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Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space

Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space

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Published by John Arroyo
>ABSTRACT
The Los Angeles River is the common physical, social, and cultural thread that connects many of Los Angeles’s most diverse and underrepresented communities, the majority of which comprise the River’s downstream corridor. It is a valuable resource that crosses boundaries of race, class, and human and physical geography. Once a natural and alluvial river, a series of devastating floods led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the 51-mile River with concrete in the 1930s. The River has been forgotten, abandoned, degraded, and largely misunderstood by many ever since.

Artists have taken to the River as a creative venue. Their actions have re-defined the River and have allowed us (and impel us) to re-imagine the River as the civic space that Los Angeles is desperately seeking, but has yet to find, despite many unsuccessful and grand attempts.

This thesis examines the patterns, motivations, and history behind over 40 largely unheralded art projects over a 20-year period along the River’s Glendale Narrows, Lower Arroyo Seco, and downtown Los Angeles segments. It illustrates why generations of artists representing all creative disciplines have been inspired to engage with the River’s concrete form and abandoned nature. From photography to site-specific dance, poetry to new media, these artists have reveled in the un- designed, un-planned, and the spontaneous nature of the River space. They have expressed themselves through place-based work, most of which has been independent of any formal urban planning, urban design, or public policy support or intervention.

While this thesis acknowledges contemporary master planning efforts currently underway to transform the River, it makes a case for the power of underrepresented groups (artists) to create value outside of traditional, formal, and normative urban planning and design interventions reliant on government support, public-private partnerships, and corporate interests. Furthermore, this thesis considers popular critiques and previous interpretations of civic space in Los Angeles. It reviews Los Angeles’s transition from a once mobile, accessible, and largely homogenous city to one of the world’s most diverse and park-poor metropolises without a strong civic space. This thesis provides examples of the Los Angeles’s recent and future attempts to create civic space in downtown Los Angeles and offers alternatives from domestic and international cases reflecting the principles of landscape urbanism, everyday urbanism, and temporary urbanism.

By engaging with the River as space for critical human and cultural expression, the research in this thesis suggests that artists are offering key insights for how to plan, design, and re-imagine the Los Angeles River as civic space.

>COPYRIGHT
Submitted to the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning on May 20, 2010 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master in City Planning            
    
>AWARD
MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), "Outstanding Master in City Planning Thesis Award, 2010"
>ABSTRACT
The Los Angeles River is the common physical, social, and cultural thread that connects many of Los Angeles’s most diverse and underrepresented communities, the majority of which comprise the River’s downstream corridor. It is a valuable resource that crosses boundaries of race, class, and human and physical geography. Once a natural and alluvial river, a series of devastating floods led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the 51-mile River with concrete in the 1930s. The River has been forgotten, abandoned, degraded, and largely misunderstood by many ever since.

Artists have taken to the River as a creative venue. Their actions have re-defined the River and have allowed us (and impel us) to re-imagine the River as the civic space that Los Angeles is desperately seeking, but has yet to find, despite many unsuccessful and grand attempts.

This thesis examines the patterns, motivations, and history behind over 40 largely unheralded art projects over a 20-year period along the River’s Glendale Narrows, Lower Arroyo Seco, and downtown Los Angeles segments. It illustrates why generations of artists representing all creative disciplines have been inspired to engage with the River’s concrete form and abandoned nature. From photography to site-specific dance, poetry to new media, these artists have reveled in the un- designed, un-planned, and the spontaneous nature of the River space. They have expressed themselves through place-based work, most of which has been independent of any formal urban planning, urban design, or public policy support or intervention.

While this thesis acknowledges contemporary master planning efforts currently underway to transform the River, it makes a case for the power of underrepresented groups (artists) to create value outside of traditional, formal, and normative urban planning and design interventions reliant on government support, public-private partnerships, and corporate interests. Furthermore, this thesis considers popular critiques and previous interpretations of civic space in Los Angeles. It reviews Los Angeles’s transition from a once mobile, accessible, and largely homogenous city to one of the world’s most diverse and park-poor metropolises without a strong civic space. This thesis provides examples of the Los Angeles’s recent and future attempts to create civic space in downtown Los Angeles and offers alternatives from domestic and international cases reflecting the principles of landscape urbanism, everyday urbanism, and temporary urbanism.

By engaging with the River as space for critical human and cultural expression, the research in this thesis suggests that artists are offering key insights for how to plan, design, and re-imagine the Los Angeles River as civic space.

