Monday, December 22, 2014

Latino Urbanism And The Reinvention Of A City

Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles
Hello Everyone:

Over the past two days, Christopher Hawthorne has taken taken on tour of the Mid-Wilshire area and the City of Arcadia, showing us how Korean and Chinese immigrants have altered the urban and suburban landscape.  Our final stop today is Downtown Los Angeles, specifically Broadway. Today's article, "'Latino Urbanism' Influences A Los Angeles In Flux." comes courtesy of one of my Facebook friend and city planning consultant James Rojas.  The article looks at what Latino Urbanism is about and how it is radically remaking one of DTLA's busiest thoroughfares.  For several decades, Broadway has been one of the most vibrant pedestrian oriented streets in Southern California, usually crowded with Latino shopper, some recent arrivals from Mexico.  This makeover comes at time when the discounts stores are being pushed in favor of "artisanal" food stores and upscale boutiques, who coincidentally, are taking their design cues from Latin American street life.  Coincidence?  Let us find out.

The Orpheum Theater c.1931
The redesign of Broadway is a reminder of the number of regional politicians and policymakers are drawing inspiration from Latino Urbanism. What exactly does this term mean?  Mr. Hawthorne writes, "Latino Urbanism, a term that describe the range of ad hoc ways in which immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America have remade pockets of American cities to feel at least a little like the places they left behind."  City planners are adding parks and bicycles land to major streets and fighting to relax anachronistic restrictions so that murals can be installed in the arts districts and street vendors can operate legally.  Further, events like CiCLAvia are inspiring urban design changes that challenge the auto-centric way of life.

CiCLAvia Los Angeles
"We're seeing what had been a series of informal activities become formalized," say city planning consultant James Rojas, who came up with the term "Latino Urbanism." Mr. Rojas the influence spreading across the region, especially in Los Angeles.  Mr. Rojas continues, "There's a whole official design lexicon that is borrowed from lessons about how Latinos design their homes and interact with their neighborhoods."  The end product is Los Angeles, long a culturally and demographically a Latino city in context to the street grid and the way the public spaces are designed.  Thus, Latino Urbanism, "largely the study of how immigrants use Los Angeles," is rapidly reflected in the way the city looks.  What this shift implies for the immigrants, in relationship to gentrifying DTLA or Boyle Height, is a different and fraught question.

Boyle Heights sign
Latinos have historically created space in Los Angeles for entrepreneurial and community activities in a city structured around a maze of freeways and private homes. Most are renters without connections or resources to remake civic architecture, the immigrants have learned how "to modify an established, largely suburban metropolis around the edges to make it more hospitable and sociable." In the modification process, they have fuzzed the line between public and private space that has been steadfastly maintained by earlier generations of L.A. residents.  Mr. Hawthorne writes, "In a neighborhood remade by Latino immigrants, signs are mostly hand-painted, whether they announce an accountant's office or nail salon.  The wall of grocery stores are covered with pictogram-like drawings of milk jugs and  and boxes of detergent."

"East LA Interchange"
The fences surrounding the individual houses are more like thresholds rather than barriers.  Parks, as well as front gardens, are packed on the weekends with birthday parties or other celebrations.  Streetscapes are apparent, like the one in well-established communities such as Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights.  The streetscapes are also visible in northeastern San Fernando Valley, which is now 70 percent Latino.  Latinos have also made inroads in historically African American neighborhoods  such as Watts, where front garden resemble those of Tijuana.

East Los Angeles T-shirt vendors
One example is Carmen Quintero who lives with her extended family, including her five grandchildren, in a bungalow along Compton Avenue.  About two years ago, she began selling t-shirts, hanging on a chain-link fence, to make extra money.  She also sells toys, bicycles, CDs, DVDs, and VHS tapes.  The front garden and sidewalk have all become Ms. Quintero's five and dime store.  Ms. Quintero says, "I can't work because of the kids...So I do this."

As Los Angeles County, about 50 percent Latino, transitions into a post-immigration phase, long-established immigrants are becoming more financially secure and gaining influence at the ballot-box.  Also, their influence in residential design, entrepreneurship, public and private space is being felt in the realm of city planning.  Mayor Eric Garcetti has been actively pushing his Great Streets Initiative that aims to increase the what he calls "the street-level health of city."  The plan calls for improvements to selected boulevards across the city to make them more pedestrian, cyclist, and small business friendly.  Mayor Garcetti has said the program is "a shift from the way our neighborhoods have been planned in Los Angeles," emphasizing "walkability and transit."  To this end, the Mayor has instituted a program called People Street, intended to make it easier for residents to add plazas, pocket parks, and bike corrals to their communities.

