residents watch smoke and fires during 1992 unrest. source: LAPL Gary Leonard collection

residents watch smoke and fires during 1992 unrest. source: LAPL Gary Leonard collection

{We're pleased to publish this guest post by James Rojas sharing memories of periods of unrest in LA and how planning addresses or ignores inequity. When James used to come lead workshops for my students at Occidental, I would tell them that most advocates are lucky if they come up with one influential idea over the course of their career- but that James has already pioneered two: the concept of Latino Urbanism and his Place It! art/planning process. James has agreed to join LAplus' advisory board and we look forward to working with him. - mark}

This week marks the 25th Anniversary of the LA’s 1992 Civil Unrest and very little has changed for people of color in LA. While people will examine the violence, damage, chaos, and the aftermath from the unrest, as an urban planner of color I see and have lived the systematic inequities that caused these civic tensions.

Some Anglenos are born with a swimming pool in their backyards.  I on the other hand was born into a landscape of insurrection giving me different perspective of the city.  Most planners see their role as keeping the city organized and tidy.  I on the other hand, based on my early experiences see the city as imperfect, imaginative, changing, and full of energy.

At age 5, I vividly remember the landscapes created by the Watts Riots. During that time my parents drove to their friend’s home near Budlong Street by USC to check up on them. Like plastic green toy soldiers, there were real-life soldiers stationed along the streets at random corners. I was expecting to see a tank but no luck!

Arriving on their street I found an ire silence. The front yards where a few weeks earlier we played with African Americans children became a demilitarized zone.  A lady came out of their home nervously to say they were not home and to warn us of snipers. I imagined that behind the venetian blinds covering the large arched windows of the small Spanish bungalows were men with long barrel rifles ready to shot us, like in the movies. This was my last trip to their neighborhood because shortly after they moved to a mid-century house on a cul-de-sac in Norwalk.

Like tourists a few days after the Watts riots, my uncle instead of driving us to the park, on our Sunday trips drove us to 103rd Street to see all the burned out buildings against the wishes of my aunt. I saw lots the charred wood beams between the brick walks of what were once businesses.

At age 11, I remember the warm day of the Chicano Moratorium because we lived down the street from Whittier Boulevard where it took place. That day my mother was drinking wine in the backyard with a friend who had just came back from the Laguna Park and gave us a first hand account of what went on with the police sirens and smoke in the background.

The next day I rode my bike to Whittier Boulevard to check out the damaged buildings.  My mother had worked as a beautician at Johnsons Market for many years so I was very familiar with the drug stores, clothing stores, record shops, and movie theaters that lined the street.

When I was growing up. Whittier Boulevard was the epicenter for Chicano life in Los Angeles. On the weekends shoppers and cruisers share the streets and sidewalks creating a pulse and energy of people looking for a parking space, getting their hair done, or buying records or clothes for a night out on the town. Seeing all the damaged buildings and broken pieces on Whittier that day made me realize how fragile, venerable places are. And wondering- will that pulse return?

In 1992 I started my first urban planning job out of MIT, working for the city of Santa Monica. When the civil unrest started I was on the other side of town and could view it on TV. When they released us early from work, I chose to drive down Sunset because the 10 Freeway would have led right into the epicenter of fires. Like a sci-fi movie, it took me 3 hours to drive from Santa Monica to Fairfax on Sunset because everyone was in their cars trying to get over the hill for safety!  For the next few days most of the LA basin was in chaos not just the African-American or Latino neighborhoods. Looting and burning were wide spread. People didn’t know how to make sense of the chaos. Was it race, income, lack of police protection, or was it stoked by media coverage? I guess we will never know.

This time, however, I understood the systematic inequities that created the unrest.

These life situations have given me a deeper understanding of LA as an urban planner -both the tangibles and intangibles. When I started working as a professional planner I was so surprised to learn that most LA planners were not from LA, or from places like East Los Angeles. They were from Orange County and places beyond. They are less likely to see LA’s history of civil unrest as a wake up call to create a better world.

History is not embedded in civic DNA or built environment of LA. Rather everyone carries his or her personal history. Angelenos wander LA in silos looking for the next thrill to feed our personal history and create a temporary sense of belonging at the expense of intimacy with place and each other.

LA’s lack of civic history and intimacy with each other and with place, maintains the structural inequities in LA’s urban planning. Today urban planners believe that social media or apps are best way to engage under represented communities. They believe TOD’s, parklets, Ciclavia, food trucks, bike lanes, public art, and other physical interventions are going to make LA a better city like San Francisco or Portland. What the planners don’t realize is that planning with communities of color is about relationship building because due to lack of infrastructure, this is how these communities survive.

Relationship building through storytelling, objects, art making and play-based planning has driven my work for the past 25 years. I have used my research on Latino urbanism to build planning capacity for Latinas and others not usually represented at public meetings. My Place IT! process uses story telling, objects, art-making and play as a way to explore people’s attachment to each other and to place.

What the civil unrest didn’t destroy in 1992, inequality and poverty continue to erode today.  Yet too often planning in LA is too busy thinking and and talking about the next best thing to be concerned with addressing inequities in the rest of city.