>COPYRIGHT
Submitted to the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning on May 20, 2010 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master in City Planning            
    
>AWARD
MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), "Outstanding Master in City Planning Thesis Award, 2010"

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Published by: John Arroyo on Aug 12, 2011
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Civic Space as a Research Finding

The reason why I did not begin, but rather, conclude this thesis with the role of the Los

Angeles River as civic space is because it is collectively the precise undercurrent present in my

research and analysis of arts and cultural activity along the River space. In retrospect, this finding

illustrates why it was a valuable exercise to begin this thesis by considering the value of art projects

along the River, including their degree of occurrence, varied types, and the means by which they were

realized, without simply making this a thesis about public art. In a larger context, the role of art on the

River frames a discussion about how civic space is formed and can be supported and developed in a

place like Los Angeles, where art and culture is a very prevalent, unique, and specific aspect of the city.

Beyond Cultural Policy

Although art is its core topic, the research presented in this thesis goes beyond proposing

new cultural policies to support or finance art-based projects in the Los Angeles River. This is not to say

that cultural policy is not necessary or valuable, but rather it is an over-simplified solution to dealing

with the issue of civic space in Los Angeles head on. While current plans for the River’s future have

already gained momentum, time will tell if the multiple needs and objectives set forth in the Los

Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP) can be realized.

Instead, this thesis acknowledges that the River already serves as a new model for civic space,

one built around art and culture. As a person who was both personally connected to Los Angeles-

based arts activities, as well as an urban planner who formerly worked for the cultural arms of the City

of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles, respectively, my knowledge of arts activity along the

River led me to defend the task at hand.

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While several planning-related efforts have supported arts activities, the support is

piecemeal. Furthermore, most of the artistic projects along the River are covert, under-the-radar, and

relatively unknown. As tension about the future of the River increases, art offers opportunities to

consider the River in a new context.

Arts in Community

Art is an integral part of society. It is a powerful medium that offers a nurturing and safe

environment in which to express ourselves. It reminds us of what we have to offer as both individuals

and members of society, and shows us what we have in common. It helps us understand our history and

viscerally imagine and transform our future. It reminds us of our power to innovate and how the need

to create is essential to our progress and the development of humanity, and thus, our communities.

Without art and culture, we would cease to exist. We would lack a critical ingredient that compels

forward thinking and lose our ability to inspire whom we are and how we wish to be defined.

Art is a powerful and necessary toolset for human growth and understanding that challenges

our potential and improves our lives. It provides hope in moments of uncertainty and struggle, and

unifies us when nothing else will. It teaches us to share our knowledge and provides a vehicle for that

transaction. Without this mechanism for creating a sense of shared experience and common purpose,

we would lose opportunities for improved city-making.

Art is inherent to the evolution of our social and economic systems. We interact with art

everyday—it affects every aspect of our daily lives. It is imbedded in the architecture of our spaces, in

the language we use to communicate, the different types of food we eat, in the music we listen to, the

clothing we wear, and in activities we participate in as a community. “Creativity is a natural impulse—

everyone has the impulse to create, tell stories, and invent things. It is a community asset, even

though it’s often times repressed due to a lack of spaces to express it,” stated Donna Graves, a 2010

Harvard Loeb Fellow and cultural planner at a public lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

In an address given before a concert at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School in

September 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama stated:

“We believe strongly that the arts aren't somehow an 'extra’ part of our national life, but instead we feel
that the arts are at the heart of our national life. It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and
dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future. Our artists challenge our
assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to
view our world in new and very unexpected ways…It's through this constant exchange—
this process of taking and giving, this process of borrowing and creating—that we learn from each other
and we inspire each other. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part…”
(Boehm “Michelle Obama tells international audience why the arts matter”).

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Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, shared similar

sentiments at a January 2010 speech given in Washington, D.C. regarding the Mayors’ Institute on City

Design’s 25th

Anniversary Initiative “…art makes communities better: prouder, more cohesive,

individuated. We know and recognize cities by their special architecture and parks and sculpture

gardens and neighborhood arts fairs…Art not only moves us, it tells the world what is special about

us.”

Artists’ Role in Creating Civic Space Along the Los Angeles River

Artists engaged with the Los Angeles River have taught us how to understand the River as

civic space. A narrative that has grown out of itself, my survey of arts activities along the River

represented the ubiquitous struggle associated with sustaining a unique user-created environment

amidst rapid transition, a lesson which can be applied to many other marginalized groups seeking civic

space in Los Angeles. Despite the pervasive derelict image often associated with the River’s so-called

“abandoned” landscape, artists have engaged to re-imagine the River space through a variety of

external and creative mediums over a span of 25 years.

