Local Architect Part of Plan to Reimagine South Central L.A.

By Tim Pompey

Driving from Ventura County down to South Central Los Angeles, you can’t help but feel hemmed in by the traffic. Down the 405 on a Saturday evening, the area from Interstate 10 south to the Florence Avenue exit is as busy as any other rush hour on an L.A. weeknight.

Driving east on Florence to Western, there are plenty of small businesses, trash strewn lots fenced in by iron rail fencing, and barely a tree in sight.

Five Points Foundation sits at the corner of Florence and Western in South Central Los Angeles. This corner of was one of the key sites during the 1992 Rodney King protests.

This, the consequence of a city that for nearly a century has expanded thoughtlessly, or perhaps as some people of color suspect, has boxed in the area in a deliberate effort to cut off the black communities from the city at large.

The intersection of Florence and Western where I’m headed was one of the pivotal points during the 1992 Rodney King protests, and you can understand why South Central L.A. has very little that’s green or pleasant or interesting or attractive. Concrete. Beat-up buildings. Fast food. No major retail grocery stores. No banks either, at least along this major artery.

The black communities in South Central and Inglewood are hemmed in by the 405 on the west, the 10 on the north, and the 110 on the east. Beyond these boundaries lie picturesque beach communities, high end retail, major sports venues, and a downtown theater. But drive through South Central and it’s as if anything aesthetic is a thousand miles away.

A group of conference attendees spent the day discussing how the area known as “Death Alley” would look in five years.

For Jacmond Johnson, an African-American from New Orleans, South Central was tough to get used to when he moved there in the early 2000’s. Johnson is a graduate of Los Angeles Trade-Technical Center near downtown L.A. His major was architectural and urban planning.

“When I arrived here in L.A. in the early 2000s, it was during the bus strike,” he recalled. “I had to learn the city the hard way. The cultures were very different. And then getting used to the speed and the massiveness of the city. But even though New Orleans was worlds apart from L.A., the black communities here suffered from a lot of the same problems, especially the inequality.”

What really struck Johnson, however, was a concrete maze that cut off the black community from anything beautiful or pleasant. Parks, mountains, lakes, recreation, even a place to just take a walk.

He believes this spare aesthetic was deliberately planned. “We know the most pressing problems here are jobs and education,” he explained, referencing the major challenges residents of South Central Los Angeles deal with daily. “But so much of that is actually predicated upon the built environment. There’s a reason why people complain about the freeway cutting through and boxing in neighborhoods of color. That’s by design.”

Johnson insists there’s an aspect of aesthetic manipulation controlling residents in this area. The effect is to cut off access to a lot of resources. For instance, not being able to connect communities of color to the jobs offered in other more affluent locations. And there’s something even more important.

“It cuts off my world view from what else is going on,” he pointed out. “It’s sort of like putting a plant in a pot and the plant outgrows the pot. When you sequester an area by design, when that community is choked, there’s no life-giving entities that are allowing it to grow. It can’t grow.”

But with key help from members of the community, local architects, an architectural professor, and a whole list of community organizations, there just might be some life left in that pot. After all, if a plant is rootbound, the most essential thing to save it is to repot it and give it more space to grow.

That’s the idea behind an organization called Pando Populus. Find spaces that can be renovated. Connect them to other spaces that are life giving rather than stifling. As they describe themselves, they are “a nonprofit producer of education and communications initiatives in Los Angeles County, strategically chosen to help fast-track sustainability.”

Organizers of the Pando Populus Conference included (l to right): Eugene Shirley, president, Pando Populus, Wayne Fishback, retired L.A. architect and Ventura County resident, Marcela Oliva, professor of Architecture at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, Jacmond Johnson, one of Oliva’s many students and a graduate of LATTC in architectural and urban planning.

While this may sound like a trendy philosophy, it really does involve getting people to put shovels in the ground and to bring about environmental changes in small spaces.

This explains why I’m here at the corner of Florence and Western meeting with conference attendees at Five Points Youth Foundation. Architect Eugene Shirley, president of Pando Populus, has been working in cooperation with architectural professor Marcela Olivia from L.A. Trade-Tech and a host of other businesses and community participants to determine the future of what’s known in this neighborhood as “Death Alley,” a named given to the area by the Los Angeles Times in 2014 because of its high murder rate.

For the last five years, Pando Populus, Oliva, and other members of the community (including the property owner Vanessa Cain) have been cleaning up this space and making it habitable and useful for community activities. As an example, while the crowd here talks and relaxes, a blues band plays. Before Five Points and Pando Populus helped clean up this space, listening to tunes from a blues band would not have been possible. As I observe, open space has all sorts of positive possibilities.

As it turns out, the work, which started in 2012, was worth it. The area, about the average size of a small parking lot, has been overhauled and landscaped. The neighboring Jack in the Box has pitched in to make their own corner safer and cleaner. There’s a small garden sprouting in the middle of the lot.

