Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation About Urban Nature with Jennifer Renteria

Photo: Jennifer Renteria

For Activate Vacant, SEMAP invited artists to transgress space by creating installations in abandoned, un-used, and, often, fenced-in lots. Jennifer Renteria, a recent graduate of USC’s School of Architecture, is our third artist. In anticipating her project, we thought we’d let you know a little more about her.

Renteria grew up in the city of Commerce, studied history and fine arts at Bowdoin College and recently received her Master’s in Landspace Architecture. Her research, writing, and projects, which often utilize photography and multimedia, center around informal/alternative economies and the relationship between the urban environment and nature.

This past year, she visited and wrote about informal urban economics in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Santiago, Chile, and Rio Matanza in Buenos Aires. Yet, Renteria’s most extensive research and writing has focused on El Monte’s very own Starlite Swap Meet. This seems fitting, since her family has had a stand at the Starlite for the last twenty-some years:

Our bicycle business, purchased from another dedicated bicycle vendor, began as a hobby and eventually became the base of my family’s income as my parents’ employment status changed. The entire family, as well as the day laborers, teens, and occasional uncle we have employed over the years, have worked the stand, engaging in the swap meet’s demands alongside the other approximately 200 vendors.

Her essay “The Ephemeral Anatomy of the Swap Meet” combines a deep and personal connection to the Starlite with serious academic research. By being able to navigate and converse with its denizens she found that the Starlite can best be characterized as “paranormal.” This means that “Formal activities – fees and regulations – and informal activities – transient vending and secret sales – are both at play, on top of each other and with each other.” This includes a paying customer who secretly brings in goods to sell, vendors selling goods outside the swap meet, that dude selling raspados from his shopping cart, and a vendor who regularly pays for their space.

Photo: Jennifer Renteria

Renteria suggests that it is exactly this mix of informality/formality, ephemeral/permanence that provides such rich opportunities. She applies James Rojas’ notion of  “enacted environment”—the ability of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles to adopt the built environment, such as parks, streets, sidewalks, to fit their social and entrepreneurial interest and needs—to the Starlite:

This consistency within a seeming transient existence – as marked by the immediateness of the transactions, the exchanges, the relationships, the potential for growth, the ability to mobilize and move ahead into new spaces, relatively easily reshaping one’s business as one goes – is perhaps part of the reason why spaces like the swap meet thrive as they do and have long appealed to folks like my family and the many others who shape them.

Her other body of work has focused on the relationship between the urban environment and nature. Renteria’s Master’s thesis (2012) examines the urban environment and nature, with a pedagogical angle. Her study explores the “value of utilizing digital media and transmedia strategies for enriching the urban interpretive user experience of both cultural and natural landscapes and, therefore, increase the scope of environmental educational outlets and tools.”

Below, is a brief interview with Renteria.

What exactly does a Landspace Architect do?

Landscape architects themselves seem to struggle to answer that questions these days. Given how rapidly the profession has evolved in recent years, the profession’s description and limitations have become increasingly blurred. This is especially so because its related training in design, ecology, and the social sciences have become increasingly recognized as a way to approach and address an array of urban development projects and issues. Simply, though, a landscape architect researches, designs, plans, and manages land while largely asking, What is here? What was here? Why is it no longer here? What should be kept? and What can and should be here?

The materials and methods a landscape architect deals with are well influenced by change and/or are developed to respond to change.  To quote Heraclitus, “Nothing endures but change,” and landscape architects are well aware of this and always, whether they deliberately do so or not, apply this understanding to their work.

You describe the Starlite Swap Meet as a place full of potential. What can artists and art organizations learn from how the Starlite Swap Meet functions?

Perhaps the most relevant things one can learn from how the swap meet works are both the importance of showing up and of remaining persistent despite sometimes adverse conditions (which, in the case of the swap meet, the most obvious obstacles are the sometimes unforgiving weather conditions – yes, even in Los Angeles), specifically when trying to create a community or network around a certain issue or cause. Very little makes it known to outsiders that the swap meet exists, even as one is passing by it at the height of its active days. Yet, those who regularly attend know that the swap meet’s regular vendors will show up and, when they don’t, something is not in its place. A great big announcement is unnecessary to stake one’s claim of or importance to a community. What seems to be more important is to remain active (however big or small the gesture may be), to remain visible to those who care, and to remain flexible, yet dedicated to whatever cause motivates and drives you, always knowing that things change and that they can change quickly and drastically. “Prepare for the worst, assume the best.”

Spatially, South El Monte is a made up of industrial, residential, and nature (both nature constructed or curated by people and “nature”) zones, often blurring into each other. What possibilities do you see for this type of space?

Greater interconnectedness between these various zones. While one stands in any one of these zones, it is often hard to recognize that any one of the other zones exists and, much less, is accessible. Certainly, these zones at times butt right against each other, as can be easily witnessed at the swap meet, with its surrounding residential and light industrial zones engulfing it. However, there is very little permeability between these zones, so getting from one to the other is difficult. In some ways, they are turning their backs on each other when it seems that they can function better, more holistically, perhaps, by opening up to each other and making better use of each other’s different appeal to their respective users and their consequent impact on the character of South El Monte.

How does your project for Activate Vacant relate to your previous work?

At the core of all my projects – from my work on street vending to my work on urban nature – is an ongoing investigation of how people interpret and shape place, how time influences the way people interact with place, and how place and time shape people. More so, all of these explorations are hyper aware of change, and the blurred line that marks where culture and nature end and begin. Be it in a dense, urban setting or in a more remote, “wild” condition – these questions always remain relevant.