As part of a regular series featured on this website, LA Open Acres will be asking people across a variety of backgrounds, interests, and neighborhoods about vacant land. We’ll explore the impact that these spaces have on neighborhoods, what we can do about it, and how LA Open Acres can serve as a resource. For our first post, Gary Garcia discusses how his own personal history with an intersection in South LA made him dedicate a Graduate School project many years later. If you have something to say about vacant lots, and would like it featured on this blog, please let us know!

My youth in South LA is divided into two distinct phases: the ten years from 1983-1992, and from 1992 until 2000, when my family moved away. I remember the early years as a vibrant and active childhood when my family and I walked to the local stores, had lunch, and met friends and family along the way. This was a time when I could ride my bicycle, take karate classes, and play with my friends all day. Fatigue was the only limit to how active I could be in my community.

Fast-forward to the civil unrest in South Los Angeles in May 1992, when everything changed. Limitations were imposed on me. Having experienced the riots myself, I understood why limits were placed on me by my parents. The freedom to move through space was taken away from me, and this created a disconnect from my immediate surroundings. After the riots, the active commercial center and its pedestrian-friendly streets were vacated by businesses and civic investment, and became vacant spaces in ruin. The lack of direct access to resources for everyday items in my own neighborhood produced communities where no one walked. I was confined to the corners of my street. I never walked because there was nothing to walk to. My family drove 20-40 minutes to surrounding neighborhoods of LA to make everyday household purchases. This established an everyday life outside of South LA. I attended school, worked, and held all my social activities outside of my own community.

Vacant lots at Vermont & Manchester, South LA

In the years since I left South LA, I have come to realize that perhaps the most challenging issue about vacant lots is that they transcend physical space, becoming embedded into the cultural and social identity of a community and its residents. As a result of the 1992 civil unrest, the presence of vacant lots continuously recalls images of crime, violence and poverty. This causes a negative impact on generations of South LA residents. While vacant lots produce unhealthy environments through a lack of resources and lack of economic investment, they are also opportunities for an urban catalyst to produce meaningful places that areas like South LA deserve.

Figure 1 – Versatile Markets Master Plan

I made vacant lots the focus of my directed design research for my graduate studies at the University of Southern California. I chose the intersection of Vermont and Manchester and its immediate context not only for its urgent and critical issue in urban design, but because it is a place that I call home and part of my identity. It is a place that I never forgotten, where I strive to create awareness so that the quality of life in South LA can improve.

Figure 2 – Bird’s-Eye View, Intersection of Vermont and Manchester

Versatile Markets is an urban infill design strategy that creates an Urban Marketplace made up of open spaces and public and private facilities (commercial center, public transportation hub, green open space), that when overlaid generate habitable spaces that share a common goal of redeveloping South LA.

Figure 3 – Recreational Activites

This strategic design avoids the outdated redevelopment process models that favor strip malls or large box retailing giants with additional vacant parking lots. This design reinvents commercial centers like the ones that existed prior to 1992: a place where the streets are pedestrian-oriented, ensuring that pedestrians can move through the space and shape their own experiences. The retail environment adjacent to public facilities is aimed at ensuring the longevity of a successful redevelopment strategy, which brings both private and public resources that are part of everyday living.

Figure 4 – Public and Pedestrian Circulation

Within the social, cultural and economic context of South LA, the Versatile Markets research and design becomes a testing ground to address the spectrum of vacant lots which fill our urban environments. The proposal explores unconventional urban design strategies as a means of producing unprecedented experiences in the scale of community, producing an eventful and continuous self-relevance landscape that no generation has experienced yet.

Figure 5 – Landscape Systems

This design proposal is the conclusion of approximately one year of research. During my directed design research, I faced a challenge while gathering data for the area surrounding the intersection of Vermont and Manchester. This particular intersection is at a junction of political boundaries. As a result, the immediate context is governed by city, state and federal law. This disconnection and loss of information resulted in an extended time in collecting data for an area that is less than a quarter mile in radius. In additional to political disconnection, I also encountered the same issue when approaching nonprofit organizations in the area which aimed at rebuilding South LA. The organizations lacked a consistent base on which to develop their grassroots strategies.

As my academic research becomes professional ambition, I am looking forward to LA Open Acres’ initiative of bringing healthy, walkable, active spaces to Los Angeles. Projects like LA Open Acres will empower our communities with resources to take charge and be part of this new movement.