Planner, educator, and activist James Rojas works across the United States using hands-on community engagement practices to help individuals and communities reflect, collaborate, and find their core values. Rojas spoke with DLA in early February to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and beyond.
You are well-known for your work on the topic of Latino Urbanism, can you share a few thoughts on what sets Latino Urbanism apart from other forms of urban design and also, how the principles of Latino Urbanism have found wider relevance during the COVID-19 era?
The Latino Urbanism movement, influenced by its Spanish and indigenous roots, treats land and people as a sensory experience rooted in relationships. When the shelter-in-place orders took effect this spring, Americans suddenly began living with spatial and social limitations, similar to living in a medieval walled city. Americans, however, traditionally think of land as a resource or as part of a transaction. Latino Urbanism, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is challenging the transactional and market-driven urban planning approaches to design that have dominated this country. These two forms of urbanism have core differences that go back centuries.
Early British settlements in the United States, for example, were settled by people who spoke the same language and shared similar values, creating a certain uniformity in design: Function, and homogeneity, was preferred over visual expression, sensory experience, and relationship to the landscape. By contrast, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they developed a set of guidelines that clearly laid out plazas and street grids for anyone to understand. This may have helped the indigenous peoples or African slaves to spatially and visually navigate these settlements, and this visual expression of sensory experiences in the landscape became a shared language between these groups. Fast-forward 400 years, visual and self-expression have become key elements of Latino Urbanism.
During the pandemic people are walking because they can’t go many places. However, many Angelenos have discovered they can’t walk in their neighborhoods because their streets are designed for cars. By contrast, because Latinos walk and use transit, they have been able to develop a deeper relation with city streets, and in turn have transformed these same streets for intimate walking experiences. Walking in a Latino neighborhood becomes a rich, sensory experience with intimate connections to these spaces that you can’t get from driving. Every step becomes a mindful, sensory experience.
Unlike conventional American urban or suburban landscapes, where perfection is the ideal, the Latino-American landscape is one of cultural, social, and economic production. Every resident has a hand in the production of space and of the community; this empowers them. These landscapes are culturally vital and represent culturally informed approaches to space creation.
These do-it-yourself or “rasquache” adaptations and aspirational interventions create a hybrid style that I term “Latino Urbanism.” Art-making helps preserve and enhance the Latino community’s values through the urban planning process because it offers new methods of planning inquiry. It also taps into people’s aspirations of place and allows Latinos to add visual and spatial value to suburbia. During the COVID-19 era, this approach has taken on a greater urgency than ever before.
I did a workshop with USC students a few months ago, for example, where we built our ideal city block; most wanted to walk around the block to pick flowers or pick fruit, instead of getting in their cars and driving to a shopping mall. They want to stay on their block, they want to make space; But in reality, this approach is considered to be un-American (from a normative planning point of view). The car feeds transactional ways of life; with COVID-19, people have to think about what is immediately around them and how it makes them feel. I bet, right now, if we were to ask Angelenos whether they need more parking or more trees, they’d say “more trees.” That’s because of how COVID-19 has changed how we live in our neighborhoods.
What can we learn from Latino Urbanism in the COVID-19 era?
During the COVID-19 era, living outside, from dining to hanging out, has become the recommended and preferred way for socializing with our friends and family. And no one uses or designs better outdoor spaces than Latinos. For example at the historic Avila Adobe, the kitchen was in the patio outside. It was not until the arrivals of the Yankees that kitchens moved inside the home. Similar historic trends and land-use patterns can be experienced in the homes and neighborhoods of Latino L.A. today. Latinos have and always will embrace and use outside space as part of their daily life, from the residential to the commercial. As Latinos have moved to L.A., they have brought attitudes towards weather, housing, land, and public space with them from their home countries. Many Latinos come from the rural places of Mexico or Latin America, where social, cultural and—to some extent—economic life revolves around the Zócalo or plaza. The plaza becomes an extension of residents’ home life. This dialoge manifests itself in the way Latinos redesign their single-family homes in the U.S.
Because of warm weather and Spanish urban design precedents, the traditional Latin American courtyard home is built to the street and designed with a “patio” or interior courtyard, for example. The patio helps ventilate the interior of the home and floods it with light. With most rooms facing the patio, it becomes the physical focus of the home. By contrast, the American houses are tightly shielded from the weather. In the Latino house, the focus is on being either inside or outside, not in front or in back. The Latino household extends its presence to all four corners of the lot. Nowhere else in the Latino vernacular home is this use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the enclosed front yard or plaza. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yards vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Latin America to working spaces.
