"The Enacted Environment, Streets and Yards of East Los Angeles," James Rojas, Everyday America: cultural landscape studies after J.B. Jackson. Univ. California Press. 2003.
My image of home is the street where I grew up, rather than the house where I slept at night. Life inside the house was bleak and indifferent compared to the excitement and fascination of the street.
In 1962, when my family moved to Hendricks Street in East Los Angeles, it was a street in a typical working-class neighborhood, just off Whittier Boulevard, about seven miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The small houses, painted white, with their tidy front yards, created a sense of visual harmony in the neighborhood. Most of the residents were older white couples, with a few Mexican American families mixed in. Initially, I thought my new neighborhood was unfriendly, because many of the elderly couples did not have children and stayed inside their homes. I had moved from an older Latino neighborhood in Boyle Heights, where many members of my extended family were neighbors, and the family had spent much of its free time in the front yard or on the porch.
Within a few years of our moving to Hendricks Street, a large number of other Mexican families moved in. The increase in children greatly changed the quiet and orderly residential streetscape. We would play on the streets and trample over the lawns. Not surprisingly, as soon as the number of children increased, fences went up around the front lawns to keep us out and to police the toddlers and dogs inside the fences (fig 16.1). Although we had backyards, we rarely played in them, because of their seclusion and unkempt condition. They usually ended up as the territory of the unfriendly family dog., Rarely did I even go inside the homes of my friend; most of the bedrooms were small and dominated by beds everywhere.
As a child, I considered the adult world to exist entirely in our house, and the world outside, the world my friends and I inhabited, in the front yards and the local streets. The streets and front yards were accessible at all times to us; they were the public spaces where we would gather daily to become part of the larger community. While life on the street may have looked chaotic to outsiders, to us it was orderly because we understood it. We found fun, adventure, and comfort outside of our homes.
When people returned from work especially on the long, warm summer evenings, the street became very active, drawing people out of their homes. It became a well-orchestrated show, in which everyone had a time and place. People walking, talking, watering their grass, or fixing cars made the evening front yards of Hendricks Street the place to be and to be seen. age and gender groups controlled different locations: girls tended to play on the front porches and lawns, where they took care of toddlers; boys played touch football and other group contact games on the street. During the late afternoon, my mother would talk for hours to the neighbor over the fence on one side of our front yard. Then, after dinner, she might talk until nightfall to the woman on the opposite side.
Today in Los Angeles County, Latino Americans outnumber Anglo Americans. Of the county's 9.5 million residents, 41 percent are Latino. As greater numbers of Latino immigrants and native-born Mexican American citizens have settled in the suburbs of East Los Angeles, they have brought different use patterns to the existing built environment. The newcomers' former communities—ciudades, pueblos, and ranchos in Mexico and Central America—were structured differently, both physically and socially, than the American suburb. By examining the patterns by which Latinos have transformed early suburban East Los Angeles, we can better understand the "Latinoization" of urban space throughout Los Angeles and in other U.S. cities as well.
ELEMENTS OF EAST L.A.'S ENACTED ENVIRONMENT
Listed and briefly described here are key elements of the East Los Angeles enacted environment. Although they are presented in a linear, hierarchical order, from the private front yard to the most public streets and sidewalks, in reality, one often experiences these elements all at once.
Very few official signs or landmarks indicate where East Los Angeles begins. However, you can tell when you have arrived because of the large number of people in the front yards and on the streets, engaging in all types of activities. What may look like random groups of people are actually sets of well-ordered interactions in which everybody has a role. Children play, teenagers hang out, and the elderly watch. These roles enhance the street activity and provide security for families, neighbors, and friends. People on the streets in East Los Angeles exercise implicit social control. In each neighborhood area of the district, everyone knows everyone else. If you do not belong, they will challenge you with words or a stare.
The element of the East Los Angeles landscape that most demonstrates the Mexican use of space, while also expressing personal and family identity, is the enclosed front yard. Here, the residents put their faces on the street; the yard is an area they can publicly personalize without interfering with their neighbors. Enclosed front yards function as a work space, party area, or just a place to spend time. Latino front yards vary from elaborate gardens reminiscent of Mexican courtyard houses, to bare, unkempt yards.
