A disturbing rumor is circulating on social media that El Pino Famoso—the towering Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) at Folsom and Indiana on the East Los Angeles / Los Angeles border that was prominently featured in the film Blood In Blood Out—has been deliberately damaged in anticipation of being chopped down in January by the new property owner.
Where did the rumor come from?
The first source we’ve found is Instagram, where on December 29, 4ehvur posted two photographs of El Pino with unidentifiable grey stuff oozing out of the trunk to his 683 followers, with the caption: “Just a reminder that El Piño is scheduled to be cut down on January. Go take your selfies while you can. Here’s proof that the new owners deliberately cut the cambrium [sic] layer around the base to starve it of water. Fuck Gentrification!!!!🤬🤬🤬.” 4ehvur’s post was picked up late that night by the Facebook page All Roads Lead to Boyle Heights, which shared this message to its 14,500 followers: “Word on the street is the East Los Pino🌲 is coming down in January. Photos from @4ehvur show that the tree’s cambium was cut to starve the tree from water.”
This morning, more than a dozen people were gathered on the sidewalk near the fenced off tree, taking selfies and capturing drone footage with the treasured cultural and botanical landmark and mourning its potential loss.
A petition was launched, asking Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has no authority in East L.A., to keep the tree from being chopped down, and almost 500 people have signed to date.
We’re not sure how the rumor of El Pino’s impending death started, but we’re concerned that it’s spreading so widely, and that it isn’t just making people feel rotten, but encouraging them to leave their homes and gather together at a time when the East Los Angeles community is ground zero for the spread of COVID-19. If this is a belated Holy Innocents’ Day tecnoinnocentades prank, we wish the pranksters would claim credit for fooling the foos and withdraw the claim that El Pino is going to be cut down soon.
We hope it’s just a prank. But something worrying is going on with the ancient tree. David Silvas, our realtor pal who makes such great preservation policy in his position on the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, went by this morning to take a look, and photographed the trunk with its mysterious ring of cottony fluff that appears to be jammed into a gap that rings the entire tree.
It certainly looks like El Pino’s trunk has been intentionally damaged, possibly in an attempt at murderous girdling, and we are sharing David’s photos with our botanist friends at the Huntington Gardens for their feedback. We’ll also be reaching out to the County’s preservation office to make them aware of the potential threat to the landmark, as well as to passersby and the residents of the adjacent property. If the huge tree falls, it could kill somebody.
David also pulled a title report, and discovered that in December 2015, Javier Ortega, the owner of the beautiful Prairie Style house just east of the tree sold the lot for $120,000 (less than its assessed value of $129,890, which seems cheap considering the million dollar views) to Gateway Science & Engineering Inc.
Gateway Science & Engineering Inc. is owned by none other than Art M. Gastelum, a person of interest in the FBI’s investigations into Jose Huizar (who is himself focus of an upcoming Esotouric true crime tour), frequent topic of discussion on the Michael Kohlhaas blog, and subject of previous public corruption inquiries dating back to the Belmont Learning Complex debacle.
David also reviewed recent and historic aerial photographs, and saw evidence of the removal of numerous old growth trees in the five years since Gateway/Gastelum took ownership of the parcel on which El Pino sits. Any such work is unpermitted, as there are no building permits associated with APN #: 5231-026-037 (520 N. Indiana St Los Angeles Los Angeles County, CA 90063).
And curiously, around the time that Gateway/Gastelum purchased the parcel, the County did major renovations along the Indiana Street side, putting in not just a sidewalk, but fancy concrete planter boxes and metal hand rails. Weird! Why would the County spend so much money on public propoerty on the East Los Angeles border, right around the time a close associate of Jose Huizar bought the adjacent parcel?
So it appears that El Pino, too, like so many landmarks lost and threatened, could be tied up in the unfolding public corruption scandal surrounding Jose Huizar at Los Angeles City Hall. Because of course it is.
2020 has kicked East Los Angeles hard, and the last thing the community needs is to lose a landmark as core to its identity as El Pino. We’ll update this page if we learn more. And what the hell, we’ll sign the petition. C’mon, Eric Garcetti, you worthless Washington wannabe, do something useful for once: save El Pino! (And save Compton’s Eagle Tree, while you’re at it.)
