With the 2016 edition of Footnotes coming soon, we're revisiting articles that appeared in our 2015 issue. The following piece was written by James Rojas, an urban planner, community activist, and artist.
By James Rojas
The Cesar Chavez and Soto St. intersection swarms daily with pedestrians, transit riders, cyclists, and street vendors. It exemplifies how Latinos are transforming LA’s auto-designed streets to promote walking.
Decades earlier Cesar Chavez (Brooklyn Avenue in those days) and Soto was the historic heart of the city’s Jewish community. Today it is one of the busiest Eastside shopping areas. The ubiquitous gas station lies on the southeast corner, and zero-lot-line buildings are on the other three. Latinos have retrofitted these buildings and their façades, and activate the public space to fit their social, cultural, economic, and mobility needs. Every change Latinos make to their streets, no matter how small, has meaning and purpose, representing the struggles, triumphs, everyday habits, and beliefs of LA’s new pedestrians.
Many of Los Angeles’s pedestrian-oriented streets and districts—Old Town Pasadena, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, and Olvera Street—are predicated on the transportation pattern of people driving there, parking, and then walking. By and large these areas contain particularly expensive commercial space; their retail establishments tend to consist of national or regional chains. Parking is expensive and is most often housed in massive structures scattered throughout the district.
Cesar Chavez and Soto provides a different model of a walkable place. The businesses tend to be small and local, with a large part of their clientele consisting of everyday residents coming on foot from the adjacent residential neighborhoods. There isn’t much parking, and the merchandise shop owners stock tends to be small or in small quantities (e.g., a four-pack of toilet paper as opposed to a 36-pack) so that people can carry these items home.
Another difference between this intersection and more conventional pedestrian districts lies in the physical design of the environment. Cesar Chavez’s urban design is do-it-yourself (DIY) in look and feel. The gas station has been turned into a King Taco. The “El Corrido de Boyle Heights” mural by East Los Streetscapers livens up the southwest corner facing Soto. Trees have been planted by residents or business owners themselves. Signs are hand-painted or crafted and exude individuality rather than consistency. Merchandise is frequently placed out on the sidewalk to entice buyers. Building setbacks are inconsistent; some storefronts are simply built-out extensions of people's homes. The result is an environment that is tactile, full of a particular visual and sensual energy, containing a sort of hodgepodge messiness not often found in the more pre-planned pedestrian districts of LA. Somewhat ironically, it is this vibrancy that these other districts try so hard to create via a top-down control of scale, use, tree canopy, sidewalk width, and fountain and public art placement.
James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, and artist.