Tag: Art


The 43: Remembering Ayotzinapa

Maricela Becerra
Lucy Seena K. Lin
Gus Wendel


Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’

Tragedy does strange things to our conception of proximity. Sometimes we can connect more easily to another’s suffering in a different country than we can to a tragedy a few miles away. In the expanse of Southern California, where the experience of urban space is fragmented into disconnected islands of community, what does a mass shooting in San Bernardino, at the urban periphery, mean to someone living in the city of Los Angeles proper? How do Angelenos process an act of violence toward a queer, primarily Puerto Rican, community at an Orlando nightclub? Post-feminist cultural theorist Judith Butler, when writing about the conditions for a “grievable life” makes an “appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”What can we hope to recover by offering our grief across territories in search of a collective memory in this current era of cultural plurality and technological interconnectedness? Los Angeles, as one of the world’s centers of artistic and cultural production, is a laboratory for interrogating the role of art, informality, and grieving in the global twenty-first century. The case of the forty-three disappearedstudents from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico—a tragedy that reverberated throughout the world—has illuminated Los Angeles’ particular role in the production of collective memory.

On 26 September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared from Iguala, a city in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Guerrero is a largely rural state with a majority indigenous population, many of whom leave their home region as economic migrants in search of jobs in other Mexican cities and in the United States. With the bodies of two students recovered to date, forty-one students remain missing. Gema Santamaría, Professor of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, claims that the Mexican government’s lack of transparency and efficacy in the investigation process reflected its lack of accountability in the aftermath. Indeed, public perception increasingly viewed local law enforcement and the federal government as complicit in the disappearances. “Ayotzinapa ‘fue el Estado’ inasmuch as it was and continues to be the result of impunity and systematic practices of abuse within different levels of government.”3

In Los Angeles, mourning for the students has taken the form of what we call “anti-memorialization,” whereby traditional forms of memorialization are upended through informality, ephemerality, art, and the digital realm, in order to politicize and bring attention to an injustice. While informal memorials have existed as long or longer than their formal counterparts, anti-memorialization moves these informal memorials into the contemporary reality of a digitally networked world and pushes them from private mourning to public activism.There was also an outpouring of protests, demonstrations, and informal memorials throughout Mexico in response to the disappearances, with the largest demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands on the streets of Mexico City. The global response was no less overwhelming: groups of students, local organizations, artists, activists, and other mourners posted their rituals and protests online to signal their solidarity with the friends and families of the disappeared students, and with the Mexican nationals demanding accountability from their government. The reactions and the incident itself went largely unreported by formal local and global news outlets and instead leapfrogged into the digital realm, where a keyword search of “Ayotzinapa” produced numerous links to a variety of alternative online-style reportage, including blogs, political media sites, YouTube pages, and Twitter feeds and hashtags. The Global Anti-Memorial Map for Ayotzinapa’s 43 locates and catalogs the cities where the anti-memorialization activities were presented first in physical form and then posted and shared online. The public anti-memorials ranged from mass protests, demonstrations of candlelit ceremonies, public performances to the recurring motif of empty school-style chairs that symbolized the missing bodies. Documented and archived on the Internet, these acts represent the beginning of a globally oriented collective memory of mourning and protest.


Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’

Seven months after the disappearance of the forty-three students, families and other activists installed a metal sculpture reading “+43” on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. Along the sidewalk, the phrase “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (“Because they were taken alive, we want them back alive”) was painted. The installation of “+43” was accompanied by no formal ceremony; there were no government officials present. Rather, the installation of what the activists called an “anti-monument” was a public challenge to the Mexican government that had failed to provide any answers. The anti-monument expresses the public’s refusal to accept death as the final condition. Moreover, the anti-monument’s appropriation of public space, just blocks away from formal memorials to Mexican history Ángel de la Independencia and the Monumento de la Revolución, contests the national discourse of what is worth remembering. With the large metal sculpture by an anonymous artist came a warning: if the Mexico City government removed the anti-monument, they would be seen as accomplices of the crime.Several people volunteered as guards of the anti-monument in order to keep it safe.

In Los Angeles, as in Mexico City, the proliferation of anonymous street art, in the form of stenciled and spray-painted icons of the number “43,” political text, and unplanned sidewalk altars nearly two years after the reported disappearance, reflect ongoing informal calls for justice. In an art installation by Consuelo Flores, images of each of the forty-three students are interspersed with floating cutouts of flora and fauna, all suspended above a shrine of red handprints on paper sheets and stones placed in a formation that surrounds a single, black fabric-covered desk to symbolize the student status of the disappeared. The piece was part of an exhibit sponsored by Boyle Heights–based arts organization Self Help Graphics and Art entitled 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The exhibition anti-memorializes not just the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, but victims of police brutality in the United States as well, linking the two social movements across national borders. This anti-memorial was part of a larger, three-part exhibition, Ayotzinapa: A Roar of Silence, which took place over sixteen weeks and involved three other local arts organizations dedicated to social justice: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and Art Division.

Embedded in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson is a cosmopolitan orientation, initiated by the international call for poster art by the Oaxacan-Mexican artist and activist Francisco Toledo to universities, museums, and art communities. The request was Toledo’s way of grieving with mourners around the world, and his action prompted local and global linkages that amplified the otherwise isolated anti-memorialization acts through the organization of political arts spaces in Los Angeles. The coalition among the four arts organizations, prompted by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, is movement-building akin to the sort of organizing in which political activist groups engage. As a group, these organizations assumed the mantle of public accountability even as they contended with their own missions, communities, political and aesthetic principles, and precarity as small, struggling organizations.Shown sequentially, the exhibitions amounted to what the LA Times called an “arts festival of protest” by providing a platform for artists to memorialize the victims, for the immediate public to participate in the related programming, and as a cry for Angelenos to resist structural injustice.

The local and global proliferation of anti-memorials undoubtedly places pressure on those responsible—in particular the complicit Mexican government—to provide answers, to hold someone accountable, and in short, to act. Yet the extent to which the Mexican government cannot ignore its citizens’ demands would seem to depend on the intensity and duration of those demands. In other words, it depends on the degree to which the mourning of the event translates into permanent, collective memory.

According to French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the theory of collective memory alludes to the idea that “knowledge about the past is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities such as small informal groups, formal organizations, or nation states and global communities.”In light of the 2014 event, collective memory has been shaped and defined by cultural or “collective trauma.” The collective memory of trauma is the “memory of an event or situation that is laden with negative affect, represented as indelible, and seen as threatening to a society’s existence or violating its cultural presuppositions.”8

The instances of ongoing violence in Mexico, government culpability, and state-sanctioned violence are not new to Mexico’s history. In 2013, according to the country’s national statistics institute, 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported.During the Ayotzinapa investigation in Iguala, approximately 129 unidentified bodies of disappeared individuals turned up in mass graves unrelated to the Ayotzinapa students.10 Journalist Cesar Martinez wrote that the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, and the forty-three Ayotzinapa students represent the two cultural traumas that have most permeated “Mexican society, political discourse, and civilian dialogues,” in the sense that these events have “usurped a society’s fears and memorialized them as an indicator to prevent a similar case from occurring.”11 To what extent has the collective memory in the aftermath of Mexico’s two “biggest” traumas led to collective action and social change, so that such traumas may never again take place?

Martinez argues that the “collective memories” of 1968 and 2014 have produced art, formal and informal monuments, and film, but no concrete legal accountability for the perpetrators.12 Knowing this, we must ask, is legal accountability the only type of accountability that is valuable to track in these events? In the case of the exhibition at Self Help Graphics, art is the mechanism through which awareness is raised by creating a participatory public, one that invests itself in social change over the long run. While high art is often complicit with the negative externalities of globally networked capital, this kind of participatory, socially engaged, and bottom-up art can be a powerful force for good. In other words, it takes time—and art can be a vehicle through which memory is sustained through time. This is especially important when accounts of “what happened” become increasingly contested.13 It might be better to say, then, that it is the quality and diffusion of the memory of the forty-three students that will ultimately determine the degree to which justice is served. Contemporary memory production, or anti-memorialization, sustains the memory of structural violence to drive the search for justice using tools of the digital age.

Los Angeles has become a key hub in the mourning for Ayotzinapa through its three-part exhibition which extended and amplified its place as a global tragedy. The exhibitions moved the anti-memorials into the gallery, effectively transforming the products of grief and outrage into objects of cultural and aesthetic import. These actions are not to monetize or to fetishize grief. On the contrary, their place in a respected art institution in Los Angeles, a city widely recognized as a cultural capital, state that the issue is important, and that the community of those affected extends from a handful of families in Guerrero to you, a visitor to this gallery.14 Self Help Graphics further localizes a globally diffused mourning by inviting forty-three Southern California–based artists to take part in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The artwork they produced grieves for not only Ayotzinapa victims, but also Los Angeles and the United States, with their histories of institutional violence against people of color. Given the large population of people of color—both immigrants and native-born—Los Angeles as a place embodies this in a heightened sense. In addition, Los Angeles is home to a substantial Mexican population, and specifically communities of indigenous Mexicans from the rural states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guerrero.15 For these communities residing in the United States, they receive news of kin and kith in Mexico digitally, primarily from their online social networks. This is also how information of their transnational communities disperses, creating pathways moving between the local and global. The timeliness of the exhibition speaks to Los Angeles’ unique capacity as a migrant-concentrated, metropolitan node and a center for cultural and artistic production to respond with anti-memorialization, and an exhibition designed to travel beyond its geographic boundaries.


Ayotzinapa anniversary march in Mexico City, September 2015. Photograph by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, via Flickr.

