, when asked how he would respond if the city were to pursue giving him a citation for placing the boulders without a permit, that he would pay any fine assigned to him.
“I can afford it. I don’t want to pay a fine — I’d rather take my wife out for a vacation that we haven’t had this year — but, believe it or not, my heart is in this issue,” Iliff said. “I welcome the conversation about the rights of residents who have to have homeless on our sidewalks and stealing our packages and trespassing on our property. And attacking our young people and making our women have to carry mace and feel frightened…if I’ve gotta pay a fine, I’ve got 60-plus people tonight to call in and talk about it.
Elves in the tunnel
On Aug. 12, Iliff was one of a handful of people who participated in a Zoom call for a SORO NC sub-committee arranged to deal with homelessness-related issues. Gomes was one of the board members on the call.
Iliff told the call that he saw boulders and landscaping placed along the walls of the Interstate 10 and Motor Avenue underpass, in L.A. City Council District 5. He started cold calling people within CD 5. He learned that residents sought to place landscaping at that site for at least two years, meandering through the city’s permitting process, before being told that they couldn’t do it.
Iliff then was told that the residents of CD 5 got a permit to steam clean the area...and the rocks appeared at about the same time. “Elves did it,” Iliff said, copying his source’s phrasing.
The lesson, Iliff learned, was that “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Iliff told the subcommittee that, using the GoFundMe page he started, he had been able to obtain a contract for 66 boulders and a bid for steam cleaning, totaling about $2,600. (With the leftover money, he said, they would install a mural.) Iliff also said that LAPD officers Chris Baker and Jose Bermudez were aware of his plan, quoting them as saying, “We’re going to help you best we can.”
A reporter for Spectrum News 1 reached out to Baker on Wednesday to ask if he knew about the plan to distribute the boulders in the tunnel. He said no. When the reporter told him of Illif’s comments on the Zoom call and asked again, Baker directed the reporter to LAPD’s Public Relations Department.
On Sept. 10, LAPD Captain Jonathan Tom said he was told that Baker was unaware of the plan. He also clarified that Bermudez had spoken to Iliff, but “was advised that the citizen was going to go through the council office to get a permit.”
At the prompting of another member of the call, Iliff then asked Gomes if the Neighborhood Council could pay for the installation of the boulders.
“If the board votes for it, to be able to beautify the community, that’s how we would look at it,” Gomes said. “We would have to work with [the city].”
Another member of the call, Rick Solomon, then piped in. “My perspective is, if you go through the city and you’re funding it, then they’re aware of it. But theoretically, this has to go through the city. Peter’s raising money on the down low…and when s--t hits the fan, it doesn’t go back to the neighborhood council,” Solomon said.
“Elves did it,” Iliff said.
On Sept. 10, Spectrum News 1 asked Gomes if he was aware of the plan to install the boulders. He said, “No.”
The reporter then stated that Illif talked about his plan during that Aug. 12 subcommittee meeting. “I must not have been paying attention,” Gomes said.
The reporter then said that Gomes responded directly to Illif a number of times, even asking what would happen should the city be sued over ADA compliance issues arising from the boulders.
“Well, I guess I don’t remember,” Gomes said.
A coalition effort
On Tuesday afternoon, L.A. City Councilmember Herb Wesson responded to social media comments from activists, stating that the boulders are “wrong on so many levels.” A representative from Wesson’s office confirmed Wednesday that the Bureau of Street Services is working to remove the boulders “as soon as possible.”
By 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, a group of homelessness-rights advocates — including an admin of the StreetWatchLA Twitter account — descended upon the Cattaraugus Tunnel, taking it upon themselves to disrupt the arrangement of the boulders.
As a Spectrum News 1 reporter arrived on the scene, LAPD officers were seen driving off, and most of the movement had finished. The smaller boulders were moved to each end of the tunnel, on both sides of the road, apparently with hand trucks and dollies.
“We moved what we could. We mainly just wanted to clear space so folks can keep camping here if they wanted to,” Rhiana Caterisano said. “People are eager to defend their unhoused neighbors, to defend the more marginalized. So it’s really cool to see that sentiment from so many people around this area.”
Adam Rice said that he understands the neighborhood’s anger about homelessness, but that it shouldn’t be directed at unhoused people in their neighborhood. “They’re going about it the wrong way,” he said.
By that time, Iliff was already on the scene, explaining his case to the group that had organized to disrupt his neighborhood’s work.
“I did it as a favor to the community — it came out of a lot of people’s concerns. It was our way to take the tunnel back,” Iliff said.
Iliff went on to blame the City of Los Angeles and talk about the plans for the tunnel that were now, presumably, scrapped. When he noticed that a woman was shaking his head at his comments, he turned to her.
“Come on, I copped to it,” Iliff said. “Do I get some credit for that?”
When asked by Spectrum News 1 if any SORO NC board members knew of his plan to place boulders in the tunnel, Iliff said, “I’m not at liberty to say,” then, “No comment.”
Boulders, brooms, and backhoes
On Thursday afternoon, less than a week after the boulders were installed, Iliff was among a group of people participating in the complete cleanup of the area. He and his neighbors, he said, were also fielding threats and sustained criticism regarding the boulders.
Iliff said that, on Wednesday, he was contacted by a representative from Wesson’s office and informed that he had 24 hours to remove the boulders, or that he would risk felony dumping charges.
Within that 24-hour period (and, according to Iliff, not without considerable stress; his original contractor refused to pick the rocks back up, he said) he and his neighbors were able to find a contractor, and heavy-duty equipment, to help haul away the boulders into a bin to be disposed.
By 3 p.m., the boulders were all but contained, and residents were working alongside Iliff to clean dirt and rocks from the sidewalk.
One of those residents was a man named Sam, who declined to give his last name. Sam said that he was harassed by an unhoused man in the tunnel while walking with his children. He produced an email thread to city officials, with promises that city services would respond to the encampments. Their responses, he said, took weeks.
“I don’t care what’s going on on the other side of the overpass, I don’t want anybody’s kids getting hurt…can you believe that this is happening and the city doesn’t care?”
After the rocks were hauled away, Iliff said that the city government has let down both residents and unhoused people.
“We have a community forced to implement their own solutions with the help of local council offices and LAPD to address these safety issues to protect our neighborhood,” Iliff said, before turning to the critics he has been facing.
“You know, why have these ‘safe streets’ cats [have] taken a good cause and made it ugly? If you want to do good, let’s keep it good, let’s sit down and simply discuss a proper solution because we want to put these unfortunate homeless in housing,” Iliff said. “It seems sometimes that Safe Streets L.A. wants to keep them on the street. Why is that?”