L.A.’s DIY Complete Streets

(As I type these words, UCLA is hosting the Complete Streets for Los Angeles Conference in Downtown Los Angeles.  As you can guess, I’m not at the conference.  To provide coverage, we asked some of the presenters to allow us to publish their presentations.  First up: regular Streetsblog contributor James Rojas.  We’ll have more next week. – DN)

As great numbers of immigrants settle into Los Angeles’ suburbs, they bring with them a different understanding and use of streets. The Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern cities, towns and villages, where they come from are physically and socially structured differently than the suburbs. In many places around the world streets are used for all types of activities, which include, walking, vending, working, socializing, and playing. These activities create a sense of place in these communities and define their public spaces.

LA’s streets have been designed and zoned to predominantly move cars all other activities are forbidden or marginalized.  This sets the struggle between LA’s majority minority populations for the use of streets and the city policies.

LA’s car oriented designed streets have become a creative canvas of guerilla interventions by LA’s ethnic communities as they retrofit them to ft their needs. Places like Koreatown, the Fashion District, Chinatown, Little Armenia, and the urbiquous Latino neighborhoods illustrate these creative interventions.

Through out Los Angeles one can witness the cultural behavior patterns of immigrants and ethnics groups transforming streets. This conflict can be as subtle and ephemeral as a few Armenian men gathering in the sidewalk in front of McDonalds on Western and Sunset to play a board game on tables or Russians sitting out in front of their West Hollywood on warm evening. The struggle can be as pronounced as the streets of Chinatown or Latino Neighborhoods where these communities are always in conflict with the physical design of the street and city policies.

In LA’s Chinatown a few years back the city was enforcing a rule of not placing and selling merchandise on the streets. This was met with much resistance from the Chinese Community.  Placing the business merchandize in front by store is how this community conducts business. Instead allowing this to happen and widening the sidewalks iin Chinatown to promote this sustainable practice the city turns a bind eye.

I was recently at Los Angeles transportation Commission meeting were a group of African-American senior citizen was asking why their crosswalk in front to their church was removed? The LA County had recently repaved the street and removed the crosswalk. The transportation planners said this location did not warrant a crosswalk because their was one a few hundred feet away, crosswalks give pedestrians a false senses of security, and by law you can cross at any intersection mark or unmark.

In Latino neighborhoods the retrofitting of streets is most apparent. In these neighborhoods, the streets serve as plazas by creating a real sense of community, and by bringing people together.  This is evidenced by the higher number of people conversing over fences, children playing on sidewalks and front yards, and teenagers congregating on the sidewalk and street vendors selling food and sundries from door to door.

In many Latino communities, walking is an important form of transportation.  The numerous small neighborhood mom and pop shops that line many commercial and residential strips indicated that most customers walk to these stores.

The streets and sidewalk infrastructure of many Latino communities are designed for cars.  Latinos “throw a wrench” in the design and planning of the city by walking, using public transit, and using streets and sidewalks for purposes other than exiting and entering one’s automobile.

Conclusion

LA’s DIY complete streets are shaped by cultural, political, geographical and economic forces that go beyond transportation planning polices and urban design formulas.  The immediate needs of residents can transform the use of streets, sidewalk, front yards, parking lots in a few minutes.

Different ethnic groups are transforming the once staid ubiquitous suburban streets. Street vendors carrying their wares, pushing carts or setting up temporary tables and tarps, vivid colors, religious shrines, memorials, murals and business signs, clusters of people socializing on street corners and over front yard fences, and the furniture and props that make these spaces usable all contribute to the vivid, unique landscape of the city.  Residents have focused their inventive imaginations on the transformation of the spaces and streets in front of and between structures.  The resulting enacted environment of LA’s streets is a fluid place, one composed of many elements unified by human behavior.  These hard-working people, many newcomers to this country, have created something many other Americans desire:  a vibrant street life, sharp public spaces, and the sense of belonging to a community.