The deluge of submissions to Francisco Toledo, totaling 700 pieces of poster art from locales like Iran, Denmark, Poland, Lebanon, Cuba, and Argentina, and the global manifestation of anti-memorial events, collectively represent the emergence of an extensive interconnected transnational network. This network understands the need for acts of solidarity and the knowledge that the aggregation of voices affects how movements, and, therefore, social change takes place. At a fundamental level, the need for global mourning, for a collective memory, and for what theorist Paul Gilroy calls a “cosmopolitan hope”16 to pursue a globalized humanistic existence is made abundantly clear. This is the learned need for solidarity of a cosmopolitan global community interconnected by digital culture that expresses their agency from below rather than waiting for or expecting that their governments and legal systems will enact the necessary justice. The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson exhibit is a reminder that when communities here and abroad come together to mourn and demand justice via art, the work produced not only serves as a reminder to reflect on these tragedies, it is a deliberate call to action for us all.


A Day of the Dead offering to the disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Las Vegas. Photograph by Marco Mora-Huizar, via Flickr.


1 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 2.

2 Desaparecido (the Spanish word for “disappeared”) has a different connotation in Mexico than its English translation. In Mexico, “disappeared” is an active verb rather than a passive adjective. To call the forty-three students “disappeared” is to suggest that someone actively made them disappear.

3 Gema Santamaría, “Ayotzinapa: An Unheard Cry for Justice,” OpenDemocracy, 25 June 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/gema-santamar%C3%ADa/ayotzinapa-unheard-cry-for-justice.

4 For more on the new relationship between digital networks and political activism, see Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015).

5 David Vicenteño, “Colocan ‘Antimonumento’ 43 en reforma por normalistas de Ayotzinapa.”

6 “We’re building threads of unity in order to survive,” Bernstorff says, “because we’re all small organizations, with similar struggles. We don’t survive alone; we survive as a unit.” Deborah Vankin, “A poster exhibit stopping in LA gives voice to Mexico’s missing 43 students,” LA Times, 16 February 2016, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-ca-cm-43-students-missing-sparc-20160221-story.html.

7 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992), 42.

8 Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004), 31–59.


10 https://news.vice.com/article/ayotzinapa-a-timeline-of-the-mass-disappearance-that-has-shaken-mexico.

11 César Martínez, “68, 43: Analyzing the Collective Memories and Cultural Traumas of Mexico’s Most Infamous Atrocities,” 68 43, 4 May 2015, https://mexico6843.wordpress.com/68-43-analyzing-the-collective-memories-and-cultural-traumas-of-mexicos-most-infamous-atroicities/.

12 Ibid.

13 Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 28, 4.

14 See again Castells’ Networks for more on the roles that community and what he calls “togetherness” play to spark political change.

15 Lisa Kresge, Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: An Overview (Davis: California Institute for Rural Studies, 2007).

16 “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high[…].” Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 67.


Before a Justice for All march in Washington DC, December 2014. Photograph by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr.

Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.

Lucy Seena K. Lin is a master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines cultural production in everyday practice and in building resilience and vitality of communities.

Gus Wendel is pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at University of California, Los Angeles. He is interested in the ways that visual culture informs planning and design, the politics of place and space, and urban planning history.


Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner

Dana Cuff
Jennifer Wolch

The flow of the Los Angeles River, ever-precarious and never navigable, attracted settlement along its shifting course for centuries. When the cataclysmic 1938 flood followed on the heels of lesser, recurrent flooding, the straightening and channeling of fifty-one miles of the river began in earnest, until engineers had riven the city with a concrete conduit from the Chatsworth hills to the South Bay. The channel was built to contain the water, measured in cubic feet per second, predicted to flow during a 100-year flood event. This technocratic solution precluded other forms of the Los Angeles River from emerging. Once channelized, only those alternatives in keeping with its infrastructural identity were conceivable. Therefore, when freight traffic congestion at the Los Angeles–Long Beach Port grew intolerable in the 1980s, the new vision promoted for the river was to pave over it to form a truck freeway. A new river wasn’t inscribed in the public imagination until a motley crew of poets, artists, outlaw kayakers, park advocates, cyclists, wildlife advocates, neighborhood activists, and academics turned attention to those fifty-one miles, with all the futurities such a new narrative might permit. Their interventions, ranging from policy proposals to public art actions, opened up the region’s population as well as its politicians to a different spectrum of imagined possibilities—that is, that the LA River is an actual river.

At each stage in the recent history of the LA River, people brought with them motivating ideas about the city—what it is, where nature belongs, what history is inscribed there. These ideas are the foundations for conventional wisdom about practices such as flood control, appropriate levels of risk, how to improve extant conditions, or whose interests matter. The narratives that grow from those foundations govern the spectral array of possibilities. For example, the responses to flooding in the context of a channelized river are unlikely to begin with anything other than a channelized river; the most likely proposal is for a deeper channel. But there is no reason for conventional thinking to remain so constrained. What we call “urban humanities” produce historically grounded conjectures, launched from the present toward an unknown future, that depend on and simultaneously help construct new urban imaginaries.


The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

When poets such as Lewis MacAdams staged readings from the middle of the LA River in the last decades of the twentieth century, the public’s historical perception of the river migrated from a concrete site of danger and water-borne pollution risk, toward a place for human creativity and wildlife habitat—even though not a single piece of concrete channel had been removed.This example demonstrates the radical power of urban humanities, for which we offer this manifesto. To escape digging deeper channels to solve urban problems, cities instead can be transformed at the creative intersection of design, urbanism, and humanist perspectives. The manifesto is more than a declaration of principles; it is a call to action for scholars to become engaged, creative practitioners.

At the University of California in Los Angeles and in Berkeley, we are working in tandem to develop knowledge about urbanism that weaves together perspectives from architecture, city planning, landscape architecture, and the humanities in order to create much-needed, transformational urban practices. Under the auspices of a Mellon Foundation international program aimed at encouraging multidisciplinary dialogue and pedagogy focused on cities,2 California is one test bed for exploratory intellectual configurations of urban inquiry focused on global metropolitan regions on the Pacific Rim. We propose that a particularly rich terrain for both intellectual reflection and action occurs at this confluence of urban humanities. Two questions that motivate our collaborative efforts warrant further consideration here. First, what conditions spark the desire for new ways of thinking through cities, particularly ways that entrain the humanities? And second, what might a contemporary California-based effort contribute to new urban understandings?
The need for creative practices

The case of the LA River illustrates that the city as an object of study intrinsically carries implications about action and about the future. Questions about the city are fundamentally questions about our situated, collective existence—not only our histories and contemporary circumstances, but how our shared lives could and should evolve. In contrast to many disciplinary objects of study, urban humanist scholars have something at stake. Their epistemologies matter, because the products of their scholarship engender a speculative project concerning possible urban communities and, therefore, hold public significance.

We need creative practices to address the range of issues that confront contemporary cities—issues such as social justice, economic development, and environmental quality. Urban humanities emphasize innovative methods and practices, which evolve along with shifting epistemologies. This view stands in contrast to a current dominant narrative which holds that contemporary cities depend upon attracting a creative group of citizens.3 While blue collar jobs and manufacturing marked the vitality of cities like Detroit at the turn of the twentieth century, and a services-based consumer economy fueled late-twentieth-century growth in cities such as Los Angeles, cities in the coming decades will depend on innovative tech-startup founders, creative designers, and bold eco-entrepreneurs, a population most visible today in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it is now apparent that these populations bring new problems along with new economies.

A wide array of disciplines, from the physical sciences to art history, hold potential for creative urban practices. Such practices involve a disruption of existing ideas and the definitive transgression of boundaries that govern existing urban thought. There have been productive breaches of disciplinary boundaries—urban planning and geography in the form of geographical information systems (GIS), or architecture and computational science in the case of digital design. Now, with big data and the “city science” movement enriching our understanding of urbanism, the absence of a humanist perspective in urban thought is brutally apparent. The number of households living below the poverty line in Mexico City, toxic air emissions in proximity to freeways in Los Angeles, suicide rates among Tokyo’s youth, or miles of subway built in Shanghai over the last decade—such cold metrics need translation via history, narrative, and interpretation if they are to make a meaningful difference and influence creative practice and novel approaches in each city’s evolution.

Experiments in urban humanities

For new structures of knowledge based on multiple disciplines to emerge, two conditions must be met. First, there must be an object of interest that defies conventional logic and resists constructive change. For us, this common object of interest is the city itself, along with the many challenges it poses, such as segregation, congestion, and affordable housing, but also, proximity, precarity, and identity. Second, those who try to collectively address the issue at hand must be willing to transgress boundaries that separate their fields of expertise and modes of urban understanding. It is worth reflecting here upon what we mean by “the city,” which is used synonymously with the urban. Ours is a wide net with a tight weave, one meant to catch material artifacts, cultural nuance, literary accomplishment, social relations, and power struggles that collide in space over time. By “city,” we mean situated collective life emplaced in an urban context, comprised of historical interpretation, material environments, contemporary culture, and speculative futures. Therefore, the name “urban humanities” captures the metropolitan dialectic between space and humanism.

Perhaps the most widely recognized fields of expertise considered relevant to urban concerns are design and planning along with engineering and the physical and social sciences. But what of the humanities? Those fields that aim to understand history, the arts, meaning, expression, and experience make substantial contributions to our thinking about cities and culture. From classicists to contemporary film scholars, humanists enrich an understanding of situated collective life. Yet, we are uncertain about just how that scholarship ought to contribute to urban practices, broadly defined. At least since Plato’s Republic, the tangled web of urban social life comprised utopian narratives. But if the death of this genre has been proclaimed, it gives rise to other kinds of narratives. As suggested by the LA River example, the possibility of the river as a greenway linking diverse neighborhoods throughout the city emerged with humanities-oriented creative practitioners reinterpreting this metropolitan seam and critical site of urban infrastructure.


CONFLUENCE, a dance piece, performed where the Los Angeles River meets the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Photograph by Catherine Gudis.

Only through sharing a common object of interest—the city—are we effectively bridging disciplinary divides. At UCLA and Berkeley, we are integrating the humanities and humanistic social sciences into the epistemological mix. Students and faculty have joined from history, area studies (e.g., Asian Languages and Culture, Latin American Studies), film studies, literature, performance studies, art practice, anthropology, ethnomusicology, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning. Using the rubric “urban humanities,” we have taken global cities of the Pacific Rim as our objects of interest at the broadest level, knowing that they defy conventional logics and need creative practices—and creative practitioners—to instigate new urban possibilities.

Over the past three years of this exploration, we have learned that when designers, urbanists, and humanists come together to explore some particular urban concern, there are no ready terms of analysis, grounds for interpretation, or prescriptive responses. Creative practices for engaging the concern have to be invented. Even the dimensions of any issue must be detected.

When architects consider urban density, for example, they are likely to give it material dimensions (measured in square footage or building mass, etc.) and to consider program (such as density of housing, parks, or commercial space), whereas planners will consider some of the above as well as policy (such as floor area ratio maximums) and metrics (such as residents per acre). What humanists add to the conversation is as vast as the disciplines that comprise the humanities. For example, density might be reformulated as proximity in terms of social relations between neighbors, cultural representations in film and fiction, or tensions around constructs of property. A history of the idea as well as the emplaced idea (proximity in a specific city, such as Mexico City) is informative. By broadening the basis for imagining the city, we intrinsically engage history that imparts a critical perspective on the present, enriching our understanding of contemporary circumstances, which in turn adds new dimensions to our speculations about future conditions. If we learn how proximity, in its relevant forms, is managed in the packed informal settlement zones in Mexico City—whether through the artful orientation of houses or community-based mediation processes for conflict resolution—we might begin to understand the braided system that any new densities must reference and deploy.

At the same time, a focus on the city has the power to reshape the humanist project to at least some extent. Exposed to alternative forms of pedagogy and practice, place-based speculative exploration, and a project orientation, the humanities may bolster their relevance to the everyday and the future. In so doing, they may dramatically disrupt conventional urban approaches and move from the sidelines to the center of urban activism. As the humanities undergo a marked transformation with challenges to postwar area studies designations along with energized alliances from digital to environmental humanists, activism is a distinctive characteristic of urban humanists. Rather than utopian narratives, activism underscores the significance of creative urban practices that have real world consequences and take positions that engender conscientious action. Criticism has not lost its value, but yields an additional dimension—one that bears the risk of speculation about the future. Returning to the river, poems drift out from the poets’ public readings to form collective visions in and about the urban landscape that in turn guide new possibilities for action.

That these experiments are happening in California and focus on Pacific Rim cities matters. When Saul Steinberg created his ironic 1976 “map” for the cover of The New Yorker entitled “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” its westward gaze portrayed everything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean as a deserted wasteland. Indeed, American urban histories have typically looked the other direction, across the Atlantic toward ancient Greece and Rome, and the Medieval and Renaissance cities of Europe. Within the United States, New York and especially Chicago undergird our urban imaginaries; the latter provided the dominant model of the city with a singular commercial-industrial core surrounded by concentric residential rings of decreasing density and increasing socioeconomic status. This model was held to be true even though the twentieth century cities of the Southwest bore little resemblance to Chicago or other earlier gridiron economies and cultures.

Not until the mid-1980s did a group of academics codify this new order—and they were from the West Coast. Building on Michael Dear, Mike Davis (both in this issue), as well as Reyner Banham’s famous “four ecologies,” the Los Angeles School counter-posed a new polycentric suburban logic in which the hinterland organized the center, against the bull’s eye urban form forwarded by the Chicago School. Both of us played some small role in the LA School debates, when it was useful to consider the sprawling Southern California metropolis as paradigmatic.4 Whether neo-Marxist or postmodern in terms of theoretical bent, the future envisioned by LA School scholars involved further racial and ethnic segregation, advancing environmental degradation, fragmented governance, and technology-driven spatial and class divides, with little hope for more optimistic urbanities. Davis’s City of Quartz presaged a bleak future that stemmed from surrounding trauma at the time—from Rodney King and the 1992 LA Uprising to the 1994 Northridge earthquake; from Blade Runner to ballooning homelessness and Reaganomics. The LA School was dominated by planners and geographers with little benefit from architecture or the humanities. However, it is not clear that adding designers and humanists would have changed the tenor. Since that time, several turning points have caused new directions to seem more plausible: the city’s first Latino mayor was sworn into office in 2005, the seemingly endless sprawl of the city reversed when thousands of new housing units were built downtown, and artist-activist Lauren Bon turned thirty-two acres of urban wasteland into cornfields. Her next project, “Bending the River Back into the City,” will create sustainable public spaces along the LA River through the artistic engineering of a spectacular waterwheel and dam. Projects like Bon’s can open a future for the city that was hardly imaginable before, one that lifts up communities, the arts, and the environment simultaneously.

Urban humanities at Berkeley and UCLA are founded on this augmented LA School, taking into account the area’s role in the twentieth century as global producer of urban imaginaries through arts, film, music, and design, from Hollywood to hip-hop to Frank Gehry. Now, urban humanities must ask what the twenty-first century might bring.

Over time, LA scholarship has increasingly emphasized the region’s pervasive links to the Pacific Rim, along with its cultural hybridity, artistic effervescence, and openness to transgressive identities. Humanists contributed to this regional understanding, with the emergence of the digital humanities generating broad (if controversial) interest in big data and multimedia visualization for creating narratives of place and the formation of urban identities. At the same time, the rise of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area’s techno-youth culture is shaping academic ideas about urban futures in a context of deepening inequality, gentrification, and worries about climate change. Drawing on the public arts, creative place-making, design innovation, the DIY “maker” movement, and digital technology powered by big data, speculative ideas about the city have become more nuanced, tactical, political, and material (as illustrated by several of the articles in this issue).


Porciuncula, an installation on the LA River made of balloons filled with the river’s fragrance: ‘‘grass, ocean air, desiccated concrete, industrial zoning, railyards, soda cans, wild animals.’’ By LA-BOR (Jia Gu and Jonathan Crisman), 2015. Photograph by Monica Nouwens.

As such, the urban humanities constitute an emergent epistemology arising from this multidisciplinary confluence in this specific place. It is just this sort of creative discipline-crossing scholarship that can encourage new historical narratives, new contemporary interpretations of culture, and open speculation about urban futurities. In short, a manifesto for urban humanities rests on the conviction that such place-based, engaged scholarship and pedagogy will produce cadres of creative—as well as reflective—practitioners.


We can distinguish between predictable next steps in addressing problems (an urban equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s normal science) and speculative, engaged approaches. The aim of urban humanities is not to create visionary, utopian schemes or science fiction scenarios, but instead to open new paths of possibility. For thick mapping, see Todd S. Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); for futurity, see Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); for crisis and revolution, see Eric Cazdyn, “Disaster, Crisis, Revolution,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007): 647–662.

The Mellon Program, started in 2012, is called Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, and has funded a series of related academic projects in over a dozen universities.

The term “creative” seems more ubiquitously applied to new developments than the term “green,” as in creative office or creative class. Popular adoption of Richard Florida’s ideas about the latter have done little to expand our understanding of the metropolis or guide cities toward more humane futures.

Members of the Los Angeles School included Michael Dear, Mike Davis, Ed Soja, Michael Storper, and Alan Scott, among others.

Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.

Jennifer Wolch is professor of urban planning and geography, and dean of University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. Her most recent work analyzes connections between city form, physical activity, and public health, and seeks to address environmental justice issues by improving access to urban parks and recreational resources.


Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 2016



Read the latest from Boom California, Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 2016.  All articles from this issue are free and open to read.


From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton

The Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this fall in California
Boom Staff

What Are the Urban Humanities?
Anthony Cascardi, Michael Dear

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner
A manifesto
Dana Cuff, Jennifer Wolch

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Practicing the Future
Exercises in immanent speculation
Jonathan Crisman

The 43
Remembering Ayotzinapa
Maricela Becerra, Lucy Seena K. Lin, Gus Wendel

Monumental Hydraulics
Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the water temples of San Francisco
Rafael Tiffany, Susan Moffat

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley
Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity
Lauren Kroiz

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff
Mike Davis

The Battle of the Bulb
Nature, culture and art at a San Francisco Bay landfill
Susan Moffat

Waves of Data
Illuminating pathways with San Leandro Lights
Greg Niemeyer

Hanging Out with Cyclists
Noam Shoked

Seeking Literary Justice

La Caja Mágica in Boyle Heights
Maricela Becerra, Cat Callaghan, Will Davis, Grace Ko, Benjamin Kolder, Alejandro Ramirez Mendez

Neither Here Nor There
Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles
Dana Cuff, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Learning the City
Developing new networks of understanding

Jonathan Banfill, Angélica Becerra, Jeannette Mundy

The Inside-Out Museum/The Inside-Out University
A Conversation
Walter Hood, Shannon Jackson

Urban Humanities Pedagogy

The classroom, education, and New Humanities
Jonathan Banfill, Todd Presner, Maite Zubiaurre


The Other LAPD

by Catherine Gudis

Homeless and formerly incarcerated people making art in LA’s Skid Row

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Based in Los Angeles’s Skid Row and comprised largely of the area’s formerly homeless, the Los Angeles Poverty Department creates performances from the writings, stories, and experiences of its participants. The mission of LAPD (yes, their acronym is purposeful) is to illuminate the social forces that shape the lives and communities of people living in poverty. For thirty years, LAPD’s creative body of work has included theatrical productions, street parades, a museum and archive, and educational programing, all aimed at the problem of “poverty,” a word that too often elides what is actually a constellation of some of the most intractable social problems of this era: institutionalized racism, the criminal justice system, the failed drug wars, crises in mental healthcare, and the forces of capital, which separate people from basic rights of citizenship. Yet what LAPD achieves is ultimately at human scale. The group brings back into view those who are most often forgotten (the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the mentally ill); the players make you feel what you might never otherwise know, even if you’ve lived it (audiences are often Skid Row residents); and the performances create ruptures in master narratives in order to supersede the social divisions between us, to allow understanding and even regeneration. In the words of its founder and director, John Malpede, LAPD allows “ripples of thought” to permeate the hard edifice of capital.1

State of Incarceration is an LAPD production that taps the inside knowledge of core company members, including Kevin Michael Key, Riccarlo Porter, Anthony Taylor, and Ronnie Walker, and roomfuls of other participants, some from parolee reentry programs in the area. Virtually all Skid Row citizens can claim firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system. It’s hard to escape the system once you’ve hit Skid Row, given its long history of aggressive policing, criminalization of poverty that renders illegal the daily actions of homeless people—actions such as sleeping on sidewalks and carting one’s belongings—and ticketing for minor infractions, such as jaywalking, with $100 fines or more that go to warrant and then arrest when unpaid.2

One of every five people released from incarceration back into Los Angeles go directly to the streets, many taking their “gate money” (money given upon release from incarceration and reentry into society) to Skid Row when they leave state prison or county jail.3


With no paucity of experience to work with, LAPD’s process is as important as the performances themselves, particularly in aiding street-level truth and reconciliation. In workshops, the group collects data about our carceral state, recounts and improvises counter-narratives, derives new insights, and perhaps even founds a new and more egalitarian way of understanding how to comprehend the complex social reality of disenfranchisement. In its process and performance,State of Incarceration offers an affective historical accounting and cataloging of the pieces of personal experience that are rarely part of the publicly accessible record, but which comprise the experiences of significant populations and are essential to any collective reckoning with mass incarceration and the cycles of poverty and violence at its base. The performance creates a space for formerly imprisoned people to share experiences as well as strategies of survival, and it “creates a moment of exchange and reflection on how they and we, the people of California, can recover from living in a state of incarceration.”4

When performed, State of Incarceration (2010–present) lines cellblock bunk beds wall-to-wall for audience members to sit on, mimicking California’s overcrowded jails and prisons. It begins with the “History of Incarceration” song, a spiritual performed by the entire cast, whose combined voices forge a sense of the communal, across historical time and space, as the song connects the prison-bus journey to slave routes and chains. “This history is like used-up water to me; it flows in my veins, in my blood, in my community,” they sing. Similarly poetic are monologues expressive of interior lives born out of the memories of LAPD performers, two of whom landed back in prison between productions of State of Incarceration (one for stealing toothpaste).5 Doing jumping jacks in one’s cell becomes liberation (“rhythm moves my spirit. . . lost in freedom”). A prisoner intones his upcoming fate—”thirty days in the hole” (solitary confinement) with “four walls, no TV, no books, only me,” and repeats a chant that includes, “I walk. I sit. I look. I think. I cry. . . time rises and falls like the ocean. . . I exist.”


At the performance’s end, the players ritualistically clean “one wall at a time,” “one brick at a time,” “washing down for the addicted, weak, and sick,” enacting a baptism of forgiveness and release. Finally, they prepare for communion, using “the spread,” another prison ritual. Ramen, Cheetos, and plenty of garlic are base for the communal meal, added bit by bit to a giant garbage bag opened on the floor. Audience members are invited to share the “spread,” as actors put plates of food into our hands. Thus, we too take communion, joined together with both those acting as prisoners and guards, and perhaps together we feel some of the responsibility of living in a state that is supported so fundamentally by the policing and incarceration of our most vulnerable members.

Taken in its entirety, State of Incarceration is a litany of the rituals of incarceration, from the ride on the bus—termed the Slave Ship in the performance—to the state prison, to therapy and passing the time, to release and the Kafkaesque struggle to remain out of the control of the criminal justice system. What follows is a short excerpt that illuminates a few of the struggles the newly released face.


Excerpts from State of Incarceration by the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

Performance directed by John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers.

RONNIE: Relapse + JIMMIE: Johnny Mack (two texts inter-cut)

RONNIE: I am being released from prison soon. I have no money and nowhere to go, and on my release my addiction will start fighting for control of my thoughts.

JIMMIE: I committed a crime that, you know, I’m not proud of. I got out of the penitentiary and the government don’t have too many places where a fellow like me can get a job.

RONNIE: All of my good ideas will go straight out of the window if my addiction wins over my thinking. However I have too much pride to leave jail and go straight to a program. How could I even think of embarrassing myself like that?

JIMMIE: They tell you to be honest on an application. I can guarantee you that the moment I walk out of that door, they throw my application in the garbage.

But on the other hand I don’t have a problem with getting high in jail—only when I’m on the streets. But I need money and clothes and the only way to get that is to sell dope.

JIMMIE: Years ago, when you got out of prison you could get on welfare. Nowadays, you can’t go on welfare, unless for three months, or sometimes you even can’t get on welfare. So, you are out on the street, in a shelter, or you are back to what you were doing. You know what I’m saying? No way out of it.

RONNIE: Nobody is going to hire me because of my record. So I am going to have to find a way to stay out of jail, take care of myself and stay off drugs.

JIMMIE: Because like I was saying, the government does not have a lot of places where a guy like me could go. It is totally up to you to get out of the situation.

RONNIE: And the reality is: I hit downtown at 6 PM, and by 9 PM I was high with my girlfriend.


My First Job

DEBORAH: The first chance I had to get a job, I had to go down to the office and get a print out of my record. I had to do it that day—or no job. I had one dollar to my name. When I got there, they told me the record was free.

WORKER: If it don’t take longer than 10 minutes to print out, it’s free. After that it cost $5 a minute.

DEBORAH: I didn’t say anything, just nodded. I didn’t care. I wasn’t gonna let anything stop me from getting that job. I wasn’t gonna put the brakes on myself.

WORKER: I asked you, do you want to have me print it? After 10 minutes it cost $5 a minute. You understand?

DEBORAH: If it came out too long, then I’d deal with that, somehow. But I wasn’t gonna give up, get hopeless. Walk away. No way.

WORKER: “Yes? You want me to print it?” That girl didn’t have a dollar to her name.

DEBORAH: I stood there while it was printing and every guilty thought came back into my head. How I was guilty of this, and that and some more this and that. How they were gonna find things out. How I’d messed up, messed up, couldn’t help but mess up. How they hated me, knew I was stupid, knew I would mess up and always keep messing up. The longer I waited the more hopeless my situation was.

WORKER: The whole time it was printing she stood there scared to death I was gonna ask her to pay something she couldn’t.

DEBORAH: What was I waitin for? You know they’re not gonna give it to me. I’m not gonna get the paper. What is wrong with me thinking I was gonna get that job? Get real. What the hell you waiting around for? Just to be humiliated. You like that. Being humiliated. You like that. That’s what feels good to you. Feels right. You like it, otherwise you’d get the hell out of here right now. You wouldn’t have come here in the first place.


WORKER: I came back with the print out. It came out to eleven minutes. “All right Miss Anderson, here you are.” Eleven minutes, but I just gave it to her and didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask her to pay.

DEBORAH: While I was waiting for those papers, it all came back to me. I was nearly overwhelmed by the stigma, the stamp of being a criminal—a convict. I was overwhelmed by the fear.


Photographs from a performance of State of Incarceration courtesy of the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

1. Malpede uses this phrase in connection with a discussion of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 poverty tour through Eastern Kentucky. Lynda Frye Burnham, “When Kennedy Came to Kentucky,”American Theatre (July/August 2004), 33.

2. “Homelessness is not a Criminal Activity,” public education statement developed by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, November 2003, accessed 13 October 2009,www.cangress.org; John Thomason, “Can a ‘Homeless Bill of Rights’ End the Criminalization of LA’s Most Vulnerable Residents,” The Nation, 13 October 2014, accessed 1 December 2014,http://www.thenation.com/article/can-homeless-bill-rights-end-criminalization-las-most-vulnerable-residents/.

3. Robert Greene, “From Jail to Skid Row, Where ‘All Healing Needs Are Met,’” Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2016, accessed 1 June 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-starks-los-angeles-homeless-20160203-story.html; Abby Newell and Cindy Chang, “Ex-Inmates Want L.A. County to Stop Dumping Mentally Ill Inmates in Skid Row,” Los Angeles Times, 28 September 2015, accessed 1 June 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-jail-skid-row-releases-20150928-story.html.

4. “Radar L.A.: State of Incarceration,LA Stage Times, 10 June 2011, accessed 1 June 2016,http://thisstage.la/2011/06/radar-l-a-state-of-incarceration/. Also see “State of Incarceration” project descriptions at Los Angeles Poverty Department’s website, accessed 1 June 2016,http://lapovertydept.org/projects/state-of-incarceration/.

5. Conversation with LAPD members Walter Fears and Henriëtte Brouwers, 2 February 2014.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

Come See California’s Future

by Aris Janigian

In beautiful Fresno

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

You might find it hard to picture Fresno. Many Californians, not to mention people elsewhere, have no idea what our city looks like or what goes on here. You might imagine things of an agricultural nature on a big scale. But that’s probably it.

When you live in a state with cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, and Napa, Fresno barely registers. Very few people come here to get away from anywhere else, although plenty pass through on their way to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

For the longest time, Fresno has barely even registered to itself. Even today, with so much going on here—yes, there is a lot going on here—most well-off Fresnans ditch the city on weekends for second homes on the coast or in the Sierra. The press Fresno gets is mostly just bad: bad air, bad crime, bad poverty—all true.

Now tracks for a high-speed rail are being laid in Fresno to connect us to the rest of the California in a way that some believe could transform our city. But into what? One of many new bedroom communities serving Los Angeles and San Francisco from even farther out? The hub of a new Central Valley megalopolis that will connect all of the small cities along Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton?

It makes sense to start building the bullet train line in the dead center of the state, where dirt happens to be relatively cheap, good jobs are hard to come by, and there are no real topographical challenges to contend with. Fresno is a place “so nearly level,” John McPhee once wrote, “that you have no sense of contour.” And since nobody is keeping an eye on Fresno, starting here may also be a way to gain momentum for a project hammered by controversy. For a city of half a million, the fifth biggest city in the state, Fresno has remained generally off the radar.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

But Fresno doesn’t need the bullet train to get on anybody’s radar or to transform the city. That’s already happening. Fresno is being transformed from the inside out, taking strands from its past, present, and future to build a new kind of California urbanism, dare I say, a more appealing urbanism than anywhere else in the state, and people are starting to notice.

Fresno’s first code was purely agricultural. In the 1870s, a Midwesterner named Thomas Kearney envisioned Fresno as a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer’s paradise. His great plan to shape Fresno into a powerhouse of agriculture, and himself into a kind of Carnegie of farming, began when he purchased 6,800 acres, nearly five miles square, and fashioned a master plan that included a 240-acre park. In the middle of this park, he built a home modeled after the Loire Valley’s Château de Chenonceau, with a footprint of 12,000 square feet. He divided the land surrounding this castle complex into twenty-acre parcels and advertised them at $1,000 apiece.

Accountants, haberdashers, former gold rushers flush with money, retired attorneys, and four ex-schoolteachers from San Francisco were among the first to sign up. They arrived in Fresno intending to fashion a life from the land, and because of that land’s amazing productiveness, it was no idle dream. In 1920, Mary Bartlett wrote of her father, who farmed next door to Kearney: “He started with pumpkins, watermelon, squash, corn, and tomatoes and by the time the young vineyard was at the bearing stage he also had several varieties of peaches, apricots, plums, oranges, lemons, tangerines, kumquats, loquats, quince, crabapples, almonds, pomegranates, walnuts, cherries, artichokes and his great pride and joy…a whole row of olive trees which in no time at all were more fruitful than the ancient branches of Tuscany.”

“California’s Central Valley is one of the seven most fertile valleys in the world,” the Fresno Historical Society’s website claims, “fifteen million acres of land some 450 miles in length and typically 40 to 60 miles wide. Fresno County is located in the heart of this Valley and is the most productive agricultural county in the nation.” But its greatest gift, as Mary Bartlett’s letters reveal, isn’t so much the volume but the variety of crops grown here, some of which, like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, grow well in only a few places around the world.

This Fresno was still evident when I was growing up here. Back in the days when I walked its alleyways home from school, you could pick enough different kinds of fruit from the trees that hung over fences to start your own stand. This is thanks to the Mediterranean climate, extraordinarily rich and textured soil, the result of millions of years of wind and rain scraping and scrubbing the Sierra on one side and the Coast Range on the other, and water both underground and flowing down from the Sierra—but in truth, the reason things grow here unlike anywhere else in the world is impossible to say.

When I was a kid, the country with all its fertile glory was never more than a stone’s throw away from wherever you lived. It made a terrific place to escape, especially during the winters when the fog was almost as thick as yogurt, providing a kind of natural cover from parents or the law. But beginning in the 1980s, and continuing to this day, the orchard and vineyards that once surrounded the city were handed over to developers who built a never-ending series of neighborhoods with preposterous names such as Liberty Square and Barcelona.

Fresno today feels and acts like a real city, not just a series of misfit bedroom communities, partly because these neighborhoods are tied together by four pretty efficient freeways. Fresno raised itself up around its downtown, where city government is still housed. Skirting the “Frog,” Fresno’s futurist, amphibian-shaped City Hall, is an eclectic mix of buildings that house various city functions, some new but most mid-century variations of the so-called International Style. These structures edge up to Fulton Mall, a three-block outdoor promenade and one of the great urban landscape experiments in America, with playful fountains and geometric sculptures, including a Rodin, and sitting areas under mature trees. Adjacent to the Fulton are some architectural gems like the old Fresno Bee and Guarantee Savings buildings, the extraordinarily beautiful art deco Warner Theater that would rival any of the grand movie palaces in Los Angeles, and many former industrial spaces now tastefully restored as art galleries, boutique clothing stores, and coffee houses.

The city, like so many others, suffered a version of white flight when the well-to-do moved east toward the mountains. But downtown, there are now blocks and blocks of new apartments, put up by a longtime local developer betting on Fresno’s renaissance. His strategy, executed with the city’s cooperation, was to preserve the more handsome older structures that remained and replace the dilapidated ones with mixed-use buildings—retail below and living spaces above—made of glass and steel but painted in playful colors, like three-dimensional Mondrians. The area is called the Arts District, or the Mural District, and up until a few years ago it was moribund, given up for prematurely dead. Now it is turning into an ambitious example of the new urbanism at work. It is also the starting point for the most culturally and architecturally interesting part of the city, one that continues unfolding for five miles up Van Ness Avenue, through the humming Tower district and the Fresno High School and City College neighborhoods, ending in the area called Fig Garden, arguably the most beautiful neighborhood in Fresno, which every year hosts the longest “Christmas tree lane” in America.

Fresno has the bones upon which to construct an appealingly Californian city, but more importantly, it has the conditions that make living here an attractive proposition. It’s become axiomatic that only the wealthiest or those grandfathered in can afford to live in many of our most coveted California cities today, whereas the vast horde of commuters is relegated to a kind of daily guest-worker status. This is not the case in Fresno. A typical commute is fifteen minutes; monthly rent for a large one-bedroom apartment is about $800 a month; the price per square foot for a home around $120. For several years, Fresno, with an average cost per square foot of retail space around $1.50, has actively supported live-work spaces, relaxing the rules about where one can conduct business, which cuts commuting time to nothing.

In a series of pieces on Fresno, James Fallows of The Atlantic took notice of the city’s vibrant art scene, going so far as to agree with many Fresnans’ sense of their city as California’s new Bohemia, which, I think, gets the tone of artistic production here just right. Though there are quite a few orchestrated cultural events in Fresno, the vast majority have a bit of a ramshackle character, including The Rogue Festival, a ten-day artistic free-for-all that features a mindboggling number of events from juggling acts to one-act plays. When I moved to Los Angeles in the eighties, I lived up the street from Tom Solomon’s Garage, a two-car garage where the art dealer showed work by many artists who later became famous. You can find a lot of this same DIY culture incubating in Fresno today.

Every first Thursday of the month, around a hundred artists open their studios to the public for what the city calls “Art Hop.” If the weather is good, several thousand people show up. Though nobody has counted, that I know of, yet, I would guess that the stretch from downtown to the Tower District has more artists’ studios (as opposed to art galleries) per capita than anywhere in California. A good number of fine musicians also use Fresno as a live-cheap-eat-well basecamp where, in a matter of hours, they can be in California’s bigger cities for gigs. On any given night you can walk the Tower District and hear them making beautiful fools of themselves on the streets, in tiny rooms in the back vinyl stores or in private garages with the door flung open.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.


In Fresno, you are allowed a certain privacy, even solitude, to acquaint yourself with your torments and dreams. Perfect for artists. For years I’ve felt that this reality, along with the energy of the soil, the intensity of the sun and immensity of the fog, explains the remarkable number of writers, and especially poets such as recent American poet laureate Phillip Levine and current poet laureate, Juan Phillip Herrera, who were either born here or came here from elsewhere to live their lives and hone their craft.

On the other end of the spectrum is third-generation restaurateur Jimmy Pardini, who worked with Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame for five years before moving back to Fresno and into a space adjacent to his father’s restaurant to start his own place, The Annex. Despite being surrounded by a mindboggling array of produce, Fresno has been woefully short of restaurants where the food is fresh and tastes are bold, and so Pardini saw an opening—and found success that has so far beaten his expectations. The Annex also features an extraordinarily tasty olive oil produced by Vincent Ricutti, a childhood friend whose family has grown and crushed olives locally for generations.

Even with all this going for it, it is probably “boomerangers”—that is, native Fresnans who fled the city for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other metropolises, but eventually returned—who will jump-start the city into a new phase of growth and vigor. A good example is Jake Soberal, cofounder of Bitwise Industries, which was featured in Fallows’ reporting on Fresno. Capitalizing on local talent and the fact that Fresno is way more affordable than San Francisco or San Jose, Soborel and his cofounders started a high-tech incubator, which they characterize as Fresno’s “mothership of education, collaboration, and innovation.” Their first campus, a playfully rehabilitated building just off the Fulton Mall, aims to attract the best and brightest minds in the Central Valley with the aim of building another Silicon Valley.

Fresno’s mayor might not put it this way, but cities need holes in their fences. They need to be a bit desperate and welcoming, with ordinances, codes, rules, and regulations loose enough that the average person can get a foot in the door. Fresno is doing this right.

But for this new Fresno to fully encode itself in the Central Valley, the city needs to be more central in the consciousness of old-school Fresnans, too, particularly farmers, who still represent the city’s first agricultural code. Rather than turning their backs on the city, as they tend to do, we need them to join the Bohemians in celebrating the city, to invest in marketing and technologies that add value to their raw products, and in other new businesses that will generate jobs to diversify opportunities in the area. Farmers who call Fresno home might want to ask themselves why it took an Angeleno, Stewart Resnick, to turn clementines, pomegranates, and pistachios, crops all sourced from the valley and grown here for decades, into “Cuties,” “Pom,” and “Wonderful.” And the Bohemians need to figure out how to bring the farmers into town.

Any honest observer must admit that agriculture is among the things that make California the most robust state in the union. In this part of the state, how we treat farmers, how we negotiate water and environmental concerns, has an enormous impact. Fresno County adds nearly $6 billion to the California economy. In the future, that number could grow. Seventy-five-year-old vineyards are being yanked out to make room for almonds that fetch $3 a pound. And farmers have seen their land value quadruple in recent years. The market for hardy, high-protein foods such as nuts is increasing worldwide. And it is becoming harder and harder to wring more productivity out of agriculture around the world. But farmers around here are good at that. And in the not-too-distant future, they may be celebrated the way Silicon Valley executives are today.

Meanwhile, the Bohemians and farmers will keep the wheels spinning in Fresno, for the time being, perhaps until the day when Fresno, too, becomes a prohibitively expensive place to live and work. Then, I suppose, people will move to Modesto just up the road—or maybe just up the tracks on the bullet train.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.


Imperial Landscapes

by Noé Montes

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.

Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.

Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.

“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”

The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

The Code of the Desert

by Geoff Nicholson

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

In one of those bits of LA synchronicity that no longer surprise me much, I happened to talk to Ed Ruscha at a party in John Lautner’s “Chemosphere” the day after I’d watched the 1972 documentary Rayner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Ruscha appears in the film, discussing the aesthetics of the gas station. In our conversation, Ruscha reminded me—not that I needed much reminding—of Banham’s assertion that people in the desert are very respectful of things that belong there and have a tendency to shoot things that don’t.

The relevant passage appears in Travels in America Deserta, where Banham writes: “Whatever reasons Americans may pretend for taking a gun out into the desert, most of them are going to fire at road signs, water tanks, memorial plaques, wind pumps or old beer cans.…Even if it is no more that than a symptom of mindless vandalism, this mania for shooting at human artifacts is not quite senseless: the identifiable humanness of their origins gives these objects a different status from everything else in view. The works of man inevitably attract the attention of mankind.”

I would add a couple of things. First, certain items are taken into the desert specifically so that they can be shot at: those beer cans, of course, and various domestic appliances, televisions, and computer screens, all the way up to cars and trucks. I’d also say that I’ve seen quite a few cacti and Joshua trees that have been on the receiving end of “the attention of mankind.”

But in general terms, I think Banham was on to something. Most of us have our own, very specific idea of what does and doesn’t “belong” in the desert. And if you see something you think shouldn’t be there, then sure, why not shoot it? When it comes to architecture, in the broadest sense, to desert structures, whether domestic or commercial, or industrial or military, the question of “belonging” becomes far more complicated. An open-pit borax mine is clearly a blot on the landscape, in my view, but then, if you ask me, so is a solar farm.

We might not want to shoot out the windows of that James Bond villain house that somebody’s built on the top of an otherwise untouched desert outcrop—all villains live in modern houses, as singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane observes—but in some cases, we definitely wish somebody would take a bulldozer to it.

It’s now the best part of thirty years since I first stepped foot in the California desert, as one more Englishman living out his own, still no doubt rather derivative, desert fantasy. To say that I immediately fell in love with the desert isn’t quite accurate, since in many ways I was already in love with it, or with an idea of it, long before I ever arrived.

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Like most Europeans, and indeed a great many Americans, I first knew the desert from photographs, movies, and literature. I’d done my time looking at the desert photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, watching Vanishing Point and Baghdad Café, and even watching Roadrunner cartoons. I’d read Travels in America Deserta and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And in due course I traveled to Barstow solely because of that opening:We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Inevitably, some of these depictions of the desert were a lot more “accurate” and “authentic” than others, though the desert of the real made them all suspect, including my own firsthand observations.

I was drawn to the forms of the territory, the beauty and the emptiness of the desert itself, but I was always far more moved by a landscape that contained some human element, an intersection of the natural and the manmade: a road, a prospector’s cabin, an isolated motel, a gas station, a store that might or might not still be in business.

I could see there was a contradiction here. In one sense, you might think “naturally,” I wanted the desert to be pristine, uninhabited, untouched by human presence. But how could it be if I was seeing it through the lens of images somebody else had made of it, reading descriptions by people who had been there before me? The human presence was inevitable and was, in fact, part of my attraction to it, but it also felt like a kind of desecration. The paradox is one I have never quite been able to escape.

My first desert trip was remarkably free-form and aimless. It involved a lot of driving, a lot of walking, and a considerable amount of confusion. A lot of the time I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I usually didn’t know what I had found. In this state, I came across the strange, chunky, elemental, abandoned cabins strewn around Wonder Valley, east and north of Joshua Tree. I now know that they exist in other parts of the Mojave, too.

There was, and remains, something both improbable and archetypal about those cabins, their strangely perfect, geometrical proportions, sometimes with muted, dusty pink, stucco walls that stand out against the pale yellow sand, sometimes not much more than wooden skeletons. They looked utterly out of place in one sense; but given the patina of time and neglect, they also fit right in. I had the sense that some careless, god-sized giant had been using the Mojave as his own personal model railroad layout, and these were the miniature buildings used to add scale and detail. There was also, if I’m honest about it, something a little scary about them.

The majority of those cabins were in quiet ruin when I first saw them, and they looked as though they’d been that way for a good long time. I had no idea who had, or ever could have, lived in these cabins, but I imagined some grizzled, snaggle-toothed, half-crazed, desert rat. Not exactly.

In 1938 Congress passed the Small-Tract Homestead Act, giving away five-acre parcels of land to those who agreed to build a small, habitable structure within two years. The scheme didn’t really take off until after World War II; but once that was out of the way, there was a minor building boom in the Mojave. People like things that are free. Some built their own cabins from scratch. But local contractors also came up with schemes for ready-designed buildings that fit the government guidelines.

Homesteading had been used historically to distribute land to farmers, but clearly there was no farming to be done here. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything to be done, and few reasons at all for many people to want to live here full-time. Consequently, many of the new owners, rather than grizzled desert rats, tended to be Bohemian Angelinos who wanted vacation homes conveniently located a couple of hours from the city. Most people, however, evidently didn’t find them as convenient as all that, hence the abandonment.

Today, many cabins remain, sometimes in a state of gorgeous ruin, and are occasionally used for art projects and activities of one kind and another. Poking around in them, as I sometimes do, I often see evidence that somebody has crashed or squatted there in recent times, but these days even the most rugged individualists tend to want something a bit more substantial, a shipping container, a trailer, a boxcar, a prefabricated metal building, complete with solar power and swamp cooler. And who can blame them?

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Occasionally, people complain that the homesteader cabins are cluttering up the desert and should be demolished and cleared away, the desert made clean and spotless again. It’s easy enough to see their point and easy, too, to feel a genuine ambivalence. Sure, in one sense they’re utterly out of place, but they look so good, so picturesque. Fortunately, inertia plays a big part in desert life. Bulldozers seem plentiful, but the urge to remove the cabins doesn’t seem all that pressing. One way or another, they endure.

Thirty years ago, when I first saw those cabins, I was sure I wanted to own one of them—though since I was then living some five-and-a-half-thousand miles away in London, it seemed the most improbable of dreams. Today, I now live about a hundred and fifty miles away, and although the dream hasn’t died, and I’ve thought hard about it, and looked at a lot of cabins and quasi-ruins along with their attendant five-acre patches of desert, with a sincere view to buying one, it still hasn’t come to fruition. Did I mention desert inertia?

One of the more serious drawbacks to owning a five acre spread, is that five acres really doesn’t count for much in the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert. Solitude and isolation are so much harder to come by than you might at first imagine. If you really want to separate yourself from humanity, you need a good couple of hundred acres. If you own a five-acre patch and your immediate neighbor likes to hammer sheet metal and breed pit bulls, you’re going to know all about it.

Consider, as a case study, the Black Desert House in Yucca Valley, attributed to Marc Atlan Design, with Oller and Pejic, architects, a blocky low-slung construction, its matt exterior as dark as a stealth fighter. Consider the wording on the website designed to sell it: “Beyond shelter, Black Desert House is an artistic counter-point to a landscape born of fire, and sculpted over the last 100 million years. Conceived to read as a shadow cast within great piles of monzogranite boulders, the residence offers the quintessential desert experience: immersion into the timelessness of the vast desert panorama.”

But then the clincher—the killer—that it’s “sited at a cooler elevation of over 4,000 feet on 2.5 acres.” Two and half acres? Dude. That’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. You’re likely to have squads of ATVs running around your boundaries. More than that, you can be sure that at least some of your neighbors are going to be looking in your direction and thinking that this black, million-dollar bunker really doesn’t belong there. Of course, you can also be sure that whoever eventually buys the house isn’t going to care much about what the neighbors think.

When it comes to the presence of art in the desert, there’s a whole different set of issues about belonging. Spray painting faces or skulls onto native rocks we can all agree is just plain bad and wrong. But what about simpler interventions, like spray painting a face on a shack that’s already in ruins? What about land art? Say, rocks arranged into spirals or circles or cairns? There’s actually something deeply moving about walking through the wilderness and coming across an arrangement of rocks or sand, knowing that someone’s been there and taken the time and trouble to signal something for the next passerby. Even if you don’t know what it means, and you don’t particularly like this kind of intervention, it doesn’t seem the greatest of sins. Nature will eventually reassert itself.

But how about a ten-acre plot strewn with massive sculptures made from various kinds of domestic and industrial detritus? I’m thinking of the Noah Purifoy sculpture park in Joshua Tree. Part of the land was a gift from Ed Ruscha. The works are frequently ramshackle constructions that often resemble buildings of one kind or another: a theater, a hangar, a bunker, a bridge. Nothing there is strictly speaking “natural,” very little comes from the desert itself, but the works nevertheless do fit quite well. Much of it looks as though it’s falling apart. Purifoy famously insisted, “I do assemblage. I don’t do maintenance.” Some of the locals are no doubt less than entranced by Purifoy’s works. But the attitude I’ve observed in the neighbors who live in the more conventional nearby houses is that they can live pretty happily with the art. It’s the art-loving visitors they have trouble with.

