On Fences, Plazas, and Latino Urbanism:
A Conversation with James Rojas

This interactive model was created by James Rojas and Giacomo Castagnola with residents of Camino Verde in Tijuana as part of a process to design a community park. Photo courtesy of James Rojas
This interactive model was created by James Rojas and Giacomo Castagnola with residents of Camino Verde in Tijuana as part of a process to design a community park. Photo courtesy of James Rojas

James Rojas is busy. In 2014, he worked in over ten cities across seven states. In early February 2015, he had just finished leading a tour of East Los Angeles’s vernacular landscape—stopping to admire a market’s nicho for la Virgen de Guadalupe, to tell the history of a mariachi gathering space, to point out how fences between front yards promote sociability.

He was also in the process of preparing for a trip to Calgary, Canada. In addition to wrangling up some warm clothes, he had to pull together about a dozen boxes containing Lego pieces, empty wooden and Styrofoam spools, colored beads, and plastic bottles. This assortment of bric-a-brac constitutes the building blocks of the model streetscapes he assembles as part of his effort to reshape the city planning process into one that is collaborative, accessible, and community-informed.

James Rojas (right) created a sixteen-foot-long interactive model of the L.A. River with the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. Photo courtesy of Victoria Bernal
James Rojas (right) created a sixteen-foot-long interactive model of the L.A. River with the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. Photo courtesy of Victoria Bernal

James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, and artist. He holds a degree in city planning and architecture studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he wrote his thesis The Enacted Environment: The Creation of Place by Mexican and Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles (1991).

Formerly a planner at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Rojas now focuses full time on model-building workshops that involve participants in exploring community history, storytelling, land use, and vernacular culture. Over the years, he has facilitated over four hundred of these, collaborating with artists, teachers, curators, architects, and urban planners in activities presented on sidewalks, in vacant lots, at museums and art galleries, as well as in a horse stable and a laundromat.

How would you describe your mission?

I want to raise people’s awareness of the built environment and how it impacts their experience of place. I find the model-building activity to be particular effective in engaging youth, women, and immigrants—people who have felt they had no voice or a role in how their environments are shaped.

Ultimately, I hope to affect change in the urban planning process—I want to take it out of the office and into the community. Planners tend to use abstract tools like “data” charts, websites, numbers, maps. But for most people, the city is a physical and emotional experience. So I am promoting a more qualitative approach to planning. And I now actually get invited by city agencies to offer workshops that can inform the development of projects and long-range plans.

What is Latino urbanism?

It has to do with how Latinos are transforming urban spaces. I initially began thinking about this in context of where I grew up, East L.A. When I moved away from the city, I became more conscious of a particular vivid landscape of activities: street vendors pushing carts or setting up temporary tables and tarps, murals and hand-painted business signs, elaborate holiday displays, how people congregate on public streets or socialize over front-yard fences.

Since the 1980s, new immigrants from Central America and Mexico have made L.A. a polycentric Latino metropolis. They customize and personalize homes and local landscapes to meet their social, economic, and cultural needs. And their use of the built environment may not correlate with the neighborhoods’ infrastructure or how buildings were originally zoned, designed, and constructed.

Latinos bring their traditions and activities to the existing built environment and American spatial forms and produce a Latino urbanism, or a vernacular. And it’s important to recognize that this vernacular shouldn’t be measured by any architectural standard. Latino urbanism is about how people adapt or respond to the built environment—it’s not about a specific type of built form.

Can you provide a specific example of this?

Take the use of public versus private space. The American suburb is structured differently from the homes, ciudades, and ranchos in Latin America, where social, cultural, and even economic life revolves around the zócalo, or plaza. In the U.S., Latinos redesign their single-family houses to enable the kind of private-public life intersections they had back home. They extend activities and socializing out to the front yard. And fenced front yards are not so much about delineating private space as moving the private home space closer to the street. Fences are the edge where neighbors congregate—where people from the house and the street interact.