And if you want to reach out to a politician that has some power over protecting the tree, call or email County Supervisor Hilda Solis’ East Los Angeles Field Office and ask that they have a licensed arborist inspect El Pino as soon as possible.
Update 12/30/2020 6:30pm: This evening, Channel 7 reporter Eric Resendiz visited El Pino, went Facebook Live, and spoke over computer screen with property owner Art Gastelum. Gastelum states he is upset about the rumor that the tree is being chopped down, and that he purchased the property three years ago (actually it was five years ) specifically to protect the tree which he knows from growing up in the neighborhood. He says his plan is to illuminate the tree and put up a plaque, and that it will not be fenced so community members have access to the tree, as the property itself is improved with two duplexes. Gastelum says construction will begin in 90 days, even though no permits have been filed, and shared a rendering of the project. He stated that a 2800 square foot duplex would “wrap around” and “protect” El Pino, which raises serious questions about the proximity of new construction to the tree’s delicate root system, and the danger of falling cones, which can weigh up to 22 pounds. We don’t believe Eric Resendiz asked Art Gastelum to explain the apparent damage to the tree trunk, which is unfortunate. Something happened to El Pino, and we won’t consider the matter closed until an arborist visits and makes a public assessment of the tree’s condition.
Update 12/30/2020, 11:00pm: On Facebook, Ever Borunda, who shared the original Instagram post on his @4ehvur account that sparked concern about El Pino’s health, made a comment providing additional information and expanding the timeline to January 2019: “I’m the one who reposted the pictures I took of the trunk in the summer of 2019. I was there today to make an updated video. My instagram is 4ehvur. When Damian Chapa did his last photograph with fans at El Piño he told my friend that the tree was scheduled to be cut down. How he would knows that, I can’t say. I went the next day to investigate and to take a few pictures and lo and behold when I looked at the trunk of the tree I noticed something that was quite familiar to me. As an ex wildland firefighter and tree Faller lumberjack I was able to recognize evidence of tampering. Look at it closely. That tree has been cut around the circumference of the trunk. all that white stuff you see oozing out is sap that should be going up to the tree to nourish it. It needs to be further investigated but quite honestly from what I see I believe that the tree is doomed.”
Update 12/31/2020, 5:00pm: Thanks to a savvy County records sleuth, the missing duplex construction permits have been located… but they’re tied to the adjacent property, not the plot where El Pino stands! There is very scant information in this file, and nothing about the potential impact of new construction on the tree. The plan is for “NEW 3037 SF THREE-LEVEL FRONT UNIT AND 1064 SF THREE-LEVEL DETACHED REAR UNIT.” We will update this post if we obtain additional information about the proposed development.
And @m_elemon in their Instagram stories documented the installation of a freshly printed sign that states “Spread The Word: El Pino Will Not Be Chopped” etc. But there is still no explanation for the apparent cuts to the trunk of the tree. Instead of printing banners, property owner Art Gastelum should invest in the services of a skilled tree surgeon to provide a live video assessment of the health of El Pino. The community deserves nothing less.
Update 12/31/2020, 6:00pm: Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis tweeted to her 16,000 followers: Over the past couple of days, there have been concerns regarding ‘El Pino,” a significant tree in unincorporated East LA featured in the Chicano film, ‘Blood In, Blood Out,” of being removed. Our Department of Regional Planning has confirmed that while located in East LA, the tree rests on private property. As with any proposed project, the Department followed the entitlement process and approved plans for a new duplex to be built on the property this past March. The current approved plans do not illustrate any impacts to the tree’s canopy. My office has confirmed through the property owner that they have no intentions to remove the tree. To that end, I am committed to working with the property owner, residents, and community stakeholders to help preserve ‘El Pino’ as a part of East LA’s cultural landscape. We responded to the Supervisor: thank you! But what about the root structure, the apparent cuts to the trunk, and the enormous cones that this type of tree produces and drops? Is there an arborist in the loop to ensure the tree and development can safely coexist?
Also on 12/31/20, Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo shared on her personal Facebook page Eric Resendiz’ Channel 7 livestream, and stated: “For folks wondering about El Pino 🌲- it’s not going anywhere. In fact, I would argue that El Pino has great potential as a historical landmark in East Los Angeles. Thank you to folks who have reached out about it. I know there’s a desire to make this location a small pocket park, dog park, etc., for the neighborhood. My office will look into this idea and partnerships needed. Meanwhile, stay safe and mask up. 😷.” It’s worth mentioning that another person of interest in the Jose Huizar public corruption investigation alongside property owner Art Gastelum is George Esparza, who left Huizar’s office to become Carrillo’s Chief of Staff. In July 2020, Esparza pleaded guilty to Federal racketeering charges. We do not know if he is still employed in Carrillo’s office, as her staff is not listed on her website.
