From Tianguis to Capitalized Urban Space in L.A.

Public space in Los Angeles changes so rapidly, that urban plans for the city always arrive late. Roger Sherman emphasizes at Counting (on) Change, Property, chapter 9 of The Infrastructural City, that however if architecture is to recover its social, economic, and political value amidst the instability and uncontrollability of the contemporary city, it needs to be rethought in a manner that assumes risk, not averst it.

An interesting approach to this topic is the study of informal economic networks that take place in areas that weren’t designed for this use. Or areas with ephemeral and informal occupation, as flea markets, tianguis and swap meets.

We can read at Cultural Landscapes:

In Los Angeles, the old downtown shopping street of Broadway is called the new “Latinoway” of the city. The street has been marked by new cultural uses for spaces and buildings that include eating, shopping, entertainment, and a vital street culture of vendors. Today, “Latinoway” in Los Angeles mirrors the open-air market of Aztec times in ancient Mexico, called a tianguis.

L. A. inhabitants have a strong ability to adapt to change, as we can see in such complex city, that grows and developes in an almost unpredictable way, mostly defined by new urban ecosystems created by self-organization rules. In Sherman‘s words, “Los Angeles has been an incubator for strategies of urban development which are thought out in exactly this way –marrying pure speculation with the built-in plasticity necessary to adapt to, an even preempt, future scenarios.” Many new urban landscapes are born from the complex interaction of different land uses.


Alameda Swap Meet, Los Angeles. Street View caption

Visiting Mexico City for Postópolis! DF last month, we were striked by the capacity of self-organization and informal economy that we were able to see at the city. New urban landscapes emerged everywhere in the form of tianguis and street vendors. A variant of this phenomena is what happens in Los Angeles, where the informal economy is reconfigurating the city all the time, mixing uses with ephemeral and autonomus stands. So, when we start talking about urban design in this context, we can quote Sherman when he wrote “Like the children’s game of chutes and ladders, the strategy is less an index of past change as it is a valve-like diagram of [numerous combinations of] possible choices of futures.

Regarding this issue, Stan Allen has said that the natural and man-made environment are, in their own ways, ecosystems whose evolution is a direct function of their ability to survive and to adapt to change, in [the form of] land conversion, driven by institututional decisions, population growth and economic forces. And he pointed:

Field conditions moves from the one toward the many: from individuals to collectives, from objects to fields […] It opens architecture to material improvisation on site. Field conditions treats constraints as opportunity and moves away from a Modernist ethic – and aesthetics – of transgression. Working with and not against the site, something new is produced by registering the complexity of the given.

Here are some case studies related with informal economy to expand Sherman‘s cartographies about urban and spatial organization and the new territories emerging due to new socioeconomic couplings.


Parking area in Boyle Heights. Google Earth caption


Same parking area in Boyle Heights with informal “tianguis”. Google Earth caption

Street vendors cars fill a city parking lot on Breed Street with its tianguis, less than a block from well-lighted shops along Cesar Chavez Avenue in the busiest commercial corridor of Boyle Heights. The street vendors, that arrive to sell carne asada, tamales and steamed tacos, has created a culinary destination that now bring hundreds of customers to the area.

It has been also detected traces of some kind of hidden agreements in between legal commerces and illegal vendors whom arrange a kind of rent to use the portion of sidewalk in front of the legal store. Researchers indicate that a program to incorporate street vendors into the formal economy has already been tried in LA, and failed. Special Sidewalk Vending District Ordinance of 1994 authorized the creation of 8 vending zones in the city, but only two pilot programs were launched—one in MacArthur Park and the other in San Pedro: both were out of business by 2005.

What happens in Boyle Heights is the perfect example of the logic that operates in Los Angeles, a logic that is “an attempt to impose measure on the immeasurable“, in Allen‘s words. Sherman describe it with these words:

There, connectivity was, as it largely still is, neither nor continuous, instead developing contingently through the opportunistic, piece-meals, lets-make-a-deal process that operated on an as-needed basis only, as necessitated by an ever-changing present.

This kind of social settings are part of the dynamics of negotiation that Sherman points in his article. Another case study is the well known Melrose Trading Post. This is one of the longest and most successful fundraising efforts in the history of Los Angeles Unified School District, being active for the last ten years. We found out that it was in In March 1998, when the Fairfax High School [home of the Greenway Arts Alliance] hosted the first Melrose Trading Post. Currently known as a chic flea market, it has become a weekly event, held every Sunday in the school parking lot at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Fairfax Avenue. What started as an effective urban change ten years ago, is now a well recognized and safe established trading space.


Melrose Trading Post. Street View caption during a week day


Melrose Trading Post. Google Earth caption on weekend

Maybe this examples are a good way to describe part of the complexities of urban context in Los Angeles. We can quote again what Stan Allen pointed about the dilemma of the architect working in the city today:

This is all the more true today when the real power of architecture has been eroded everywhere by a swollen bureaucratic apparatus. Architecture and planning, in a desperate attempt to survive, have simply opposed their idea of order to chaos: planning versus uncontrolled growth. But this is a kind of zero-sum thinking, in which architecture can only be diminished in the measure to which it relinquishes control over the uncontrollable. We thrive in cities precisely because they are places of the unexpected, products of a complex order emerging over time.

It’s interesting to make a reflection on the kind of new negotiated territories we’re creating, the way that architects and urban planners are able to interact with them, the efforts carried out to make visible hidden fluxes in our cities and the need to understand how public and private interests shape the contemporary urban ecosystems. Finishing with Sherman‘s words: “Property stakeholder negotiations not only shape a city but also influence the development of its smallest common increment: the individual parcel.

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This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading Roger Sherman’s “Counting (on) Change”.
Header image from the poster Street Vending L.A. Thanks to @laperiferia


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