Plaza 2.0: When People St. Plaza Projects are More Than Just Plaza Projects

The future site of Leimert's proposed plaza. 43rd Pl., runs in front of the KAOS Network artspace (on the corner), the Vision Theater (under renovation) and, to the left of the ficus tree, Mark Bradford's film/art/community space (under construction). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The future site of Leimert’s proposed plaza, 43rd Place, runs in front of the KAOS Network art space (on the corner), the Vision Theater (under renovation) and, to the left of the ficus tree, Mark Bradford’s film/art/community space (under construction). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The request that I sign the petition for Leimert Park Village’s People St. plaza application that landed in my inbox the other day made me smile.

Of all the places in the city I can think of, 43rd Place is probably the most appropriate place for a plaza project and the most likely to be able to replicate some of what makes a space a plaza.

For one, the wide and quiet street, running alongside a sizable park space that already plays the role of public square and anchor of the monthly artwalk, will serve as the welcome mat for several important community arts spaces and galleries (see more about that here, here, and here).

As such, it has the potential to serve as a special-occasion spillover space for those venues, doubling as a temporary performance space, outdoor gallery space, or fitness space (capoeira, zumba, yoga, etc.), or play host other creative endeavors.

Mask festival procession in honor of the ancestors in Leimert Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Mask festival procession in honor of the ancestors in Leimert Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Second, the variety of programming an arts-heavy community offers can draw multiple generations of families. Events including the art walk already have a family-reunion sort of feel to them, as it is. More space to test out interactive street furniture, jump rope, or just play can enhance those events and keep the plaza active in between formal happenings.

Third, located within spitting distance of Crenshaw Blvd. — a newly designated “Great Street” — and the coming Metro stop, it will likely serve as an important rest and/or contemplative spot for those exploring the neighborhood.

For these reasons and more, community members have voiced a strong desire to see the creation of a permanent installation that celebrates the area’s cultural and architectural/art deco heritage while also reflecting their hopes for its future as a creative district.

The Sankofa Passage along Degnan St. is adorned with the names of important African-American artists. Their names are surrounded by symbols used to brand slaves. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Sankofa Passage along Degnan St. is adorned with the names of important African-American artists. Their names are surrounded by symbols used to brand slaves (and a Sankofa in each corner). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

It is an approach that puts them slightly at odds with the People St. framework, which offers year-long renewable permits for communities looking to install plazas, parklets, or bike corrals in their neighborhoods, and has a limited menu of standardized design options intended to make the permitting and implementation processes easier. While the program supports the eventual conversion of the installations into permanent fixtures, the initial project itself must be designed as if temporary (i.e. no permanent furniture or public art).

Cognizant of the limits of the program, but still thinking longer-term, the stakeholders appear ready to find the resources to fill in the gaps between what the city can offer and what they need to adequately showcase their community.

They’ve done this sort of thing before.

In late 2007, a five-year effort came to fruition in the form of the Sankofa Passage along Degnan Blvd. (running perpendicular to 43rd Pl.).

The block-length walk is embedded with the names of important African-American artists, stamped with folk art animals, and graced by terracotta African-style planters. The Sankofa birds — Akan (Ghana) symbols signifying the importance of carrying wisdom from your past with you as you move forward — and the slave brands emblazoned around the names of the artists effectively remind you of where you are and who walked before you.

Planters, thatch-wrapped poles, and hanging planters (out of frame) that grace Degnan and other streets in Leimert Park Village.

Planters, thatch-wrapped poles, and hanging planters (out of frame) grace Degnan and other streets in Leimert Park Village. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Across the street from the above planters (and barely visible, above), a parking lot fence is also adorned with lizards and a river-like passage imitating the one stamped into the sidewalk (below).

The Sankofa passage. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Sankofa passage. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

These cultural markers are part of what make Leimert Park Village so special — you are immediately aware you are in a distinct place with a storied, unique history.

This distinction is what the area’s stakeholders seek to build on with their plaza proposal — they have no desire to be mistaken for Silver Lake’s Sunset Triangle Plaza.

The street furniture tends to be bunched up near the businesses. Sometimes people will sit on the curb, but that tends to be as dirty as the plaza surface. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Sunset Triangle Plaza, two years on. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Not that the triangle plaza is so terrible, of course, although it looks worse for the wear and does not yet feel like it is either permanent or has a permanent identity.

The barriers -- while necessary -- are rather unsightly and make movement through the plaza to the intersection at Maltman a little complicated. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The barriers — while necessary, thanks to idiots that kept crashing into the more pliable planters — are rather unsightly and give the plaza a makeshift feel. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

But, the re-branding effort underway as part of the 20/20 Vision Initiative hinges specifically on the marketing of Leimert as a unique and distinct place that is on the threshold of a creative cultural renaissance.

And, while stakeholders share People St.’s goals of reclaiming streets and creating enhanced pedestrian environments, the project is about much more than that for them. It has to be — they are all too well aware that pedestrians won’t arrive more regularly in force until some of the economic and creative development they are trying to foster begins to take root.

Conversations with stakeholders lead me to think they’ve managed to balance those objectives in their proposal and have the wherewithal to work with the city to develop a project that benefits both the community and wider Los Angeles, and that is exciting to see.

If you’d like to learn more about the community’s development initiative, please click here. If you’d like to hear more about the design in person, you can attend the stakeholders’ meeting April 21 (click here) or sign the petition (to be submitted April 29th) in support of their proposal, here.

"The ancestors await you in the village," reads one of the quotes on the building along Degnan. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“The ancestors await you in the village,” reads one of the quotes on the building along Degnan. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog