Leimert Park People St Plaza: Making a Cookie-Cutter Program Fit a Cultural Community’s Aspirations
On my way to a meeting of the Leimert Park Village stakeholders at the Vision Theater a few weeks ago, I poked my head into the art space known as the KAOS Network looking for founder and artist Ben Caldwell.
I found him huddled around a table with Sherri Franklin, the founder of Urban Design Center, and Alison Kendall, Principal Architect at Kendall Planning + Design (both of whom worked on the project pro-bono), finalizing the designs for Leimert Park’s People St. plaza project to be implemented at 43rd Pl. between Leimert Park Bl. and Degnan.
As Kendall and Franklin discussed the color scheme and the type and placement of street furniture and foliage around the perimeter, Caldwell scrolled through images of symbols that they hoped to use to fill in the polka dots that would grace the plaza. It was coming down to the wire, Kendall said, as she flipped through the pages of the plan. They needed to get their design specifications in to LADOT for approval so that the plaza would be ready in time for a soft opening at CicLAvia on December 7.
Watching them go back and forth over which elements would fit within LADOT’s standard kit offerings provided a hint of the effort it had taken to pull the proposal together.
Stakeholders had first needed to find a “community partner” (in this case, the Institute for Maximum Human Potential) who could provide insurance for the plaza, aid with the design, and take responsibility for the financing, maintenance, and programming around the project. Then they needed to gather signatures and letters of support, pull together a budget and list of potential plaza-centric activities, and design the space in a way that felt organic to the community but fit within the standard options that LADOT was offering (see more about the development of the project and the Thought Leadership Team here).
While they had embraced the idea of putting together a People St. project, they had been adamant that they wanted it to reflect the character and culture of the community. It also had to fit into their “20/20 Vision” — the longer-term strategy for the future named, in part, for the year the Leimert Park station of the Crenshaw Line is expected to open.
That strategy entails investing in “the strengths of the Village’s cultural assets, ensur[ing] that future economic development is guided by the area’s rich artistic heritage, harvest[ing] a network of local creative industry human capital, and provid[ing] employable, culturally-centered skill development for the next generation of artists, technicians, and entrepreneurs,” according to the Village’s application for the L.A. 2050 challenge. The larger goal is to put Leimert Park on the map as an important cultural destination in Los Angeles, both as a supportive gathering space/living lab for African-American artists and as a source for cutting-edge and creative work by those artists (see more about the 20/20 vision here and here).
The plaza — to be situated directly in front of Mark Bradford’s Art & Practice art space and studio, the soon-to-be-renovated Vision Theater, and the KAOS Network, and within a few hundred feet of the planned Metro stop — would serve as one of the anchors of that effort. It would also, they hope, serve as a catalyst for pedestrian-oriented improvements along Degnan, which is home to a number of shops, galleries, studios, and places to eat.
That zone is already ground zero for the Leimert Park Art Walk and a number of other cultural events that take place throughout the year. In the not-too-distant-past, it was also the site of a vibrant late-night scene thanks to Richard Fulton and the musicians, poets, and artists from his cafe, 5th Street Dick’s, and The World Stage that filled the evening air with joyful noise.
Drawing inspiration from the terrazzo of the Vision Theater and the community, Sherri Franklin explained at the stakeholders’ meeting this past Monday, the plaza space would be painted a golden brown. The surface would be dotted with beige circles in which cocoa-colored Sankofa birds and other Adinkra symbols would be painted. The Akan symbols were once only seen on cloths worn by community leaders during special occasions. More widely worn now, they still retain their meaning and represent proverbs, depict historical events, or offer some truth about human behavior or the world as the Akan people, an ethnic group in Ghana, understood it.
The Sankofa symbol (above), for example, depicting a bird reaching backwards to retrieve something it left behind, is meant to communicate the importance of carrying lessons from the past forward in order to build a better future.
As the Sankofa has come to be the symbol of the art walk, it will be used as the dominant symbol. The other 54 will be interspersed throughout the plaza. Together, the values and ideas they promote can be used to help guide programming in the plaza, incorporated into educational materials, and used throughout the Village area to tie it together and reinforce the notion that when you enter Leimert Park, you are entering a unique space that is home to a population with a unique cultural heritage.
The creation of the stencils for the symbols and their painting on the plaza will be done by some of the artists in the community, Caldwell said, as LADOT only supplies the basic templates for the dots for their plaza projects (see plaza kits here).
Other elements of the project will also require input and assistance from the community. The current plan is to surround the plaza with an “urban farm lab” consisting of dwarf fruit trees and plants and managed by the Carver program. The plants would be set in wooden boxes built by some of the community’s master carpenters and would be linked to an income-generating sprout farm program for youth at a nearby church. The trees will be part of a rotating “exhibit” — visitors will be asked to comment on the trees they would potentially prefer to see along Crenshaw once the subway construction was completed.
The plaza will also feature wooden benches, bistro-style chairs and tables, and a portable stage, and possibly be complemented by wicker street furniture to be set along the sidewalks of 43rd Pl. and Degnan.
A number of ideas for how to activate the space were suggested on Monday, as well, including fitness classes, youth theater performances, solstice celebrations, open-air movie screenings, dinner-and-discourse events, a dance program modeled after the Music Center’s Dance Downtown, reading circles, and a concert series.
All said, it’s a lot to line up for what is essentially a temporary installation (People St. plaza are pilot programs intended to be in place for a year, with the possibility for renewal). But the stakeholders are hoping that the plaza will eventually be a permanent installation, both as a physical jewel of the community and as a site of creative inspiration and engagement.
For Caldwell, who, together with USC Annenberg Professor François Bar, has run tactical media courses aimed at re-purposing obsolete street furniture to make the public space more technologically interactive, the possibilities are endless.
An activated plaza engaging local youth with tactical media projects he has worked on, including the re-purposed payphone, Sankofa RED, Beats Benches, or a social growing program called Grow It!, he told the stakeholders, could showcase the innovative potential of artists in the area.
It would finally, he said, “show Leimert Park as [not only] bridging the ‘digital divide,’ but leading the charge.”
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You can be present for the soft opening of the plaza at CicLAvia on December 7 or the official ribbon-cutting on King Day (Jan. 19, 2015). But the community could also use a hand with putting the project together between now and then. Donations of plants, wood, tools, and a shed are needed for the planters, benches, and urban farm. And while a gentleman at the Monday meeting generously agreed to cover the cost of the tables for the plaza, they still need donations to help cover the costs of the chairs and other materials.
If you’d like to help out with donations or other assistance, please contact the Urban Design Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the project, how to attend stakeholder meetings, and those involved in the the 20/20 Vision Initiative Thought Leadership Team (who worked on the proposal), please click here.