For Ventura County resident and retired L.A. architect Wayne Fishback, it’s about citizens personally cleaning up their neighborhoods and in the process learning valuable life skills. “It begins at this site with helping youth who are hanging out on street corners and selling drugs to re-purpose their lives,” he said. “We’re trying to turn them around to where they want to become productive citizens.”

He hopes that Five Points will be a place where young people will be directed and jobs created for them to do projects. Small projects. Maybe larger projects in the future.

What kind of jobs does Fishback have in mind?

“One is trail development and recreation,” he said. “There’s a thing metro is pushing called rails to trails and we’re going to have these kids moving out into the open spaces where we have all this public land but no trails and the kids are going to be building trails.”

And hopefully in the process getting a chance to be outdoors working among some actual mountains and trees.

“Two,” he continued, “is we’re going to get into the whole recycling business and these kids are going to be helping recycle materials, particularly with a focus on construction materials.”

Five Points is a model site meant to be replicated in other parts of South Central L.A. Where once there was concrete and trash, the site at Five Points has removed that concrete, added a soft natural cover, and created an ecologically permeable surface so that storm water will percolate down, recharge the ground water, and prevent dirty water from running into the street and down the sewer.

The rehabbed site at Five Points will provide recycled materials such as concrete and wood for other future cleanup projects.

One of the movers and shakers of this small conference is Marcela Oliva, an architecture professor from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. It was Oliva who began to connect the dots and bring people onto her advisory board. Oliva’s vision over the years has created a movement.

She serves two roles—one as an inspiring instructor for her students, the other as professional expert for the sustainability program for L.A.’s nine community colleges. Her goal was to create architectural planning that bound itself to nature.

“In a transportation oriented community, how do we connect it to our trails in the mountains?” she asked. The answer?

“We take our students to nature. We help them design the trails and design the spaces connected to the trails. Just like sciences in the past, we even have them collect leaves from local trees, and then we bring it to our labs and we use the geometry from nature to design our spaces.”

One advantage of being enrolled in her program is that students must serve real clients. This is how she brought in Five Points. “In all my classes, we have a real client,” she said. “So Five Points Foundation is a client. Five Points Foundation was brave enough to say would you design our site?”

Oliva recruited talented people to work with her. People like Fishback, Shirley, Matthew Manos of the global design strategy firm very nice, and some of the leading architectural firms in Los Angeles, including Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Looking now at the site five years later, she feels proud of what her group has accomplished.

“Just walk around any street in South L.A. and look at any open lots,” she challenged. “They are abandoned, they are deteriorated. That’s bad for the brain, and as an architecture teacher, I wanted to do something that people would feel proud about in their community. I didn’t want someone from outside to design it. A lot of my students come from this area. It was very powerful for them to design something in their community.”

Whatever she’s doing, it seems to be working.

“All of a sudden my program exploded,” she said. “I have Russian architects, Mexican architects, L.A.U.S.D. kids, graffiti artists, and now the word is out. I think that’s my secret sauce. Use nature for your knowledge. Use high end tools. And then have real clients.”

Now the participants in today’s conference are setting their sights on what they can change in the next five years. From the cleanup of Five Points, where else can they go?

For businesswoman and landlord Vanessa Cain, owner of Florence Mail Boxes and Business Center next door to Five Points, it’s about taking the community’s destiny into their own hands and reclaiming space. Start small and think local impact. Move forward. She purposefully made herself a partner in cleaning up the property she leases to Five Points.

Vanessa Cain owns the property where Five Points Foundation resides and has actively participated in five years of cleanup and property rehabilitation

Cain was here in 1992 during what she termed the “uprising.” She has a ground zero perspective of what happened.

“It was a powder keg,” she exclaimed. “It was a buildup of all that had gone on. We can parallel that to what’s happening today, the killings of black youth in the community, both black men and black women across the country, and it’s still happening. I know it was just a buildup of that and people just got tired from the retaliating. It was the attitude that I’m not going to take it any more.”

Though much of the uprising was in South Central L.A., she insisted that it was not just limited to her community. “It went all the way to the beach,” she recalled. “In ’65, it was contained to Watts. This was much wider spread, and if you remember, it even set off protests in Europe. Germany was on fire the same night that we were on fire.”

Cain insists that the future of the black community in South Central is of mutual concern to people all over the world. It’s being viewed as a barometer of whether the U.S. is fair in its economics and its justice system.

“The black community is like a catalyst for the world,” she stated. “People are waiting to see what’s going to happen, even now.”

This is especially true when she travels:

“I find when I travel throughout the world, people want to know: What’s going on with the black community? Do you want to know what’s going on in America? I ask them. They answer: Well, I don’t really want to see that because I know what’s going on there. But here is what they’re really concerned about. This area is like the pivotal point, especially for people of color.”

