Leimert Park Envisions Infusing Culture into Autonomous Micro Shuttles

A visitor alights from an autonomous micro shuttle in front of the Vision Theater. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.
A visitor alights from an autonomous micro shuttle in front of the Vision Theater. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.

I’ll admit that when people talk to me about self-driving cars, I tend to tune out.

I know all the arguments about safety, efficiency, and the potential transformation of parking. And they certainly have merit.

Some cases more than others.

With apologies to original photographer Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.
Do we really want this guy behind the wheel? With many apologies to photographer Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

I know autonomous vehicles will also be a boon to folks with illnesses or disabilities that limit their mobility. And there are also justice arguments to be made – if the vehicles control speed and maneuvering, it could help limit profiling, meaning there would be fewer opportunities for traffic stops to turn deadly (assuming wide access to this technology, of course).

Still, I can’t reconcile the positive potential of the tech with the fact that we’re talking about private vehicles as a potential livability solution for smoggy gridlocked cities. Especially when making driving less stressful and more convenient works against arguments planners have made for years that it has to be less convenient and less enjoyable if we are ever going to succeed in pushing people to adopt other modes of travel.

But the bigger reason I have tuned out is rooted in something even deeper.

Private vehicles already play a role in isolating, insulating, and disconnecting people from their surroundings. Converting those vehicles into the equivalent of private buses would do little to bridge that divide and would likely further the disconnect between the now more passive occupants – especially those of privilege – and the people around them and the places they pass through.

At least, that’s what I thought until I saw a presentation by the innovators behind Sankofa City – a community design project forging concepts and prototypes for the future of urban technology – at the  Leimert Park Village 20/20 Initiative‘s annual charrette this past January.

The above video, produced in collaboration with Ben Caldwell (artist, filmmaker, and founder of the KAOS Network), Karl Baumann and Professor Francois Bar of the USC division of Media Arts Practice and the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and area artists and stakeholders, Caldwell told stakeholders gathered for the charrette, was only one of myriad ways in which autonomous vehicles could be adapted to enhance residents’ and visitors’ engagement with the historically black community of Leimert Park.

As a test case, it is meant to be part of an ongoing conversation among residents about how they might interpret the technology and put it to use to better their community.

In the vision the video presents, a woman visiting the area boards a shuttle (designed by Raul “Retro” Poblano) and uses interactive displays to learn about historic figures in the area, listen to local artists, and request a stop in front of an important landmark.

The shuttle then glides off on its own to loop around the village, looking for residents or other visitors who might need its services.

A passenger in an autonomous micro shuttle watches performances of local artists and learns about local landmarks. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.
A passenger in an autonomous micro shuttle watches performances of local artists and learns about local landmarks. Screenshot from video produced by Karl Baumann and Ben Caldwell.

A scaled-down version of the vehicle was passed around to the stakeholders to illustrate how easily the low-speed vehicles might be produced in the community via 3-D printing while presenters made the case for the importance of infusing the technology with community culture.

During the 1992 unrest, artist and presenter Rahsan Cummings said, a gathering of drummers in the park fortified and lifted the heavy hearts of those seeking refuge in Leimert Park. The powerful drumming also created a kind of peaceful, protective shield around them that many believe kept the National Guard at bay during those tense days.

It was, for those that lived through it, yet one more example of how communities of color have deployed culture as a form of resistance. Histories painted on walls, painful truths spoken in stories and songs, the open celebration of culture in public spaces – these are all ways in which communities of color have retained their integrity, asserted their power, and engaged in community healing.

Within such a context, autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies are just one more landscape into which community stories can and should be woven.

And rather than wait to have to adapt their complex realities to technology that was not made for them or with their needs in mind, Caldwell tells me in a recent conversation, there is a unique opportunity for communities of color to leave a significant mark.

The tech industry hasn’t done much work with cultural communities in ways that a) re-frame the vehicles as opportunities for connection, communication, and cross-cultural community-building or b) will produce a product that can be easily integrated into the fabric of or act as a catalyst for economic development within those communities. The Sankofa City innovators appear to be doing both.

In doing so and “disrupting” the tech before it has been made available to the mass market, Caldwell says, Leimert Park could become a point source for the tech itself as well as a source of support for other cultural communities that are also experiencing encroachment by gentrification.

The potential contributions the autonomous shuttles could make to Leimert Park Village’s efforts to enhance the visibility of the local culture and nurture economic development would be more than welcome.

As we’ve documented here, area stakeholders have spent the past few years trying to get out ahead of the 2020 arrival of the Crenshaw/LAX Line and the opening of the station in the heart of the village. Cognizant that new transit hubs tend to fuel gentrification and having already seen turnover pick up speed around the historically black community, stakeholders have worked diligently to establish a hub for black creatives grounded in the cultures and traditions of the African diaspora before it is too late. Plans in that regard include the building of a new cultural center on a parking lot behind the Vision Theater and the creation of versatile community-serving work spaces that can be used for retail, performance, and film and music production.

For the last few years, the collective of KAOS, USC, and community members have supported these efforts with an ongoing series of urban experiments. They repurposed street furniture – including a payphone dubbed Sankofa Red and a bench that can be used to create beats – and imbued their prototypes with more culturally relevant, community-serving, and story-gathering capacities.

The collective also helped design and bring to fruition the People St plaza – a section of 43rd Place in front of the historic Vision Theater that was transformed into a pedestrian plaza in 2015 (below).

The Sankofa bird is a symbol of the art walk and has come to be central to the image of Leimert Park Village in that it embodies the notion of remembering to bring the past with you as you move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The Sankofa bird is a symbol of the art walk and has come to be central to the image of Leimert Park Village in that it embodies the notion of remembering to bring the past with you as you move forward. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Co-opting self-driving shuttles to serve as cultural portals, Caldwell suggests, is a way to use the tech to ensure the local community is strengthened and retains its integrity even as the community invites outsiders to visit.

Local artists and businesses would be the ones to reap the benefits from interactive videos informing shuttle passengers about landmarks and cultural symbols, the area’s history, heritage, and notable figures, art and music produced in the area, and upcoming cultural events. Elders could be connected to younger generations via storytelling portals (while also benefiting from the greater independence the shuttles would afford them), tightening community bonds. Culture and ways to engage and enrich it would be kept at the forefront of community conversations among the locals that boarded the shuttles. And the demand for content and the production of the vehicles themselves could help drive innovation and the creative economy within Leimert Park.

But again, this is just one of many ways forward. While the Sankofa City innovators will continue to run more community workshops, produce more test videos, and tweak their designs, they appear to be clear that the actual steps the community takes depend on the future stakeholders envision for themselves.

“Help us build this together. Because it takes togetherness in order for a community to work,” says Caldwell in the Sankofa City fundraiser video (above). “Help us build this together.”

For more information, check out the Sankofa City Facebook page. For more on the Leimert Park Village 20/20 Initiative, visit their webpage here.

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