During the recent CicLAvia, cyclists stretch as far as the eye can see on 7th St. from MacArthur Park into Downtown. All images by the author.
Los Angeles is a city of cars. This we know. Public space is few and far between, taking the form of long streets like Melrose Ave or the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Public-private spaces like the Grove and the Third Street Promenade create the illusion of a walking city, but most people first have to drive to get there.
But Angelenos are yearning for public space, and recent interventions are pointing at a way to create that space. The most prominent, certainly, is CicLAvia, a biannual event that celebrated its fourth installation this month.
CicLAvia is inspired by the ciclovías of Latin America, a tradition started by Bogotá, Colombia, a traffic-heavy city which shuts down streets every Sunday. In Los Angeles, this means shutting down over 10 miles of streets, stretching west from Beverly and Vermont, through to MacArthur Park, Downtown and Boyle Heights, with a north-south trail from Olvera Street to Central and Olympic. The distance pales in comparison to Bogotá's 85 miles of street closures, but as any Angeleno would attest, 10 miles alone would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago.
It was my first CicLAvia this year, and it was stunning. The city that I grew up in suddenly felt smaller, more free, disentangled from the traffic that makes it so infamous. I could feel the city air, see the smiles on my fellow cyclists, gaze up at the buildings and notice details I never had time for when driving by. Key areas created an open public space on the streets for cyclists and non-cyclists alike—in MacArthur Park, for example, you could sit down, listen to live music, eat tacos, and just people watch.
CicLAvia's success has been a thrill to witness, but its ambitions and scale are also difficult to reproduce. Costing about $100,000, mostly for street closures and the accompanying safety presence, CicLAvia represents the extraordinary collective effort of a 13-person board, whose talents range from social media strategy to arts organizing to civil engineering. A recent piece in LA Weekly described the original founders, "As if casting for some kind of prisoner-of-war escape film, the group's initial members each had the exact higher-order specialties you would need to produce an impossible-sounding seven-mile, open-air, closed-streets, public event in Los Angeles."
CicLAvia raises much of its funds through donations. In a quieter section on the northern trail, a sign asks cyclists to text in a donation to keep the project going.
Other, smaller public space interventions have also been introduced, providing proof of concept that smaller, citizen-organized repurposing of public space can be replicated across the city. My ears perked up when I heard that residents of the heavily-Asian San Gabriel Valley were organizing a night market in Pasadena. Night markets are a staple of life in Asian cities—they go beyond the typical marketplace, serving as an informal public space for the community to gather and get to know each other. But despite boasting one of the country's largest Asian populations, Los Angeles has never had one.
Unlike popular farmer's markets across Los Angeles, the new night market would be a street closure near the main throughway of Colorado Blvd, an attempt to recreate the vibe of the street markets in the organizers' native Taipei. But while the original Facebook group received 8,000 RSVPs, the swelling crowds and overflow into Pasadena's streets suggested something in the range of of tens of thousands. Clearly, Angelenos weren't hungry just for Taiwanese street food—they were hungry for a new way to occupy public space in the city.
The new Sunset Triangle in Silverlake repurposes a section of Griffith Park Blvd. previously open to cars and only occasionally shut down for farmer's markets.
And then, of course, there's the new Sunset Triangle, a design intervention in Silverlake reported by Core77's Carren Jao. As Jao writes, "Although Los Angeles has seen its share of road closures for the immensely popular cycling celebration CicLAvia and Los Angeles marathons, these events are small scale one-day events not year-long proposals."
Indeed, Silverlake residents I spoke with told me they simply hadn't noticed the businesses around the Triangle before the area was closed off. And being just a few months old, the space, at least when I visited, seemed largely unoccupied and unused . The biggest intervention so far seems to be a basketball hoop rolled into the space... which no one was using when I visited. But summer has yet to arrive, and I'd be surprised if Silverlake's creative residents can't come up with some interesting uses for the space.
Certainly, Angelenos have plenty of public space, especially in the beaches and parks, and the city is used to streets being shut down for events like the LA Marathon. What unites all these recent interventions is that their purpose is to be purposeless. They're ideas imported from faraway cities like Bogotá, Taipei and New York, and they aim to take part of the city that belongs to cars and reassign it for a public life that exists for no other reason than to be public. And they could be exported to other megalopolises, especially in those where car culture also dominates.
I'm remembering a conversation I overheard while cycling through CicLAvia. A gentleman waiting to cross the street shouted out, "What are you guys biking for?"
We all smiled knowingly to each other. In my head, I wanted to describe CicLAvia, the research I had done, and how it was a brilliant design intervention. But someone beat me to it, and capture its spirit much more succinctly. "Nothing," one woman said. "We're just having fun."