'Latino Urbanism' influences a Los Angeles in flux

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Work crews in recent weeks have made major design changes to Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, widening the sidewalks and adding planters, chairs and round cafe tables with bright-red umbrellas where rows of parked cars used to be. The upgrades aim to make the street as welcoming to pedestrians as drivers.

They're also superfluous: the urban-planning equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle. Broadway has for several decades been among the most popular and vital walking streets in Southern California, one typically crowded with Latino shoppers, including many recent immigrants from Mexico.

What's more, Broadway's makeover — which arrives just as some of its discount stores are being replaced in a wave of gentrification by upscale boutiques — happens to take many of its design cues from street life in Latin American cities.

The redesign suggests just how many politicians and policymakers in Southern California are finding inspiration in Latino Urbanism, a term that describes 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.

Planners are adding parks and bike lanes to major streets but also pushing to loosen outdated restrictions, so that murals can be painted in the arts district and street vendors selling tortas or sliced fruit can operate legally. Temporary events like the popular CicLAvia open-streets festival, patterned after a program in Bogota, Colombia, are spurring permanent urban-design changes that challenge the dominance of cars.

"We're seeing what had been a series of informal activities become more formalized," said James Rojas, a city planning consultant and East L.A. native who coined the term "Latino Urbanism."

Rojas sees the influence across the region, from Santa Monica along the coast to Pasadena in the foothills, and especially in Los Angeles itself. "There's a whole official design lexicon that is borrowed from lessons about how Latinos design their homes and interact with their neighborhoods," he said.

The result is that Los Angeles, long a Latino city culturally and demographically, is beginning to resemble a Latino city in terms of how its streets and public spaces are designed. Latino Urbanism, largely the study of how immigrants use Los Angeles, is increasingly reflected in how Los Angeles looks.

What the shift means for immigrants themselves — particularly in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods like downtown or Boyle Heights — is a separate and deeply fraught question.

Hospitable, sociable

For decades in Los Angeles, Latinos have carved out space for entrepreneurial and community-minded activities in a city organized around the freeway and the private house. Largely renters without the connections or capital to remake the architecture of the city, immigrants have found ways to modify an established, largely suburban metropolis around the edges to make it more hospitable and sociable.

In the process they've blurred the line between public and private space that earlier generations of L.A. residents tried to draw as indelibly as possible.

In a neighborhood remade by Latino immigrants, signs are mostly hand-painted, whether they announce an accountant's office or a nail salon. The walls of grocery stores are covered with pictogram-like drawings of milk jugs and boxes of detergent.

Fences are less barriers than thresholds (or impromptu storefronts). Parks are crowded on the weekends, but so are front yards, as birthday parties and other celebrations spill toward the street.

You can see streetscapes like that in well-established immigrant communities like Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. But also in the San Fernando Valley, some of whose northeastern sections are now 70% Latino.

You can even see them in a historically African American neighborhood like Watts, in the front yard of a recent immigrant from Tijuana.

Carmen Quintero, who lives with her extended family in a squat, tan bungalow with peeling white trim along Compton Avenue, has five grandchildren. Their parents work, and a daycare bill times five is daunting. A couple of years ago, to make extra money, she started hanging T-shirts on a chain-link fence along the sidewalk and selling them to people walking by.

Today the house and yard are barely visible behind the canary-yellow soccer jerseys and the girls' blouses, the toys and the bicycles and the giant, listing piles of old CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes. The yard, the front porch and the sidewalk have all been put to use as rooms in Quintero's open-air five-and-dime.

"I can't work because of the kids," she said with a shrug as she stood on the sidewalk. "So I do this."

Now 50% Latino

As L.A. County, which is now just about half 50% Latino, moves into a post-immigrant phase, long-settled immigrants are gaining more than financial security or influence at the ballot box. Increasingly they are seeing the ideas about residential design, public and private space and entrepreneurship they carried with them from their native countries shape official planning policy.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been pushing a Great Streets Initiative that aims to boost what he has called the street-level health of the city. It calls for improvements to several dozen boulevards across the city to make them more hospitable to pedestrians, cyclists and small businesses.

