Follow a boulevard east from downtown L.A. on any evening or weekend. Once you’re on the Eastside, hang a right or left and notice the neighborhood.
Women chat over wrought-iron fences, older folks sit on porches, teenagers tap into the social activity of the street.
“A typical house in the barrio resembles any house in Los Angeles,” says James Rojas, an urban planner who has studied East L.A. and its residents. “The tremendous difference is in the appearance of community that is formed by the residents’ use of space around the home.”
Here, nothing is a more personal statement or contributes more to the social atmosphere than the front yard--a multiuse spot that may be the scene of an evening chat between two neighbors one night and an intimate family occasion, such as a quinceanera, the next.
No two yards are just alike.
Those with beautiful rose beds, colorful tile walks and an occasional religious figurine are right next to basic ones, sometimes even junkyards where auto work may be a hobby or a livelihood.
Virtually all are fenced, many with personalized arches of wrought iron made in local shops, a skill imported from Mexico.
And as Mexican Americans move out of East L.A. and into the suburbs farther east, “you can actually see the change in the yard,” says Raul Escobedo, an urban planner with Barrio Planners, an architectural design firm based in East L.A. “As they become second and third generation, especially if their income increases, they take on the values of the dominant population--carefully manicured lawns. You don’t want to stand out.”
Indeed, Burma Road in Pico Rivera is a middle-class street in a predominately Latino suburb and, as in most middle-class communities, the frontyards here are uniform. They are unfenced and well-groomed and seldom used for anything other than regular trips to and from the front door.
In the suburbs, it’s the backyards that are used for private family gatherings such as a child’s birthday party, Rojas says.
“It’s still a close-knit community,” Esther Celiz, 50, says about Pico Rivera, where many of her friends came from the old East L.A. neighborhood. “You bring the closeness with you.”
Rojas, 39, began analyzing East L.A.'s yards in 1992 while earning a master’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he had known them since his childhood--his family was one of those who made the move east to the middle class.
He says he chose the topic because he wanted to understand the environment in which he grew up. His studies included the entire range of residents’ use of community space--from painting murals to sidewalk sales.
“That was the beginning of my research: What do people do that makes it their space?” he says.
His work, most recently published this summer in “Urban Latino Cultures” (Sage Publications), has made its way slowly into some university classrooms.
In architecture “they tend to look at buildings, and what people do with them is a different topic,” says Lisa Peattie, an MIT professor emeritus of urban anthropology. “He started the other way: What people do with it [the house] is what gives it a distinct character.”
“What’s unique is that prior to him [Rojas], nobody had thought about public use of space by Latinos in East L.A.,” says Abel Valenzuela, an assistant professor of urban planning and Chicano studies at UCLA. Valenzuela uses Rojas’ research in his classes.
Rojas, who now works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says he hopes his research will help others understand the positive behavior of Latinos in East L.A.--a community outsiders see only from the raised freeways that surround it.
“It’s not all about gangs, it’s not all about violence,” he says. “It’s about people living here and this is how they put their lives together.”
Bungalows Built for Immigrants
East L.A.'s small wooden bungalows were built forrking-class immigrants such as the Eastern Europeans and the Japanese who first inhabited the area. Mexicans and Mexican Americans began to move into the area in the 1940s and have personalized many of the homes.
If anything epitomizes the East L.A. frontyard and its social life, it is the wrought-iron fence with Spanish-style arches and straight bars reminiscent of colonial Mexico, Rojas says. Many are basic black or white, but bright colors such as pink or turquoise are not unusual.
Residents give a hundred reasons why they erected fences: to keep the dogs out, to keep the kids in.
“But when you see the way they actually use the fence,” Rojas says, “it’s a very utilitarian and social use.”
For example, on a stroll any evening one might find two women chatting over the fence.
“People tend to be more social when they have a fence because that gives them a place to hang out at,” Rojas says.
“My sister met her husband across the fence,” adds Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners. “The idea of talking over the fence with neighbors and respecting each other’s property is something that can be considered cultural to East L.A.”
By building fences, the residents move the home’s boundaries from the front door out to the front gate, and the space in between becomes useful, Rojas says.
Courtyard on Rowan Avenue
Ampelio and Maria de Jesus Olmos, who live on Rowan Avenue, south of Olympic Boulevard, built a small courtyard in the middle of their shaded frontyard.
“We drink a soda, an ice cream,” says Maria de Jesus Olmos, 60. “Our neighbors come here to visit.”
Such improvements are commonplace in East L.A., where the middle-class ideal of home ownership is matched with a respect for self-expression, Rojas says. New homeowners often invest thousands of dollars--which they might never recover--adding fences and porches.
“If for some reason I had to sell, it would hurt me a lot,” says Aura Alvarado, 55. She added a porch to her Rowan Avenue home, paid $700 for a specially designed wrought-iron fence, and laid a tile walk between beds of colorful roses. “I have put so much into it with my own hands,” she says.
Roses have long been a favorite in the Mexican garden because, in religious folklore, peasant Juan Diego placed them at the feet of the Virgen de Guadalupe when she appeared to him in 1531.
But not all changes made to East L.A. homes are positive, says Villalobos of Barrio Planners. For example, stucco, a favorite building material in Mexico, has replaced many of the original bungalows’ wood-frame construction, erasing some of the area’s architectural history.
Rojas says the behavior that happens naturally in East L.A. is not much different than that encouraged by the New Urbanism movement in community planning.
Both Seaside, Fla., where “The Truman Show” was filmed, and Disney’s Celebration, Fla., are examples of well-known developments deliberately designed with porches and fences to foster interaction among neighbors and, eventually, develop a strong sense of community.
Villalobos says the company has used Rojas’ concepts in its East L.A. projects.
One, Villas de Castillo, an eight-unit complex at Dennison and Indiana streets, was designed to foster the feeling of home ownership and to encourage social exchange by featuring fences around the units and porches that face one another.
During a recent evening on Rowan Avenue, some residents described just such interaction in the neighborhood but in personal, rather than academic, terms.
“People don’t stay inside their houses here,” says Joe Recendez, a postal worker who lives along the street. “You can ask me who lives four doors down and I can tell you.”
Jose Cardenas can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.