While one can find fences in many front yards across America, the egalitarian front yard has led many to think of fences in terms of exclusion, seclusion, or security—barriers against the world. By contrast, in Latino neighborhoods and barrios, fences bring neighbors and pedestrians together. Front-yard fences have become cultural icons and places for social interaction. While it’s true that many Latino homeowners also build fences to protect their homes, keep neighbors pets off their lawns, or keep their small children from running into the street, the Latino front-yard fence also creates an edge where people tend to congregate—a comfortable point for social interaction between people in the front yard and on the sidewalk. The threshold is a pivotal part of the home and a powerful device that regulates interaction by indicating whether the residence is open/accessible vs. closed/inaccessible. The enclosed front yard physically defines a barrier between the public and private spaces of the home and the street. Thus, the enclosed front yard of the Latino home acts as a large foyer and becomes an active part of the house. The sense of entry into the Latino home begins at the front gate, often emphasized with an arch.
Collectively, the enclosed front yards in the neighborhoods change the scale of the suburban block and create an intimate atmosphere. As the fences along the street assign yard space to each home, the street becomes more urban in character, with each fence reflecting the personality of a resident on the street.
Front porches are important to Latinos—In most American homes, the use and importance of the front porch has declined. But for Latino homeowners and renters, the front porch is a critical, valued connection between outdoor-indoor space and public-private space. In Latin America, rooms such as the laundry room are not roofed or are located outside the enclosed house; so the use of outdoor space as part of the home is a common practice.
On public streets, commercial activity such as street vending, swap meets, and Mercados also take place outdoors. These activities and places are an economic, social, and cultural center for the growing Latino community. This hybrid Mercado-swap meet was part of tianguis legacy of selling in open streets and public spaces pre-Hispanic times.
What do you think is missing from Los Angeles’s architecture and urban design conversations?
Recently my partner, John Kamp, wrote a beautiful story on El Gran Burrito taqueria on Vermont and Santa Monica Boulevard and the importance the place has as a place for Latino immigrants, gay, and trans folks to meet. It got such negative feedback from the self-professed progressive, non-Latino community, who quickly dismissed the story because the space was going to be a future site for affordable housing. While we agree that affordable housing is needed, there should be room in the discussion for how we can have a city where both places like El Gran Burrito and affordable housing can co-exist. Mono-solution thinking is problematic and precisely what drove the destruction of places like Chavez Ravine decades ago. Additionally, public space is just as critical for housing as the housing itself.
Cities are a collection of relationships between people and places that are forged through their memories and experiences. We did a Place It! workshop on Pico Boulevard where we asked people to build their favorite childhood memories. To help the community understand their relationship to the street. A few African American female participants built memories of doing hair with their elders and talked about wanting to see the beauty supply stores back on Pico. Knowing their memory allowed us to understand the importance of the beauty supply store.
Many non-Latino architecture and design critics dominate L.A. architecture and urban planning conversations. They pick and choose works based on their criteria. They measure outcomes through their aesthetic or functional lenses. They see L.A. as a tabula rasa, a blank space for new interventions that don’t have a relationship to land and people. This attitude further disempowers already marginalized Latinos and might lead to furthering some of our preexisting social ills. As design professionals we have to lift all people up.
Many Latinos may think differently about space because they do not come from the traditional middle class suburbs. Many Latinos living in the US question who they are, where they come from, and what they value; however, by celebrating their built environments we can help them answer these questions. We need to help Latinos articulate their experiences, and the feelings they have about their community. We have to transform their self-doubt into new ways of inquiry and problem-solving.
How would you articulate an urban planning and urban design response to the COVID-19 crisis?
A solution might be to look at life and urbanism as being relationship-based and rooted in places and a sense of well-being so that we’re not always traveling back and forth. Can we be content in our place? Everyday urban design and architecture blogs highlight new buildings framed as the solution to our problems. But what if building is not the solution? During COVID-19 people want to rekindle their physical relationship to nature through walking and growing plants. Nature is our go-to zone, and yet that’s never part of a building agenda. We tend to want to build our way out of our urban ills. However, we should always begin the design and planning process with our core human values, lived experiences, and relationships with land and others as starting points. This will provide us with holistic solutions that will change the outcomes on how we design and build.