In this vein, the work of artists engaged with the River has also shown that use is more

important than visual form. While the River is not the most inviting or pleasing landscape, the concept

of aesthetic beauty and the way people derive it is not universal, most especially in Los Angeles, a city

often chided for its lack of classical beauty. In fact, this lack of traditional beauty may present an

opportunity for seeing the value of the River as it exists now, both from the perspective of artists and

the River’s other users.

While urban planners, urban designers, and policy-makers neglected the River, artists worked

collaboratively and independently to create spaces and experiences not available in traditional

recreation areas and cultural facilities such as parks, public plazas, galleries, or museums. Their goal

was not to replace the importance of these formal civic spaces, but rather to exert a new paradigm for

urban planning and urban design where less formal and less conventional forms of creative expression

can occur. While the River space’s utilitarian and raw aesthetic was a major initial attraction, the

subsequent success of these projects has been largely attributed to a lack of enforced formal

structure, governance, design, or other authoritative mechanisms not currently present in the space.

Artists have appropriated the River space as a canvas for art, which subsequently has also

served as a forum for civic dialogue. They have re-imagined the River as more than a just a derelict scar

running through the center of Los Angeles. They have engaged with all aspects of the River space—

concrete pylons, railroad tracks, sand islands, flood control levees, and under bridges—to set the stage

or canvas for their projects. Through their resilient dedication and connection to the space, they have

159

proved that user-generated and managed spaces were successful in fulfilling a void in creative

expression amidst decayed fabric. Their work also proposed an agenda for urban planners, urban

designers, and policy-makers to consider for the future of the River.

Los Angeles River: A Resilient Civic Space?

The River is resilient. It has resisted being appropriated and commodified by private interests.

However, given the nature of most master planning processes, the current Los Angeles River

Revitalization Plan (LARRMP) may challenge this. Overall, the River should be appropriated by the

broadest group of people, rather than by financial or political interests. Urban planners, urban

designers, and policy-makers all share a grand vision for the River. While their attempts are admirable,

they must think beyond traditional scales. The power and potential of the River is neither one that

formal agencies do not fully recognize, nor is it one that can be controlled. It is one that simply exists

and is inherent to the space. Actors along the River must acknowledge this, respect it, and consider

ways to sustain its power.

Civic space is currently a challenged idea due to the fact that it is illegal to be on the River

(only small percentage of the River is officially open to the public). The entire length of the River is a

large no-trespassing zone according to all the agencies that govern the River. Perhaps poet and River

advocate Lewis MacAdams said it best when he stated “We are heading down the River for the first

time.” This is not to say that previous efforts have gone without merit but rather, that for many, despite

the River’s history in Los Angeles, they have yet to ever see it, no less be a part of its future.

In Search of Civic Realism and Simulacrum: Siena’s Piazza del Campo

While economic trends, demographic reports, and the increased popularity of “lifestyle

centers” across Los Angeles may prove Charles Moore’s notion of paying for public life, the real issue

lies in Los Angeles not realizing its alternatives. Projects like the Grand Avenue Project, Park 101, and

other public/private developments are merely simulacra from world-class civic spaces, but ultimately

they should not be compared to such vital and established precedents. This assessment is not anti-

capitalist, but rather realistic regarding the capacity, leadership, and governance structures inherent

in Los Angeles’s attempts to create civic space. The same can be said for malls. Although they are not

true civic spaces, they are regarded as substitutes in absence of the real thing.

This situation calls to mind Peter Rowe’s fascination with Siena in his book, Civic Realism. At

the core of his analysis of urban form and civic life, Rowe stated “A good place to start examining both

the social and physical aspects of viable civic places is with an incontestable example that has

contemporary pertinence and has stood the test of time. Arguably, among all the likely candidates,

160

Siena and the Piazza del Campo stand out as a place where civic life, civic aspirations, and civic

responsibilities have been inscribed indelibly…” (78). In Siena, the Campo is an indelible and shared

community space positioned within an emblematic testament to 19th

century urban design. It is the

heart of Siena and the center of government, social interaction, and tourist activity.

In many ways, Siena’s respect for the Piazza del Campo is both related to it as a civic space as

well as its value as a work of art. The same is true in most of Latin America, where murals inbue the

public and civic life of many buildings. A pertinent example is Diego Rivera’s mural at the Central

University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Murals are also a

very important aspect of vernacular Los Angeles art. This is evident in the liquor stores, churches, and

private homes that lend their walls to being a canvas for this popular form of creative expression. In

fact, Los Angeles’s Eastside is widely known for its mural tradition, one that rivals Mexico City and even

Berlin. Whether they are created by famous artists or amateur painters, murals represent a strong civic

and cultural tradition in Los Angeles and Latin America, similar to the merits of Siena’s Piazza del

Campo.

The Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy.
© esntrain.com

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