by David Butow
Editor’s note: In his 1994 review of the newly redesigned Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, architecture critic Leon Whiteson noted that LA is an “intensely private” place where public spaces “seldom serve as real meeting places for the population of a fractured city.” It was hoped that the park’s design, by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, with its bold colors and forms and nods to local history, would be a public gathering place for both the mostly Anglo community that worked west of the park and the mostly Latino commercial district just to the east. In his review, Whiteson asked, “Can an act of architecture change a city’s ingrained social habits?” The answer, at least the one provided by Pershing Square, was no. Whether it was the lack of trees and shade, awkward access points, or a general allergy to Legorreta’s postmodern design, people did not flock to the park.
But can social habits change a city’s architecture? James Rojas, an urban planner who pioneered the idea of “Latino Urbanism,” says that’s exactly what is happening in California’s cities and around the country. Latino Urbanism describes the myriad ways that immigrants from Latin America are remaking American cities to feel more like the places from which they came. It describes a culture in many ways the opposite of the “intensely private” city Leon Whiteson described, with an emphasis much more on sociability and extending private and commercial realms outside and onto the street. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than LA’s CicLAvia—modeled on Bogotá’s Ciclovía—the open streets festival that brings tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists out onto temporarily closed streets.
Latino Urbanism is remaking California not by demolishing and rebuilding—as Legorreta’s Pershing Square did—but by adapting what already exists. Metal fences are erected in front of low-slung ranch houses, murals are painted on shop fronts, informal markets crowd sidewalks, and the streets spring to life.
We sent photographer David Butow around California to capture some of this spirit.