J.B. Jackson suggests that the front yards in middle-class Anglo American suburbs have become "a space dedicated to showing that we are good citizens, and responsible members of the community" (4). Support of community identity, he notes, is measured by how well households uphold neighborhood standards through the upkeep of their front lawns. In the typical American front yard, a balance is struck between collective and the individual identity. Since most suburban Americans socialize in their backyards, Jackson describes the front yard as a very impersonal space: "No one sits there, no personal objects are left lying." This kind of front yard acts as a psychological barrier separating the private space of the home from the public space of the street.
Although the houses in East Los Angeles were built by non-Latinos, their yards have evolved into a new vernacular form as residents have made changes to suit their needs. Front yards reflect Mexican cultural values as applied to American suburban form: a hybrid of two architectural vocabularies, a new language that uses building elements from both Mexico and the United States. In a sense, the Latino front yard functions like a step-down transformer: all the sights and sounds from the street are scaled down to family size and brought under personal control. Unlike Anglo middle-class suburbanites, who, in effect, pull away from the street, people in East Los Angeles graciously extend their home life toward the street and bring the street's party, work space, and conversation in the front yard.
In the Latino front yard, every change, no matter how small, has meaning and purpose. Bringing the sofa out to the front porch, stuccoing over the clapboard siding, painting the house in vivid colors, or placing a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard all reflect the struggles, triumphs, and everyday habits and values of working-class Latinos. The front yards in East L.A. are not anonymous spaces upholding a single community identity, but rather exuberant vignettes of the individual owners' lives. Upon entering one of these enclosed spaces, the residents' private world suddenly unfolds. What appears cluttered from outside the fence becomes as organized as the objects in a room; indeed, the enclosed front yard is almost like another room in the house.
Because of all the activity in the front yard, the front porch becomes the focal point of the house. Since the rise of the automobile, air conditioning, and television, the use and importance of the front porch has declined in most American homes (5). However, in East Los Angeles, the front porch has gained a new importance as residents enlarge and expand it for heavy use. Residents sit on the porch to escape summer heat or just to be outside with family, friends, and neighbors (fig. 16.3).
Waist-high fences are ubiquitous throughout the residential landscape of East Los Angeles. They outline most front yards and define the streetscape of Latino barrios. Most are visually permeable chain link or elaborate wrought iron. In non-Latino neighborhoods, people also build fences for security and privacy, and some do in East Los Angeles as well. In Latino neighborhoods, as elsewhere, fences define boundaries between public and private space; they create easily defensible spaces and assert ownership. However, in East Los Angeles, fences serve additional purposes. They are places to hang wet laundry, to talk to neighbors, and to sell items. As J.B. Jackson has observed, boundaries not only mark separate ownership, they also can bring people together (6). In East L.A., fences create a place where people can congregate; they serve as social catalysts (fig. 16.4).
In Latino neighborhoods, fences also solve what might be called "the problem of the front door." When visitors cross an East Los Angeles front yard and reach the front door of the house, they have reached a pivotal part of the home. The front door marks the boundary between an open, public realm and a closed, inaccessible one. Thus, when a visitor and a resident meet at a front door, there is a great pressure to define the social relationship: will the visitor be invited in or not? The fence around a front yard telescopes this social threshold from the front door to the front gate.
Taken together, the social uses of the front yards and fences of East Los Angeles transform the residential street into an unconventional plaza with both public and semiprivate zones. On the street, residents and pedestrians participate in a public social dialogue, but in yards, residents can stay within the semiprivate comfort and security of their outdoor room.
Even outside the fenced yards, no space in East Los Angeles—private or public—is left unused or unmarked. Movable, relatively temporary props help to mark space and to create the enacted public environment of the Latino neighborhood. A table and chair brought to a sidewalk define territory and make people comfortable in open urban space. For men working on a parked car in the street or in the front yard, the car becomes the center of the day's activity. A sidewalk sales table can generate some revenue and become a focal point for neighborhood gossip.
Commercial sidewalks are also transformed with props. Many shopkeepers in East Los Angeles have replaced the glass front wall of their shops with metal doors or shutters, which open to the street during business hours. Shop wares and racks of goods serve to create a flow of activity between store interiors and outdoor spaces.
Sound and paint are additional types of props. From car stereos to mariachis, music in East Los Angeles temporarily controls and defines space. Visually, walls painted vividly, be it with graffiti or murals, are also key places for Latino cultural expression. This tradition, like so much else in the neighborhood, has come to the United States with immigrants from Mexico. There, murals and graphics are important communication tools that date back to European medieval times and the later centuries, when the Spanish arrived in Latin America and had to communicate with the indigenous people there. Pictures, along with words, are still used to give directions in Mexico City. For example, a pig's or cow's head indicates a butcher shop, while a cornucopia indicates a vegetable and fruit stand.