And so, if the health and wellbeing of South Central is pivotal, in what sense has it changed in twenty-five years?

“Nothing has really happened as far as infrastructure,” she noted. “But there will be no changes if they’re told it’s not working. If they’re told it’s not worth investing in the community, then they’re not going to come.”

Why does there seem to be such apathy toward South Central, especially within the political structure?

“You have to look at that in the most recent election,” she said. “Since Brown vs. The Board of Education, you have all of this going on where Democrats and Republicans and whomever has been promising change, but nobody’s done anything, and I think this time the black community showed that you’re not just going to get my vote. You have to work for it.”

Her goal, however, is to stop asking for intervention and take responsibility upon herself to get things done, and for that, she doesn’t need permission from politicians or black community representatives. She’s ready to put a shovel in the ground and get going.

“I think one of the things that’s reflected in this project is that you don’t need government to do some of the smallest things,” she insisted. “It’s just you cleaning up your community, taking back your community. The small things that we can do to make it inviting for other people to come in, you can do yourself.”

In this sense, Pando Populus, Oliva, Fishback, Shirley, Johnson, Cain, and other important partners have purposed to move forward regardless of the challenges. Today, for instance, the AMER-I-CAN Foundation donated $10,000 to the cause.

“It’s up to us to really take back our community and do for ourselves,” said Cain. “This was one way of doing it, and if you do it yourself, other people will come and help. Like Wayne Fishback. He saw what we’re doing so he said, well okay, it’s worth it. So I’ll come on over, and he soaked some money into it.”

While it may be one lot among thousands in the neighborhood, Cain is not deterred by the size of the problem. Her focus is on the lots they can change. And in that sense, the program is starting to see signs of growth.

“It’s already expanded,” she said. “We came here in 2012 and we basically cleaned up this corner. We came in, we cleaned it up. We made Jack in the Box do what they needed to do to clean up their lot and the local strip mall the same thing. I think it’s just getting involved and things will change.”

How many corners does she plan to tackle?

“We have a lot of corners,” she laughed. “A lot of corners.”

For Johnson, it’s about finding his personal focus. This isn’t about changing the world. It’s about changing his own personal space. “I would like to bring awareness to the little things a person can do to their own personal environment,” he said. “I don’t necessarily concern myself with the global economy. I concern myself with my personal economy. Aesthetically and designwise, there’s a lot of things that you can do within your own spaces in your own communities. You want to start off small. We all have big ideas, but they have to start somewhere. Make a plan or a pledge to increase the aesthetic or architectural value of your environment.”

Go see for yourself. Florence and Western. Five Points Foundation. South Central Los Angeles. It has now become their corner and they plan to keep using it to bring change to other parts of the city, one small space at a time.

Because the lot has been cleaned up and opened up, community activities such as the Pando Populus conference and a blues band can now occupy the space. The area will serve as a model for other future projects.

Photo Credits: Tim Pompey

Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

Mr. Pompey’s Newest Book:  

deep.downDeep Down  is another roller coaster collection of short stories by author Tim Pompey. A mortician with ghost problems. A humanoid stranded in outer space. A B-17 bomber pilot haunted by voices from his past. These and other stories dig beneath reality and crawl through hidden tunnels to a world that exists without and within us. From childhood to old age, these stories are locked inside the mind, waiting to be discovered.

Go deep. Very deep. Find out what lies buried within your own imagination.

Deep Down On Amazon

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Michael Hurvey Anderson

I would like to mention that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in our community to improve the quality of life. The Pando Populus lot cleanup is powerful solution and benefit to the community. African American architects are also making changes throughout South Central Los Angeles. Our firm BASE changed downtown Compton Civic center with the new MLK Jr Transit Center, Dollarhide community center, brought in a senior housing developer to the City and entitled the adjacent lot for the development of a 74 unit senior housing facility. This made a small TOD village next to the existing Metro Blue Line station.
BASE also designed Neighborhood Housing Corporation’s new Compton headquarters and renovated Raymond Park in the City of Compton that was closed for a number of years due to crime and deferred maintenance.

BASE began the concept of rebuilding Century Boulevard in 2007 and lobbied and obtained the federal authorization to fund $3 million for engineering services for Century Boulevard in Inglewood that is now under construction.

The County Supervisor over the past 6 years has rebuilt MLK Jr hospital and caused the renovation of the Metro Blue Line Willowbrook Rosa Parks that connects to the Green Line and the Compton MLK station.

Visually connecting these projects may be difficult because they are far apart. This makes it important for more organizations like Pando Populus to do what it is doing. But it is most important to create the business conditions that attract and cause massive development of housing for middle income families to live in Central Los Angeles. Especially near existing transit stations. Then we will see tangible changes connecting each community while improving the quality of life for the adults and children.

William Hicks
William Hicks
3 years ago

YEAH, lets rebuild this part of Los Angeles so that there will be plenty of targets at the next riot’s