One of the works that best shows Purifoy’s gifts of assembly alongside his sense of humor and irony is a large “architectural” piece titled “Ode to Frank Gehry.” As far as I know, Gehry has never built in the California desert. Purifoy’s work offered to correct this with an assemblage of white corrugated metal, struts, and a skim of concrete that certainly looks as “deconstructed” as any of Gehry’s work.

Purifoy recently had a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I was afraid that a gallery setting wouldn’t show his work to its best advantage. A patina of desert dust and grime seems to be a necessary part of the work. I think you could argue that a certain amount of over-restoration had gone on. Some of the work looked a little too spruced up, but all in all the show was a triumph. Not least of its attractions, “Ode to Frank Gehry” had, by some transportational magic, been temporarily relocated to the museum’s main courtyard. Did it look out of place there? Why, yes, it did. But it also looked great. You can take the art out of the desert, but you can’t quite take the desert out of the art.

If you were in search of a different structure that looks much like an ode to Gehry, though one built in 1958, several years before Gehry established his first architectural practice in Los Angeles, you could do worse than go to the Salton Sea and take a look at Albert Frey’s North Shore Yacht Club. Here, too, you’ll see corrugated metal and big, basic, curved geometric shapes, though here the overall effect is nautical moderne, complete with faux portholes. It was a wreck when I first saw it and still had a sign out front announcing the Aces and Spades club. But now it’s been restored to become what is surely one of the world’s very coolest-looking community centers.

Frey, born in Switzerland and a follower of Le Corbusier, first arrived in the American desert, specifically Palm Springs, in 1934 and five years later moved there permanently. He stayed for sixty years and became one of Palm Springs’s preeminent modernist architects. And who’s to say he couldn’t have been successful in a different city? But he thrived on both the environment and the freedom he was allowed here. When the planners at Palm Springs City Hall looked at the design he’d drawn up for his second residence here, a house built directly into the rock, they concluded that it was crazy, but they didn’t try to stop him.

Palm Springs isn’t such a bad place to be crazy. It was, and in certain respects remains, a fun city, a recreational oasis where people go to play away from prying eyes. The fact that historically many of these players have been movie types with an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward money has only increased the tendency for architectural experimentation. Bob Hope hardly seemed part of any avant-garde, but he lived happily in a house designed by John Lautner that had the feel of being inside the crater of volcano.

Photograph by Robert Gourley, via Flickr.

Even the banks in Palm Springs look ironic. Whereas in much of the world people want their financial institutions to be housed in buildings of classical solidity, in Palm Springs one of the most exciting buildings I know is the Bank of America. Sweeping white concrete and blue mosaic, it claims to be inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel. It was built by Victor Gruen Associates.

Baker is, in many ways, the anti–Palm Springs, a rough, poor, but likeable desert town, 150 miles or so from LA, just off Interstate 15, with a population of about 700, a place to stop for gas or lunch. When I first went there twenty years back, it seemed to be striving even as it struggled, and it was home to the world’s largest thermometer, 134 feet tall, a genuinely impressive, if nevertheless absurd, structure. It was there to draw trade and attention to the Bun Boy diner and motel. In the gift shop, you could buy a detailed model of the building that housed a thermometer. I bought one.

Diner and motel are currently closed, though the thermometer remains and still works, at least some of the time. The Bun Boy used to be one of a handful of perfectly decent motels in town. Some are still standing but closed; others have vanished off the face of the earth. Just one remains in business: the Wills Fargo, a classic, old-style establishment, with a white arcaded frontage that looks OK from a distance. It gets some amusingly terrible online reviews: “The spider webs were nice in the glow of the sunlight coming through the ceiling,” writes a Trip Advisor member.

The place I used to stay in Baker, and one of the last to close, was Arne’s Royal Hawaiian. It wasn’t the Ritz, but the rooms were big and clean, with shag carpet that came part way up the walls, and some fixtures and fittings you could regard as mid-century if you put your mind to it.

The Polynesian theme was pretty much restricted to the motel sign, a few palm trees, and the building that housed the office, which had a wonderful curving pointed roof, clad inside with two big waves of wood paneling. Otherwise, there was an older section built of cinder blocks, with rooms the size and shape of prison cells. Behind that was a more modern two-story structure where I, and I suspect everybody else, actually stayed.

For a good while after it closed down, Arne’s remained more or less intact, but that’s changed. When I stopped in Baker recently it seemed that every piece of glass in the place had been smashed, doors broken down, and the whole place thoroughly vandalized, including the empty JG Ballard–style swimming pool out back, although the paneled ceiling was still there, looking great, waiting either for architectural salvagers or more determined vandals.

But not everything in Baker is in decline. There’s at least one optimist in town: Luis Ramallo, the owner of the Alien Jerky Store, which also specializes in hot sauce, candy, and space-age souvenirs. It’s been there for a little over a decade and business seems to be thriving. There used to be a very homemade-looking space alien and flying saucer on the roof. There’s now a full-size UFO parked outside, along with a row of movie-prop-quality aliens holding up metallic sunshades.

There are also several billboards showing plans for the future: blueprints, architectural renderings and artists’ impressions of the high-end, thirty-one-room “mothership-shaped” UFO hotel that Ramallo plans to build behind his store. It’ll be like staying in a space station, with a flight deck, sleeping chambers, and animatronic aliens. An alien-themed shopping mall, futuristic restaurants, and a “space-themed spa” are also in the works.

I have no idea whether Ramallo can really pull any of this off, but I really want him to. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors was certainly happy enough to give the project the go-ahead. And really, who could object? Sure, a UFO hotel in the middle of, say, Brentwood might be a problem, but Baker is in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert. Who’s going to complain? And if it fails, well, it’s going to leave a set of fantastic, futuristic desert ruins, although you might not want to be living in the house next door.

Inspired, or perhaps simply carried away, I again start thinking about owning some little desert shack, by no means a piece of architecture, just some basic shelter with its own patch of land. It was easy enough to find one online that seemed to fit the bill. “Rustic 400 Sq. Ft. Cabin on 5 acres, close to 29 Palms in beautiful Wonder Valley. Bring your tools and imagination!” It was a very simple, perhaps even archetypal, design: a door in the middle, a window either side, holes in the roof, but the walls intact, though looking a little bullet-scarred. The price was about the same as a well-used Jeep.

The realtor’s ad showed it to be the last property at the end of a dirt road, which had its appeal—nobody driving past your front door. And so I made a little desert field trip to go look at the cabin. After a drive along increasingly rutted and sandy roads, I spotted the place in the distance, and I could also see another house on the road, a sprawling, tattered, but apparently inhabited thing, with collapsed outbuildings, a number of wrecked cars, and a sea of detritus surrounding it: building materials, pipes, scrap metal, chunks of wood, oil cans, domestic appliances. A Noah Purifoy might have taken this junk and made any number of fine sculptures from it. But the inhabitant of the house had no such plans, unless he was creating an installation on entropy and chaos theory.

I could also see that the junk was strewn on both sides of the dirt road, and it’s certainly not unknown for desert plots to have a road running through them. However, when I got really close, I could see that some of this junk was lying in the road itself; it had, in fact, been deliberately put there and arranged to form a barrier. Lengths of tire-shredding metal ran from one side of the road to the other. And there was an expanse of old lumber that looked like it might be concealing a giant hole for the unwary driver to fall into. It would have been possible to get around these obstacles and drive or walk across the open desert to the cabin, but by then I was deterred. However wonderful the cabin was, would I really want to have neighbors who were trying to block my way and shred my tires? Generally, perhaps especially in the desert, good fences make good neighbors. But roadblocks are a different matter.

Photograph by John Loo, via Flickr.



Experiments in Re-Encoding Environment

by Anthea M. Hartig

Remembering Lawrence and Anna Halprin

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1. 

In the summer of 1966, dance pioneer Anna Halprin and her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, embarked on a series of experimental, experiential, cross-disciplinary workshops in northern California that blurred the boundaries of architecture, choreography, ecology, music, cinematography, and being itself. That summer, and again in 1968 and 1971, these “Experiments in Environment” brought together artists, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, architects, and environmental designers in provocative, pioneering experiences….

These images are selected from Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, an exhibition at the California Historical Society, organized by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition showcases the Halprins’ creative innovations with archival material—including original photographs, films, drawings, and scores—from workshops staged in the streets of San Francisco, on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, and on the shores and cliffs of Sea Ranch, a coastal community designed by Lawrence.

Driftwood Village—Community, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 6, 1968.


Driftwood City, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966. Pictured: (left to right) Lawrence Halprin, Anna Halprin, and architect Charles Moore.




Driftwood City, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966.


Ritual Group Drawing, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 8, 1968.


All images courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.



Reprogramming Blank Spaces in the City

by Carren Jao

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Throughout every city, dozens, sometimes hundreds, or even thousands of parcels of land of all sizes sit unused and unloved. Some are owned by the city, some by state or local agencies; others are private. From small fragments of lots to sizeable plots, they are neglected resources for reprogramming the city.

The Bowtie Parcel

With creativity, many blank spaces on the map can become more than just voids in the fabric of city life. Take the Bowtie Parcel, an eighteen-acre post-industrial wasteland near downtown Los Angeles. Formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, it sat empty for years. California State Parks bought the lot for $10.7 million in 2003 but kept it closed to the public for a decade because it didn’t have funds to develop a park. Sandwiched between railroad tracks, highways, and the concrete-encased Los Angeles River, and adjacent to a mostly residential neighborhood, the parcel doesn’t attract many visitors on its own.

