Social Connectedness / 2013

DIY Social Spaces

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Union de Vecinos

Just like TreePeople has trained and organized volunteers to plant trees, Union de Vecinos proposes to train and organize 1,000s of Angeleno volunteers to design and build DIY social space for their neighborhoods. Los Angeles’ social connectedness deficit is rooted in our poorly maintained car dominated streets, alleys and neighborhoods. Most Angelenos wish for a more walkable, safer, neighborly environment, but see no way they can make a change when even the simplest public space project seems to take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We think we have found a solution: DIY social spaces created by volunteers in a few months for a few thousand dollars. In the last year we have, brought neighbors together in five locations in Boyle Heights to use their DIY ingenuity and innovation creating create shared spaces of social connectedness. This included transforming streets and alleys by building physical improvements and organizing activities to reclaim the space. Our vision for 2013 is to organize Boyle Heights neighbors to build DIY social spaces across the community so every resident lives within two blocks of a local commons . Our project will also create the tools and materials that will enable us to help Angelenos replicate this process across the city. Neighbors building their own shared social space, builds social connectedness in many ways. • Barn Raising— This is where neighbors share time, tools, skills, food. Together, they build relationships that flourish long after the last nail is driven. • Claiming and Shaping Shared Space – Through the project neighbors create their own public space which deepens their commitment to the neighborhood and recruits other residents to do the same. • Sparking Conversations and Relationships - Over time there will be 100s of spontaneous connections made by residents who meet or cross paths in the space during the course of the project’s life changing the quality of relationships between neighbors. Our process engages the local neighborhood’s untapped potential by bringing people together to address common neighborhood problems. We start by building Networks of Neighborhood Committees, composed of neighborhood residents that make a commitment to work together to make positive changes in their local neighborhood. These changes include building a team that creates opportunities to get to know your neighbors and to together to build simple DIY projects that have long lasting and transformative impacts in the community. In Boyle Heights, we began organizing activities on our streets and in our alleys such as regular cleanups, movie nights, mercados, and childrens activities. This started to transform spaces that had been deemed unsafe into healthy, thriving, and desirable places to live where neighbors can play, be active, and engage in constructive community building activities. However organized activities alone cannot fully complete a transformation. When no activity is occurring, the streets and alleys can look and feel empty. We have realized that we needed to reinforce the impact of our activities with physical improvements to create and promote sustainable active and healthy alleys. In addition, given limited municipal resources, we found ways to make the physical improvements that led into immediate changes with low investment , and without waiting for it to be done for us, but rather by doing it ourselves. To provide an example, one of our neighborhood committees, called Bienestar, identified a specific alley as problematic. It was unlit, dark, filled with potholes, and painted with graffiti. Residents also complained about the need for space next to their homes in which children could play safely. Last year, this committee came up with a plan to transform the alley into a small plaza. They organized regular cleanups and removed the graffiti. The youth in the neighborhood designed a mural and received permission to paint it on one of the buildings. As the city did not have resources to repave the alley, neighbors was able to raise money to buy materials and the residents donated the labor and repaved the alley themselves. They also installed solar lighting and designed and built planters. Finally, they finished painting a design on the floor of the repaved alley. Today, when the residents want to bring their children outside they use the planters to close the alley to cars and create a small plaza in front of the mural they painted. This was all accomplished with 6 months, less than $3,200. By adding countless volunteer hours, the considerable skills of neighborhood residents and the passion and ownership that comes from doing it yourself, we were able to transform an alley for a small fraction of the time and resources the City or anyone else would spend to have the same impact. This is an example of neighbors taking initiative coming together to rebuild their city one block at a time.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

In 2000 we won a Best Practice award for our community organizing from the United Nations’ Huairou Commission. In our model, solutions to a problem are developed by those most affected. It places the community first and at the center of our work. We take a bottom up approach. We start with the community’s understanding of their problems and engage the community in addressing these issues. We organize block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood and bring this network together. We do this through reflection, action, analysis and start again with each phase bringing new information. Through this process community members learn to negotiate and prioritize their demands amongst themselves. Our organizing campaigns as identified by our community members include the following: preservation of healthy affordable housing; the right to clean water; the right to clean air; and the right to safe and healthy neighborhoods.