Ruben F. Salazar Park
Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar, who represents the fourteenth district which includes DTLA and Boyle Heights, has been active in the advancement of changes to street and public space design-including Broadway.  He has also supported legalizing street vendors and helped reverse the mural painting ban.  "In Mexico, every town has the local plaza, the town square," said Mr. Huizar.  Further, "And then you come to a place like L.A., It's all about the car and how fast you can drive through different neighborhoods."  Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa  was the first Latino mayor elected in Los Angeles in more than a century.  Mr. Villaraigosa had an inconsistent commitment-vis a vis wallability- to redesigning the city based on Latino Urbanism.  Perhaps Mr. Hawthorne was assuming that because Mr. Villaraigosa is Mexican-American, he would be more committed to Latino Urbanism.

Parlor Hair Design
El Sereno
Even as the former mayor worked to expand public transportation, he misguidedly supported a plan to convert Olympic and Pico Boulevards into one-way streets.  Yours truly says misguided because it "would have pushed car traffic right up to the sidewalk and undermined the appeal of those streets for pedestrians and shoppers."  A new administration means new ideas drawn from Latino Urbanism, a smattering of other sources, and the scholarship of Jane Jacobs are being worked into the basic structure that guided urban planning, architecture, and development in L.A.

To wit, the city is simultaneously revising three key policies: zoning codes that were last updated in 1946; Los Angeles's mobility plan; and its strategies for health and wellness, which includes suggestions for parks and pedestrian activity.  The draft version of each of these guidelines suggest a more concerted effort to re-imagine a post-war landscape of the city for a less privatized epoch.  The proposed mobility guidelines point to L.A. streets being reconsidered as complex public spaces instead of traffic corridors.  The proposed health and wellness guideline revisions argue that L.A. residents need more parks and better safer places to walk.  It only took the City of Los Angeles about eighty or so years to figure this out.

Homeboy Industries
 Christopher Hawthorne writes, "The gap between how Latino Urbanism seeks to remake Los Angeles and the way it's planned from City Hall for decades, largely giving priority to the private realm, is far from closed."  The gap between the two is further highlighted by architects and real estate developers who continue to come up with ways to maintain the status quo.  Recently, public space advocates took umbrage with Mr. Huizar over his support for a developers seeking approval for a private bridge connecting two apartment buildings.

It is also important to bear in mind that the Latino immigrant population in Southern California is extremely diverse.  This diversity is also expressed among the immigrant communities from the same country-i.e. "...among Mexican immigrants, regional differences are significant.  Families from Oaxcaca, many of who have settled in Koreatown, have different expectations about how the city should be designed than a childless twentysomething from Mexico City who lives downtown."

7th and Broadway
Downtown Los Angeles
The propose Broadway makeover is another example of the challenges that lay ahead.  City Hall has opted to lavish plenty of attention on a street that already is pedestrian-friendly but increasingly upscale, leaving City Hall open to accusations "...that it is co-opting rather than expanding the basic ideals of Latino Urbanism."  Why choose Broadway when there so many other streets all over the city where immigrants who must rely on public transportation while struggling to find a safe place to walk?

For example, in Highland Park (Tim Logan's December 21, 2014 article at, East Los Angeles, and elsewhere, immigrants are slowly being squeezed out of their neighborhoods that have been remade in their image or marketed specifically for their Latino Urbanist appeal.  This past spring real estate agent Bana Haffar posted fliers around downtown urging apartment dwellers to consider purchasing property across the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights.  To blogger, Boyle Heights seems an unlikely place to attract more upscale residents but the flier described the community as a "charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood."  All the key buzzwords designed to attract milliennial clientele.  The flier invited prospective buyers to participate in a "free 60 minute bike tour of the neighborhood followed by a 30-minute discussion.  Artisanal treats and refreshments provided." Insert eye roll, pleeeease.

El Huarache Azteca
York Boulevard, Highland Park
Needless to say Ms. Haffar was slammed with angry responses on her social media sites, "...accusing her of promoting the sort of gentrification in Boyle Heights that might wipe out the very charm she'd identified there."  The tour was promptly canceled.  Said Ms. Haffar, "I got a very strong backlash from the community."

Christopher Hawthorne writes, "In some fundamental ways, though, the political establishment's growing embrace of Latino Urbanism is consistent with the cultural history of Southern California."  Despite the stranglehold of car culture in Southern California, it is quite surprising how many of our most successful pedestrian oriented places are celebrated; offering some form of sidewalk commerce, authentic or faux.  After decades of private pedestrian oriented places, popular escapes from the dominance of the car, Los Angeles is finally getting around to looking at the design of the streets and sidewalks.  Los Angeles is a city with deep Latin roots that go as far back as its founding. The streets are laid out along a grid pattern established by the Spanish crown in the sixteenth century for its territorial possession.  Streets remade following Latino Urbanism is both a look back and forward, a city on the cusp of reinvention.  After all, this is what Los Angeles is about, a place to reinvent yourself.

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