Also on 12/31/20, Instagrammer 4ehvur, the person who initially shared images of the strange material wrapped around the trunk. returned to El Pino and shot video of the apparent damage, expressing his belief that the community is being lied to by developer Art Gastelum and Supervisor Hilda Solis. A private account (@mgastelum8) that appears to belong to Michelle Gastelum, daughter and business associate of Art Gastelum, commented: If anything was done to the tree, it was done WITHOUT the owners knowledge. Thx for bringing it up so it can be investigated. Don’t make assumptions. 🤦🏻♀️” 4ehvur responded “@mgastelum8 3 years of working for Cal Fire cutting down trees in the San Bernardino mountains has given me enough wisdom to recognize when a tree’s health has been compromised. Hey, I hope I’m proven wrong but that white ring (nutrient rich sap) around the trunk is a dead giveaway. No pun intended.” mgastelum8 replied: “You might be right but my point is that if SOMEONE did do something to the tree, it was done WITHOUT the owners knowledge. It will be investigated. By the way, I heard it was a prank. But nothing has been confirmed.” Note that in interviews with Channel 7 and the Los Angeles Times, Art Gastelum makes no mention of the possibility that anyone has entered the property and harmed El Pino, or of his intent to investigate such vandalism.
Update 1/1/2021, 9:00am: Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano interviews those drawn to El Pino, and traces the start of the rumor of the tree’s removal to a Feast of the Holy Innocents Day prank by Mexico City-based social media meme accounts sangre_por_sangre_oficial (Instagram, 49,000 followers) and SangrePorSangreOut (Facebook, 1.3 Million followers). Note that these memes showing a blurry image of the canopy of the tree are not the same images that went viral in the local East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights Facebook pages, which showed apparent damage to the trunk.
Of developer Art Gastelum and his intent to keep his plans for El Pino secret from the community until it was too late for any public response, Arellano describes this person of interest in the largest public corruption investigation in California history merely as “the politically connected owner of a Pasadena construction firm who grew up two blocks away,” and writes: “As more people poured in over the next couple of days, and Gastelum’s phone began to light up, he felt the need to address ‘all this desmadre.’ “Growing up, El Pino was always this wonderful mystery to us,” said the 71-year-old. ‘Why does this tree look so different, and how did it get to us?’ So Gastelum bought the lot that hosts the tree as soon as it went up for sale five years ago. ‘I didn’t know what was going to happen to El Pino,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even negotiate the price. I never do that, but I didn’t want anyone else to get it.’ He wants to build a duplex around the tree, with ensured public access and a plaque telling its story. Gastelum didn’t want to reveal his plans until the project was ready to break ground, but Duarte’s Facebook post forced his hand. ‘That upsets me,’ he said. ‘Those are the kind of pranks that create problems. It’s dangerous.'” Thought question: How exactly is it “dangerous” for the community to seek transparency about land use decisions that threaten the survival of El Pino?
Update 1/4/2021: Powerful video of testimony at El Pino from a man who identifies himself as a local property owner, via @thats_my_bread_entertainment on Instagram. He tells the gathered crowd: “We don’t have to let this dude do whatever he wants. They can donate this back to the community or sell it back for fair market value. Hopefully you are all ready to fight for this property. Do the right thing!” He calls for the community to gather at El Pino every Sunday at 2pm for a conversation about saving El Pino by halting the planned development, ensuring the tree is landmarked and that the property becomes a community asset.
Update 1/5/2021: David Silvas, Chair of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee, visits El Pino to assess the health of the landmark East Los Angeles tree. He is concerned about the mystery metal bits jammed in the trunk (seen in the photo above) and calls for an arborist to examine El Pino.
Update 1/11/2021: David Silvas, Chair of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee, visits El Pino and confirms rumors that the weird fluffy “skirt” and metal bars stuck into El Pino’s trunk have been removed. In this photograph (also above), there does appear to be regular horizontal damage to the landmark East LA tree. We continue to call for an arborist to examine El Pino.