The Bienestar committees success in transforming their alley clearly demonstrated the potential for creating healthy alleys through the do-it-yourself community action our long organizing history makes possible. In addition to this we have the following accomplishments:

EJ and Neighborhood Health and Safety o Neighborhood base improvements, Installed physical improvements to transform the use of 5 alleys in Boyle Heights and identified 6 more to begin transformation this year o Negotiated to reduce costly police engagement in neighborhood activity in our community o Reduced violence and fear on Fickett St without criminalization or police intervention through neighborhood occupation o Worked with Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and Assemblyman John Perez to pass a state law allowing for the City of Maywood to have more regulatory powers over the water companies o Gained support from Assemblyman Rendon to develop a policy to create a public water district in Maywood o Organized and won two new parks in the City of Maywood; o Passed a law in the City of Maywood that allows street vendors to obtain vending permits;
o Reprioritized how the City of LA distributed resources for basic services;

Housing o Trained and developed tenants to understand RSO Regulations and the city’s inspection processes. o Identified and worked with 188 tenants during their inspection processes in the last year o With LACAN, formed an LA Citywide multi-cultural coalition that puts homeless, tenants, and public housing residents voices at the front of the struggle to expand rent control rights and protect public housing. o Successful in swearing in one of our members as a Housing Authority of City of LA Board of Commissioner (HACLA); o Stopped HACLA’s elimination of public housing for a 3 year period; o Passed 2 advisory measures in Maywood protecting families from the demolition of their homes; o Organized, drafted, and passed Just Cause Ordinance in the City

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Union de Vecinos has a seventeen year history working in Boyle Heights. We formed in 1996 with 36 members and have grown to an organization that works in East LA and the City of Maywood. We understand the importance of working in collaborations with other organizations in order to reach the scale and impact we aim to achieve. For this project we will be partnering with Shared Spaces, a landscape architecture partnerships. We will also be working with local business especially those that line the alleys along the commercial corridors in Boyle Heights. Other partners include the LA Human Right to Housing Collective, Green LA, and the artist collective Ultrared.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Our criteria for evaluating our progress is rooted in three core questions: 1) Has our strategy engaged, empowered, and activated new community residents to participate in the project?; 2) Have our strategies strengthened relationships and collaborations between local neighborhoods? and 3) Did we transform the alleys into safe and healthy environments? If not, what were the obstacles to accomplishing this? Evaluation of the work occurs monthly with staff and community members. We also will review the number of alleys transformed, whether the alleys have a core group of community members committed to maintaining them, the costs and labor involved, and where additional resources can be found.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Our vision for 2050 is a city where DIY social spaces are more common than gas stations, Starbucks, liquor stores or police cars. A city where each neighborhood, each set of blocks, has its neighborhood space where people regularly meet, catch-up on the news and gossip, hatch new projects and just enjoy being connected.

The challenge in LA is that even the small park or plaza can take years to get approved and built and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. In contrast, our Community Living Rooms or Salas Publicas, just take weeks to build and cost less than $5,000. The keys elements are: • Tapping neighborhood volunteers wealth of knowledge, skills and commitment. • Creating and building simple, functional designs together using basic, available materials. • Taking advantage of available land—in alleys, sidewalksidewalks, adjacent to churches, temples, non-profits and collaborating businesses • Improving spots where people already gather—at bus stops, by the corner store, at the entrance to the alley.

This project pulls people out of their homes, brings neighbors together to work together, builds social relationships while transforming an underutilized space into a play space for the community. It combines DIY culture with community building, with members donating their own time and labor to beautify and change how they use their alleys and local spaces. All of LA also benefits in the following ways from our project:

• engages and demonstrates how a small group of neighbors can create their own mobile source of space given limited space across the city • triggers a chain reaction of neighborhood change – once neighbors see the changes they make, they join or invite others to build new projects. • It challenges the car culture – to get out and work with your neighbors to build something that is shared in the local neighborhood. • It creates safe streets and neighborhood engagement in creating in addressing public safety • It builds community networks across communities • It is an intergenerational approach involving neighbors of all ages and all backgrounds.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Success for us would be that every alley in Boyle Heights would have a group of dedicated community members working to maintain and transform their alley. Success would mean that there are physical improvement projects that were built in the alleys such as solar lighting, greening of the alleys, street furniture, bulletin boards, etc. Success would mean that community members would organize activities in the alleys so that the space was not just a place for cars and trash but a place to come together and build community. Success would mean that other communities in Los Angeles would grasp this form of transformative change and replicate it in their local neighborhoods.