Another example is street vending through which people map out and temporarily animate dead spaces—vacant lots, old gas stations, otherwise empty stretches of sidewalks at night—into bustling places of commerce.

The props arranged by a vender on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue contribute to a visually vibrant streetscape. Photo courtesy of James Rojas
The props arranged by a vender on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue contribute to a visually vibrant streetscape. Photo courtesy of James Rojas

Then there are the small commercial districts in Latino neighborhoods, which are pedestrian-oriented, crowded, tactile, energetic. Parking is limited, and so people come on foot. Business signage—some handmade—are not visually consistent with one another. Merchandise may be arranged outside on the sidewalk—drawing people inside from the street. Ironically, this is the type of vibrancy that upscale pedestrian districts try so hard to create via a top-down control of scale, uses, consistent tree canopy, wide sidewalks, and public art.

What inspires your work?

I am inspired by the vernacular landscapes of East L.A.—the streetscapes of its commercial strips and residential areas.

Living in Europe reaffirmed my love of cities. But as a native Angeleno, I am mostly inspired by my experiences in L.A., a place with a really complicated built environment of natural geographical fragments interwoven with the current urban infrastructure. There’s terrible traffic, economic disparities—and the city can be overwhelming. This inspires me to create activities that can help people to make sense of the city and to imagine how they can contribute to reshaping the place.

How did you start building models?

Front yard nacimiento (nativity scene) in an East Los Angeles front yard.  Photo courtesy of James Rojas
Front yard nacimiento (nativity scene) in an East Los Angeles front yard. Photo courtesy of James Rojas

When I was a kid, my grandmother gave me a shoebox filled with buttons and other small objects—things from around the house that one might ordinarily discard. I used to crack this open and spend hours creating structures and landscapes: Popsicle sticks were streets; salt and pepper shaker tops could be used as cupolas.

I also used to help my grandmother to create nacimiento displays during the Christmas season. These tableaus portraying the nativity are really common around where I grew up. Some people create small displays inside their house, like across the mantel. Others build enormous installations—like an old woman I knew who used to transform her entire living room into the landscape of Bethlehem. And then there are those who build the displays outside of their houses.

The nacimiento tours you organized were a local tradition for many years.

In early December, I would see people installing displays in front yards and on porches in El Sereno, Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights. I would select a handful—of varied techniques and scales—and then I would talk with the owners and give them a heads up. Then I would create a map and post it online, announcing it as a “self-guided” tour that people could navigate on their own. It would culminate with a party at my apartment on Three Kings Day. It later got organized as a bike tour—with people riding and visiting the sites as a group during a scheduled time.

A mural and altar honoring la Virgen de Guadalupe and a nacimiento are installed on a dead-end street wall created by a one of several freeways that cut through the neighborhood of Boyle Heights.  Photo courtesy of James Rojas
A mural and altar honoring la Virgen de Guadalupe and a nacimiento are installed on a dead-end street wall created by a one of several freeways that cut through the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Photo courtesy of James Rojas

I started doing these to celebrate the Latino vernacular landscape. I wanted a greater part of the L.A. public to recognize these public displays and decorations as local cultural assets, as important as murals and monuments.

Describe some of the projects from the past year.

I was in Portland, Oregon, for a project to redesign public housing. In Minneapolis, I worked with African American youth on planning around the Mississippi River. In New York, I worked with the health department and some schools to imagine physically active schools. In Pittsburg, I worked on a project that had to do with bike issues and immigrants.

Where are you off to next?

I’m going to Calgary, where I will be collaborating with the city’s health and planning departments and the University of Calgary on a project to engage Asian immigrants. I’ll be working with students on applied critical thinking about equity. We will go beyond physical infrastructure, to focus on social infrastructure—issues of access, local needs, the hopes and dreams of people living there.

See James Rojas’s website, The Enacted Environment, to keep up with his ongoing work.

Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.