Update 1/12/2021: Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council’s PLUC Committee has put El Pino on the agenda for its meeting on Thursday 1/14/2021 at 6:30pm. Attend on Zoom here. (Agenda Item #7: Presentation, Discussion, and Possible Action on the Bunya Pine Tree “Araucaria bidwillii”aka “El Pino” at 500-598 Indiana Street. Speaker: David Silvas, Planning and Land Use Chair. Description: A discussion and possible action to issue a community impact statement regarding the development of a duplex on the land which has a large 90+ year old Bunya Pine Tree in the neighboring community of East Los Angeles.) In a Facebook thread about the BHNC PLUC meeting, Ulisses Sanchez claims to have entered the fenced El Pino lot “with permission of the owner” and removed the material and metal bars from the trunk. He further states that “non-profit Tree People… are going to send an arborist to check out the tree but have informally agreed that the tree has not been harmed based on my photos and video presented to them.” Note that we have spoken with arborists, too, who say they need to physically inspect the tree and that photos and video are not sufficient. Also, note that while Mr. Sanchez does not explicitly state that he has been asked by property owner Art Gastelum to represent Gastelum’s interests on social media, he does claim to have special access to the property, and appears to be representing Gastelum’s position in his posts.
Update 1/16/2021: Property owner Art Gastelum’s spokesman Ulisses Sanchez uploads a video to YouTube in which Brian Rekart, Senior Manager of Forestry for the Tree People nonprofit provides a visual assessment of El Pino as looking like a healthy tree—although there are deep cuts in the trunk which he states may be from a throwing axe. Rekart does not say if he has experience with Araucaria bidwillii trees, but we suspect he does not, since he points out the dangerous cones while standing underneath them, while wearing no protective headgear. No mention is made in this video of the potential impact on the health of El Pino of moving forward with Art Gastelum’s proposal to build flush up against it, nor of the potential risks to people from the falling cones. The YouTube video has comments turned off, so there is no opportunity for members of the public to ask questions or provide an alternative viewpoint except “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” We join the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council in calling for an independent arborist to provide a report on the situation.
Update 1/18/2021: Community members are gathering every Sunday at 2pm to demand that El Pino be saved and the land become a community garden and dog park. They have made their own hand-painted signs, which now cover up the professionally printed banner hung on the fence by property owner Art Gastelum. On Instagram, thats_my_bread_entertainment captured a powerful statement of demands. The statement concludes that if the proposed development is built on this site, it will trigger gentrification that will displace the people who look like the community members who care about El Pino today.
Update 2/9/2021: ABC7 feature includes the voices of neighbors opposed to the new construction as well as the developer, and a rendering of the proposed project. The story includes the inaccurate and perplexing statement from Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo that “L.A. County sold the property where El Pino is rooted half a decade ago.” A realtor checked, and confirmed that the property was never owned by the County. Art Gastelum purchased it from the owner of the adjacent parcel at a time when they were under pressure from complaints from the County, resulting in their house being declared uninhabitable.
Update 2/17/2021:The Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council has approved a Community Impact Statement reflecting the NC’s concern about El Pino. (PDF link to this document.) BHNC calls out the tree’s cultural significance for Japanese-Americans and the Chicano community, and express concern about property owner Art Gastelum’s association with disgraced former Boyle Heights councilman Jose Huizar. The NC calls for the following to be done: 1) The construction plans for the duplex are reevaluated. 2) An independent study is done by a licensed arborist to insure any construction on the site will not have any immediate orfuture negative effects on the tree. 3) The study by the arborist is made public in its entirety. 4) The tree shall be registered on The California Superlative Tree List (AKA The Big Tree List) headed by Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. 5) Mr. Art Gastelum will initiate a Los Angeles County Landmark Registration for the tree and that Los Angeles County Supervisor, Hilda Solis, Supervisor First District, and the Los Angeles Historical Landmarks and Records Commission will be informed of this application as well as the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.
Update 3/2/2021: Two months after Gustavo Arellano’s Los Angeles Times column amplified developer (and Jose Huizar crony) Art Gastelum’s spin about how building flush to the trunk will somehow “save” El Pino, Laura Zornosa of the Times comes back to tell a more deeply reported story of how the community is fighting back for their cultural landmark: “East L.A. worries about a developer’s “El Pino” promise.”