California State Parks still hopes to one day develop this lonely land into a public park. But while final plans and funding are being firmed up, it has ingeniously partnered with a nearby nonprofit arts organization, Clockshop, to activate the space, bringing more and more people to the abandoned site.

Every few months, commissioned artists take over portions of the Bowtie Parcel, giving Angelenos another reason to visit. Clockshop founder Julia Meltzer estimates that about 3,000 people have come to events at the site since the partnership with California State Parks started. The parcel has several permanent installations—an obelisk-shaped excavation in an asphalt pad on the site, adobe walls made on site and decorated with changing artwork and graffiti, pointedly political park-style signage that analyzes and comments on gentrification along the river. There have also been moonlit literary salons and overnight campouts beside the Los Angeles River for people from the surrounding neighborhoods, many of whom have never camped out before.

LA Open Acres maps each publicly and privately owned vacant lot in Los Angeles.


Sean Woods, LA sector supervisor for state parks, says the site’s weirdly wild qualities and air of abandonment in the heart of the city attract an audience that cares deeply for the place. “People love the Bowtie in this state—a neglected, industrial landscape with the beauty of the Los Angeles River,” he says. “The aesthetic really attracts artists. For them, it’s a blank canvas.”

But it’s not just a site for artists. “This collaboration with Clockshop is artistic,” Woods adds, “but it also touches on the larger issue of raising awareness of this open space by the Los Angeles River and the issues that surround it. We want to rally support for park development. For us, art is a vanguard of revitalization. It brings people to the site in a nontraditional way.”

Programming the Bowtie Parcel has proved a signal success and an inspiration for imagining the future of not just this once forgotten piece of Los Angeles, but other neglected spaces throughout our metropolitan fabric.

Amigos de los Rios

For the nonprofit organization Amigos de los Rios, the blank canvas takes the form of billboard lots within the cities of Azusa, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South El Monte, Whittier, Montebello, and South Gate. In 2012, Amigos de los Rios worked with UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design professor Nicholas de Monchaux and a team of students to identify lots that could be repurposed into green spaces such as bird and butterfly habitat and wetlands.

Their first project transformed a quarter-acre trash dump in El Monte into a public recreation area filled with exercise equipment and plantings. For years, the students of the adjacent Madrid Middle School referred to this lot as “The Bones.” Wedged between the school and an old metal factory, it was home to two billboard stands and 124 tons of garbage, abandoned sofas, television sets, and mattresses.

With funding from California Natural Resources, CALTRANS, and the California Community Foundation, and help from volunteers, including students from the middle school, and the California Conservation Corps and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, the site was cleaned up. It now regularly hosts PE classes and marching band practice during school days. The school has arranged native-plant gardening sessions onsite.

Vacant lot on Western Avenue. Photograph by Flickr user Joe.


Now Amigos de los Rios has its sights set on around 150 more billboard lots around town. If turned into welcoming green spaces, Loretta Quach, a senior associate at Amigos de los Rios, says these sites could add twenty to fifty more acres of green space to the surrounding neighborhoods.

LA Open Acres

In many parts of our cities, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, valuable plots of land lie trapped behind unsightly wire fences. These lots could be so much more. They could be pocket parks, urban gardens, or landmarks for public art. Rather than sitting derelict, they could change the lives of thousands of people who live nearby

To bring these forgotten pieces of land to light, a nonprofit organization called Community Health Councils developed LA Open Acres—an interactive map that identifies all of the vacant lots, both privately and publicly owned, in Los Angeles—in collaboration with C-Lab (the Columbia University Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting) and a group called 596 Acres with support from the Goldhirsch Foundation through an LA2050 grant.

The site collects publicly available information on vacant lots garnered from GIS data from city departments, fieldwork by community researchers, satellite imagery, and existing mapping software. It also includes a status update on each piece of property, plus information on its owner. Before LA Open Acres, no public agency or nonprofit had identified all of these fallow pieces of land in the city. And this lack of information was a major hurdle for anyone interested in repurposing a piece of vacant land.

About 90 percent of the land mapped is in private hands, estimates Malcolm Carson, general counsel and policy director for environmental health at Community Health Councils. The remaining 10 percent is owned by the city. Carson says researchers found many reasons for land to remain vacant. “Agencies often inherit these little parcels and there’s no strategic plan or imperative to do any work on them,” he says. “They usually have to concentrate on the day-to-day work of delivering power, transportation, and water to the city.”

Vacant lot on Marmion Way. Photograph by Umberto Brayj, via Flickr.


Some plots are so small, oddly shaped, or so contaminated that it is often more expensive to repurpose them than to leave them fallow. Should a lot meet the minimum size for a park, agencies would have to expend even more resources trying to figure out who should maintain any future park that would take shape on the property.

Vacant private lots often have a similar backstory. “The tax system in California encourages nondevelopment of parcels,” says Carson. Improving a property usually results in an increase in taxes, although he says that turning a lot into an urban agriculture project could merit up to a 90 percent reduction in taxes.

Every bit of land, no matter how odd, can have an impact, according to Carson. “These pieces of land aren’t marketable, but they’re good for us. There aren’t many parcels of land so small that you can’t even put a bench on it,” he says. Even oddball lots can have a more productive life, not just as full-fledged parks, but as pocket community gardens and gathering spaces. The key is to determine what a community needs and how any plot of unloved land can be part of a solution.

Farm LA

A number of scrappy nonprofits are now eagerly scouring LA Open Acres to find land. One of them is Farm LA, a fledgling nonprofit started by Emily Gleicher and Jason Wood, an Elysian Valley couple dedicated to sustainable living.

Gleicher says she feels like Sherlock Holmes, investigating a mystery using the information LA Open Acres provides on each lot, as they hunt for plots of land with owners who might be willing to see their vacant property transformed into a productive urban farm.

Using the interactive map, the couple has been narrowing down their search for unbuildable lots on narrow streets or small plots that stay vacant because no owner wants to pay for necessary street improvements. Gleicher and Wood would like to turn these lots into drought-tolerant agricultural gardens. They are hoping a recently passed California state bill, AB 551, which gives property owners five-year tax deductions in exchange for allowing their land to be used for agricultural purposes, will encourage owners to work with Farm LA. They’ve already pitched the concept to a number of neighborhood councils.

They’re focusing their search in LA’s “food deserts,” communities with few sources for fresh food. “We want to bring those communities affordable access to organic food, and education on solar and water generation, as well as beautify the neighborhood,” says Gleicher. Wood, who also works at a solar company, hopes to install solar and greywater systems on plots.

They’ve got big dreams for these small lots. Gleicher and Wood imagine LA living off the land.

“We have this Armageddon vision,” says Wood, “where LA could have solar panels running water generators that’s going through a drip line feeding an entire plot of land with no maintenance. Los Angeles could convert back into a desert, but that system will continue to provide water that grows food for people. It’s totally within the realm of what’s possible.”

In the meantime, they’re not sitting idle. They’re converting curbsides on their own street in Elysian Valley into drought-tolerant herb and vegetable gardens.


Sometimes an ephemeral change is enough to reimagine these neglected spaces in the city.

The Community Health Councils recently began #FreeLotsLosAngeles, pop-up events at which the nonprofit works with a property owner to remake a vacant lot just for one day. Much as the wildly successful CicLAvia events help city residents imagine what it’s like to live car-free for a day, these pop-up events ignite a community’s imagination for the abandoned spaces in their midst.

Last spring, after three months of workshops with the community and with the help of the city’s Great Streets Initiative, the council turned a derelict lot at the corner of Forty-first Street and Central Avenue from an intimidating space full of graffiti, aluminum sheets, and barbed wire into a kind of wonderland. Wood palettes became platforms filled with children’s blocks, display tops for succulent plantings, and a lending library. A silvery shade sculpture hung above the lot, as a mariachi trio entertained the crowd, a yoga class for newbies stretched their limbs, and children kicked a soccer ball around.

For a day, anyway, this forgotten space became a vibrant part of life in the city.

Members of temporary dance company WXPT perform evereachmore at the Bowtie Parcel beside the Los Angeles River. Courtesy Clockshop and Gina Clyne.


Alien Apostles

by Katie Dorame

When missionaries landed on native California

from Boom Winter 2015, Vol 5, No 4

Editor’s note: In her Alien Apostles series, artist Katie Dorame reimagines the Spanish missionaries who came to California in the eighteenth century as 1950s B-movie space aliens. She writes:

Spanish missionaries and soldiers were only human shells with a deeper squishy green glowing motive: their home planet was in desperate need of cowhides, tallow, wine, and the other goods the slave labor of the missions produced. Or maybe the vast knowledge the Indians had previous to the alien invasion needed to be taken and mutated in order to mine a precious resource found deep within the earth. Whatever the space aliens’ motive was, they needed a unified, purified, categorized, renamed, and rebranded flock of “Neophytes.”

They used baptism as a tool. The glowing green holy water was an irrevocable agreement. Once you were baptized you were visibly and supernaturally branded forever. You were renamed. As a “Neophyte” you were no longer allowed to leave the church. The church owned you and your soul. Those who attempted to leave were hunted down by the Spanish soldiers and flogged.

Through Hollywood and history books we’ve learned a romanticized version of the past. The California mission courtyards today are filled with dewy roses and the graveyards are filled with quaint white washed wooden crosses with no reflection of the horror of a measles epidemic to a non-immune populace—spread by holy water.

Mission Exterior, 2014.

Mission Interior, 2014.

Invasion by the Sea, 2014.

The Evangelist, 2014.

Three Padres by the Fountain, 2014.

Green Padre, 2014.

Convert Priest, 2014.