East of East: Using Vacant Space to Create Place in South El Monte

Ay Corazon Credit Alice Strong-thumb-630x417-44492
“ay Corazon” installation as part of SEMAP’s Activate Vacant project. Photo by Alice Strong/SEMAP

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared under the Intersections column for the KCET Departures website, January 31, 2013]

When the housing bubble burst in 2008, the fallout scattered widely. California and the metropolitan region of Los Angeles took it in the teeth. In Cleveland and Detroit, where unoccupied housing had long proven to be a drag on local economies and communities, vacant homes and lots accumulated rapidly. Rustbelt inner cities struggled mightily and their sprawling Sunbelt cousins endured crippling retrenchment. Phoenix, Fresno and Orlando witnessed declining economies and rising crime rates as vacant homes and lots proliferated.

In “Sunburnt Cities,” Tufts University urban planning professor Justin Hollander advises planners to resist constant calls for growth, instead advocating for “smart decline” measures that focus on converting unneeded housing in areas of population decline into other uses. Hollander notes that in places like Orlando, where 1990s New Urbanism principles emphasized the importance of place in development, there were fewer foreclosures, resulting in fewer vacants. Though recent news suggests Orlando’s success in this area to be more complicated — significant increases in sales and sales prices were accompanied by a sharp uptick in foreclosures — Hollander’s point regarding place remains important.

Yet, exactly how does one establish a sense of place — one that binds residents, provides an identity to the broader public, and can help limit foreclosures and abandonment? Moreover, how does one do this in communities with lower incomes and fewer resources?

In recent years, artists have played a role in the efforts to develop community identity. For instance, Artbound‘s Sue Bell Yank recently interviewed members of Ultra-red and Union de Vecinos, two organizations that encourage collaboration between local artists and community members. Both engage in dialogues regarding how to bring art that relates to East Los Angeles and improve lives without imposing external top down solutions or beliefs. Each attempts to channel the needs and values of local residents.

Avoiding gentrification, a process that often drives long time community members from their homes, provides another central tenet. Notes artist and activist Elizabeth Blaney, “It is not about changing what is there to look like something from another community, but is more reflective of, accessible to, and inclusive of low income neighborhoods and their needs.”

Welcome to El Monte | Photo by Alice Strong/SEMAP

“We’re East of East,” says Romeo Guzman, who represents the South El Monte Arts Posse, or SEMAP, a roaming collective working toward creating place in the oft-ignored suburb of South El Monte. Established in 2011, SEMAP was envisioned by Carribean Fragoza, a South El Monte High native, when she graduated from Cal Arts in 2006; five years later it came to fruition. Today, Fragoza and Guzman operate as directors with an appointed media strategist and a loose collection of “posse” members, consisting of “artists, writers, urban planners, educators, scholars, farmers, ecologists, swap meet vendors, and youth.” Guzman notes that no one even covers art in the San Gabriel Valley, let alone in South El Monte, and SEMAP hopes to change that.

In many ways, South El Monte represents the face of today’s working class America, which in recent years is no longer confined to the city as poverty rates in inner ring suburbs have risen. Though to be fair, working class suburbs are not new.

In “My Blue Heaven,” Becky Nicolaides demonstrated the long history of working class suburbs in California, relating the story of South Gate from its creation in the 1920s, to resistance to integration in the 1960s, which in ways connects with its current incarnation: largely working class Mexican American homeowners. Likewise, Andrew Wiese demonstrated in “Places of Their Own,” that though greatly limited and forced at times to occupy marginal areas, Blacks too established working class suburban communities. Mike Davis (in Los Angeles) and Saskia Sassen (in New York) have extolled the ability of immigrants to save declining urban spaces.

So the existence of places like South El Monte, a largely non-white southeast suburban of Los Angeles populated by 20,166 residents and divided between industrial, residential and commercial uses, should not be seen as novel, nor change for the positive be thought of us unattainable.

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‘Ay Corazon’ catches people’s attention before entering the freeway | Photo by Ernesto Chaves/SEMAP

In their latest project, Activate Vacant, SEMAP hopes to limit the stultifying effects of vacant lots in South El Monte, while using these spaces as a means to create a sense of place for a community that lacks a unifying identity. “We’re raising a dialogue, getting people to think about what we can do with these spaces and get people outside the usual options regarding property,” Guzman asserted.

