Playtime on the road

In a play street in Boyle Heights, plastic "wobbles" become building blocks (above) as children take to the road for fun.
In a play street in Boyle Heights, plastic "wobbles" become building blocks (above) as children take to the road for fun.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
In a play street in Boyle Heights, plastic "wobbles" become building blocks as children take to the road for fun (above).
In a play street in Boyle Heights, plastic "wobbles" become building blocks as children take to the road for fun (above).PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Residents and activists in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights are reclaiming streets for civic life

LOS ANGELES • The temporary transformation of Fickett Street in Boyle Heights began with yellow shades resembling kites suspended over the sun-scorched asphalt.

Soon, a thoroughfare known for its speeding vehicles and gang activity became something else entirely - a "play street" in which women gathered for loteria, or Mexican bingo, and kids fashioned see-saws out of giant snap-together plastic shapes in colours inspired by Mexican-American murals.

There are about 12,000km of streets in Los Angeles and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighbourhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play.

From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as "playing out" in England, has become a movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 16.8 sq km area bisected by six freeways, is a project between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighbourhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a non-profit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realise ideas for productive public spaces.

Los Angeles' Department of Transportation has put in US$300,000 (S$399,000) on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighbourhood.

Ms Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the transportation department, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen. "There is something irresistible about being in the middle of a place - a street - where you're normally not allowed to go," she said.

On a recent Sunday, KDI unveiled its "playground in a box".

Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic "wobbles" KDI created doubled as Tilt-A-Whirls, Barcaloungers and formidable hurdles for skateboarders.

The Fickett play street, the neighbourhood's fourth since 2016, was sought by Union de Vecinos as a safe and celebratory refuge.

Perched on a bluff overlooking downtown and separated by the Los Angeles River, Boyle Heights - a neighbourhood of about 100,000 residents - has long suffered from a host of land-use inequities, including its proximity to polluting freeways that decimated housing and sliced the community's largest park in half.

Three-quarters of the housing units in Boyle Heights are rentals. And the fact that the neighbourhood is near the downtown arts district across the river has brought the issue of displacement to the fore.

Art galleries and house flippers have moved in and long-time tenants have received eviction notices.

Boyle Heights has long been an immigrant hub.

The Breed Street Shul was the oldest Orthodox synagogue west of Chicago. The neighbourhood's landscape is distinctly Latino, with artful front-yard altars dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Mexican-American murals bringing vibrant life to peeling walls.

In recent years, Union de Vecinos has been deeply involved in pro-tenant and anti-gallery activism, some of it confrontational.

But over the past two decades, its leaders have also worked hard to make the neighbourhood cleaner and safer in the face of long-standing disinvestment.

The alleyways criss-crossing the neighbourhood were especially dangerous, filled with trash by people pulling off the freeways to dump construction waste and had become magnets for illegal activity.

The group got rid of the litter and gang graffiti, installed brightly painted speed bumps and, in an alley near a liquor store, planted a garden full of spiky cacti.

With tensions about gentrification running high, the community's decision to embrace the play street concept was not a casual one.

"Many people want to modify this place," said Ms Ofelia Platon, 45, a Union de Vecinos leader who lives around the corner from Fickett Street. "So there's always a question of what would we need to give up?"

A mother of three, she recalled taking her son Esteban, now 17, to a nearby park and having to drop to the grass because of a shooting.

The residents chose Fickett Street with the intention of providing a safe space not just for children, but also for the community, said Ms Chelina Odbert, KDI's executive director. "What a play street is not is a replacement for permanent parks," she said. "But it bridges the gap in a way that's really needed."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'Playtime on the road'. Print Edition | Subscribe