LA needs a Department of Interstitial Spaces

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: There is nothing extraordinary about the space under the North Spring Street Bridge just north of downtown Los Angeles. But that has done nothing to diminish its power to suggest and actually become a refuge from gang violence, a no man's land where the regular rules of street life were suspended, a gallery for graffiti and other art, a stage for music, a performance studio, a workshop, a town hall, a place for weddings and birthday parties, and even a Garden of Eden for some.

AnotherCityThumb2.jpgIn the city of Los Angeles there are 12,309 blocks worth of alleys like the one that runs along the north side of the North Spring Street Bridge before it crosses the Los Angeles River--a total of 914 linear miles, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Each one could suggest, as a neon sign installed under the Spring Street bridge by USC professor Manuel Castells suggests: "Another city is possible."

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, a new book by Jeremy Rosenberg, chronicles the extraordinary history of the transformation of the space under the Spring Street bridge between 2006 and 2013--which brought people and plants and parties of all kinds to "Under Spring," as the space came to be known. With a project to widen the bridge underway now, the future of that space is uncertain. But Rosenberg's book does what the best histories do. It reveals the possibilities alive in the past. And it attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today--12,309 possibilities.

Under Spring came alive because of an unusual confluence. Artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio backs on to the alley. Ed Reyes, the city councilmember from the first district, took an interest in the project to clean up and "activate" the space, in the lingo of urban planners. And Al Nodal, president of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, ran the bureaucratic traps to make it work. The key was an aptly named but little used provision in city rules called an "alley vacation." Since the space was not needed for any commercial uses other than those of the Metabolic Studio, it could be closed off and used for more creative public purposes. Under Spring became an ongoing, evolving work of art, created and curated by Metabolic Studio.

"This place was not unique in this city or nationally," Nodal told Rosenberg, "there are lots of underpasses, cul-de-sacs and traffic triangles. All absurd and eminently creative spaces."

Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, told Rosenberg: "When things don't have a designated function, anything else can occur." He added: "One could imagine that Los Angeles, of all cities, might have some of the most real estate that is interstitial space. Either under bridges or as part of flyovers and cloverleaves and freeway exchanges where the ramps kind of soar up and create little triangles or circles of space that you can't really get to. It's in those kinds of corridors, those eddies, those incidental spaces, where things that aren't scripted activities can take place."

Unfortunately, Under Spring's "alley vacation" is over. But here's a suggestion for Mayor Eric Garcetti inspired by Rosenberg's book: create a new Department of Interstitial Spaces. OK, maybe not a department. Just a small team, with a czar, or better yet, a wizard like Al Nodal in charge. The mission: scout out emerging opportunities where artists, neighborhood organizations, and citizens are re-imagining neglected patches of public space in the city, and help nudge the bureaucracy to get out of their way.

"This site in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is so full of destitute people and destitute places that the effort to rescue these destitute places and regenerate them is probably one of the most crucial projects," Manuel Castells told Rosenberg, for "a new kind of city and a new kind of society. Because we have made too much use of a policy of scorched lands in our cities. We'll call it a disposable city. You use it and throw it away." But, Castells added, "another city is possible, and even in Los Angeles, another Los Angeles is possible."

Possible, perhaps. That's at least what Under Spring suggests. But Under Spring is history now, beautifully captured in the chorus--verging on cacophony--of voices in Rosenberg's book. And it's unlikely that the unusual confluence that came together under the North Spring Street Bridge can be replicated in the thousands of other interstitial spaces that Matt Coolidge notes were "never intended to be used" but "represent a kind of untapped resource" in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

But with a little help from city hall to clear the way, citizens might tap the great resource of public space for creative purposes in their own communities. Because if history shows us the possibilities alive in the past, and attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, it is so that we can act.

Note: I'm on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society, which awarded Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. The book was published this fall by Heyday in collaboration with the California Historical Society.


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