In East Los Angeles, very few spaces and walls are left untouched. The flamboyant words and graphics covering many buildings from top to bottom liven up a space; they add a kinetic visual sense to the urban environment (fig. 16.5). Murals used for business advertisement can also be political or religious. Murals painted on side walls of corner stores not only prevent or disguise graffiti, but also create a visual transition from commercial to residential uses.
In East Los Angeles, the use of props of all kinds creates a unifying human scale of activity. This is true in both residential and commercial areas. Props scale down the commercial landscape to pedestrian size, which contradicts the automobile scale of the major Los Angeles avenues and the city's wide, straight residential streets. Driving through the streets of Latino barrios, all one sees is clutter. When walking, however, one experiences a richly textured visual and tactile (that is, "hands on") landscape that enhances the enacted environment.
Recently, architects and urban designers have employed street furniture, banners, benches, and cart vendors in their designs for festival market places. In these professionally designed public spaces, the props reflect the control of a single owner. Such calculated auxiliary objects function as generic symbols of a pedestrian-friendly environment and as an opportunity for generating more income, rather than as indicators of a specific cultural group. In contrast, the use of props in East Los Angeles is anything but calculated; many props do add to marginal incomes, but more important, they reflect cultural traditions and individual initiative rather than corporate sales strategy.
EAST LOS ANGELES AS A MODEL CITY
The proponents of New Urbanism currently are searching for ways to recreate social interaction in the public spaces of American suburbs. This new approach to urban design constructs festival marketplaces, creates new plazas and village squares, moves houses closer to the street, and again provides them with porches—all characteristics similar to vernacular development of outdoor space in my East Los Angeles barrio (10). Whether or not these initiatives will actually create more social interaction remains to be seen. New Urbanists find inspiration in the historic urban forms of Europe and early-twentieth-century middle-class America, but they rarely look to the street life that exists today in Latino, African American, Asian, and other minority communities throughout the United States. Detailed studies of rich social environments such as East Los Angeles, however could offer inspiration for filling some of the social voids of suburban America.
J.B. Jackson often reminded his readers that landscapes, even ephemeral ones, provide important contexts for understanding multicultural places such as Los Angeles (11). Mexican Americans and more recent Mexican immigrants have transformed the once staid bungalow suburbs of East Los Angeles in to their own brand of New Urbanism. Clusters of people socializing on street corners and over front yard fences; the furniture and props that make these front yards into personal statements; vivid colors, murals, and business signs; street vendors carrying their wares, pushing cars, or setting up temporary tables and tarps—all contribute to the lively, unique landscape of the barrio, where local residents (not professional designers) have focused their inventive imaginations on the transformation of the spaces in front of and between their homes and stores. The resulting enacted outdoor environment is a fluid place, one composed of front yards and commercial streets, of private and public places unified by human behavior and ideas. These hardworking people, many of them newcomers to this country, have created something many other Americans desire: a vibrant street life, shared public spaces, and the sense of belonging to a community.
NOTE: PBS has created an interesting interactive map depicting the history of the Latino community in East L.A. It is worth a look, and gives further insight into the story Rojas has to tell about the culture of East L.A. Latino neighborhoods
Reading Response Assignment:
Everyone please respond to question number 1. Then, choose EITHER 2 or 3. After you post your own thoughts, respond to the posts of two or more of your classmates.
1) I want to hear what interested you most about Rojas' essay. So choose a quotation that really captured your imagination and write about that quote—why you chose it, what it makes you think of in your own experience, etc.
2) Rojas has wonderful attention to detail. He notices patterns and then examines how those patterns are important. A fence "extends household space," he says. How does he know? Because he watches how Latinos in East L.A. are using fences differently than how Anglo suburbanites use them. In your response to this reading, identify a "cultural landscape" you care about. Then describe a few key features of this space—props, as Rojas might say—that reveal something about the values of the people who use the space. Describe the element, how people use it, and what it says about the people in some depth (1-2 paragraphs)
3) It is fairly easy to see many of the criteria for a healthy landscape in Rojas' East L.A. Latino neighborhood; for example, connection to self, connection to one's important social group, connection to continuity, flexibility, and even "thrival." Find (or take) a photograph of a public space and discuss the connections you can see going on, just by observing details in the photo. Upload the photo if possible.