For their first Activate Vacant project, Fragoza and SEMAP used plastic grocery bags and wire to deliver a graffiti influenced message to South El Monte commuters along Santa Anita Avenue. Covered by a green tarp, as are numerous vacant lots in the suburb, the chain link fence with white plastic bag writing harkens back to childhood memories of practicing cursive on green chalkboards, along with an emotional statement of belonging. “Yes, ‘ay Corazon,’ is shamelessly cursi,” wrote Fragoza in July. “Unapologetically sappy. But contrary to nearby billboards, it’s not trying to sell you anything. ‘Ay Corazon’ simply wants you to reach into your soft squishy heart and find what swims there. At least for a flashing moment before you hop on the dreary freeway.”

One month later Christopher Anthony Velasco and fellow SEMAP members conducted a glitter-infused yarn bombing of a vacant in the installation “Let it Sparkle.” Situated on the corner of Tyler Avenue and Ramona in South El Monte, SEMAP transformed the unoccupied building into a public conversation. As commuters waited for “irregular buses” and passersby stared intently through their car and bus windows, they watched with curiosity. Local residents asked “que estan haciendo?” “We’re putting some color in this space,” SEMAP members would reply. Repeatedly, residents responded “Esta muy bien,” noted Velasco.

Guzman concurred, pointing out that while not everyone in the community has formal art experience, they have their own views. “People [have been] really engaged and express their opinions about it,” he says. “I like it, that is art,” one observer told Guzman as they constructed “Let It Sparkle.” Even the employee assigned to take down the installation made identical remarks, recalled Guzman. Since neighboring El Monte requires property owners to upkeep their vacants — one of the mandates requires the removal of graffiti and garbage within 24 hours — these designations matter, shifting an act that may be considered criminal vandalism to interactive public art.

Christopher Anthony Velasco installing ‘Let It Sparkle’ | Photo by Lester Lawenko/SEMAP

Clearly, public engagement remains the central premise. As Velasco and SEMAP noted, the impression or memory of the installation will in most cases outlast the physical art, due in large part to the short half-life of materials and the fact that they stand on private property. Which is the point: art needs to spark community and discussion, not displace it. Both “ay Corazon” and “Let It Sparkle” lasted only a few days, but the length of their existence matters less than their depth and ability to engage the community.

Nor is SEMAP always about creating new spaces; it also highlights old ones. SEMAP member, landscape architect, and USC graduate Jennifer Renteria highlighted the important role El Monte Starlite Swap Meet plays in suturing community. Renteria notes the swap meet’s “paraformal nature”, a reference to Argentine architect Paola Salaberri. “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,” reflects Renteria.

In its own way, the swap meet stands as one of the few “institutional” spaces for the local community. Planner and activist James Rojas has written of “the enacted environment,” and Renteria employs a similar theoretical framework when she notes that Mexicans and Mexican Americans “adopt the built environment, such as parks, streets, sidewalks, to fit their social and entrepreneurial interest and needs to the Starlite.”

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The Starlite Swap Meet | Photo by Jennifer Renteria/SEMAP
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Vendor at the Starlite | Photo by Jennifer Renteria/SEMAP

Vacant lots and unoccupied houses continue to plague the suburb. In general, Guzman notes, three types of vacants exist in South El Monte. First, those that have been empty for many years as the owner waits for better land prices. Second, lots on which a new development had been promised but never materialized, such as at Santa Ana Avenue near Merced where Jennifer Renteria’s “The Uncultivated Park” looked to provide a new blueprint for the abandoned space of a proposed shopping center. Third, businesses that closed up after 2008 and never again reopened. As a result, a sort of layered emptiness prevails upon South El Monte.

The prevalence of vacants has become part of the landscape, even if many property owners cover them with green tarp. Sure, the number of lots increased in recent years, “but they’ve always been a part of the fabric that went unnoticed,” Guzman points out. “No one considers them an urgent need.”

So what’s the long term plan? In December SEMAP concluded its Activate Vacant series with a two week residency by the Philadelphia based Black Arts Collective, in which the two organizations explored issues regarding space, history, and memory through the arts. They completed a photo series at a local vacant, and worked with youth at South El Monte High to discuss how to reframe history toward narratives that don’t simply glorify Anglo settlement or parrot national narratives, but ask real questions about “alternative histories, in alternative spaces.”

In the coming years, SEMAP wants to build more bridges with local Asian American artists, urban planners, architects, and other creative types, in the process facilitate greater interaction between South El Monte’s Asian and Latino populations. In general, SEMAP offers local artists a chance to develop skills and engage more than theoretical debates. Creating a network of people interested in how the arts can transform space into place may prove helpful in bringing in more outside help. Finally, more members, more projects, and more outreach would allow Guzman and Fragoza to play a more facilitating role.

Transforming space into place amid economic woe proves a tough job, but SEMAP’s efforts bring hope and possibly a tangible identity to being “East of East.”