The effort, he said, represents "a shift from the way that our neighborhoods have been planned in Los Angeles," with a new focus on "walkability and transit."

Garcetti has also launched a program called People Street that makes it far easier for residents to add plazas, small parks and bike corrals to their neighborhoods.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who was born in a village in Zacatecas, Mexico, and came with his parents to Los Angeles at age 3, has also advanced changes to the design of streets and public spaces — including on Broadway. He has pushed to legalize street vending and helped reverse the city's mural-painting ban.

"In Mexico, every town has the local plaza, the town square," said Huizar, who has a master's degree in public affairs and urban planning from Princeton. "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."

Garcetti's predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, was the first Latino mayor in Los Angeles in more than a century. His commitment to redesigning the city in the image of Latino Urbanism — making it more walkable and improving the design of public space — was inconsistent.

Even as he worked to dramatically extend public transit, he backed a plan to turn Olympic and Pico boulevards into one-way streets. The change would have pushed car traffic right up to the sidewalk and undermined the appeal of those streets for pedestrians and shoppers.

Now planning ideas drawn from Latino Urbanism — along with a small handful of other sources, such as the writings of Jane Jacobs — are being woven for the first time into the basic frameworks that guide urban planning, architecture and development across Los Angeles.

The city is simultaneously updating three of its key policy rule books: its zoning code, which hasn't been rewritten since 1946; its mobility plan, which governs transportation; and its guidelines for health and wellness, which include recommendations for park space and pedestrian activity.

Draft versions of each suggest a coordinated effort to retrofit the suburban, post-war landscape of Los Angeles for a less privatized era. The mobility guidelines indicate that L.A. streets will increasingly be thought of as complex public spaces rather than just corridors to move cars. The health and wellness plan argues that Angelenos need more neighborhood parks and better and safer places to walk.

The gap between how Latino Urbanism seeks to remake Los Angeles and the way it's been planned from City Hall for decades, largely giving priority to the private realm, is far from closed. Architects and real-estate developers continue to find ways to maintain the profitable status quo. Even Huizar recently drew fire from public-space advocates for siding with a developer seeking approval for a private bridge linking two apartment buildings.

It's also important to keep in mind that the Spanish-speaking immigrant population in Southern California is hugely diverse. Even among Mexican immigrants, regional differences are significant. Families from Oaxaca, many of whom have settled in Koreatown, have different expectations about how the city should be designed than a childless twentysomething from Mexico City who lives downtown.

The Broadway remake is another indication of the challenges that will come with these efforts.

Choosing to lavish so much design attention, however well thought out, on a street that is already pedestrian-friendly and increasingly upscale leaves City Hall open to the charge that it is co-opting rather than expanding the basic ideals of Latino Urbanism. There are plenty of streets across the city where immigrants who can't afford cars struggle to find safe places to walk.

In Highland Park, East L.A. and elsewhere, immigrants are already feeling financial pressure to leave neighborhoods that are being actively remade in their image — or marketed precisely for the appeal that Latino Urbanism has lent their sidewalks and streets.

This spring, real estate agent Bana Haffar, 27, posted fliers downtown urging renters to consider buying houses or condos across the L.A. River in Boyle Heights. The flier described Boyle Heights as a "charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood" and invited prospective buyers on a "free 60 minute bike tour of the neighborhood followed by a 30-minute discussion. Artisanal treats and refreshments provided."

She was blasted with angry responses on Twitter and her Facebook page, accusing her of promoting the sort of gentrification in Boyle Heights that might wipe out the very charm she'd identified there. Haffar — an immigrant from Saudi Arabia — canceled the tour.

"I got a very strong backlash from the community," she said.

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 dominance of car culture over the last half-century, it is remarkable how many of our most successful corridors celebrate walking and some version of sidewalk commerce, authentic or expensively faked, whether it's Olvera Street, the Grove, Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., or Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade.

After decades of building walkable private enclaves — hugely popular escapes from the rule of the automobile — we are finally turning to the design of the streets and sidewalks themselves.

In Los Angeles, a city with deeper Latin roots than Anglo ones, a street remade to mimic Latino Urbanism is a slice of the city both reinventing itself and looking back to some important first principles.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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