by Richard Risemberg (April, 2012)
Something is happening in Los Angeles, a city that embodies the cliché of car-bound congestion and suburban anomie. The megalopolis is wriggling out of the straitjacket of concrete avenues that, by condemning its residents to travel only in metal shells, wrapped them in loneliness and frustration. Almost suddenly--or so it feels--the city is snipping its way out of a restraining urban fabric that bound it to the car and stitching a chic and even sexy costume that lets it move freely, walk, run, even dance, in its travels. We have a long way to go before we can feel truly free and confident, but at least we can move again! From traffic jams we're moving to jam sessions--on real estate once reserved for speeding wheels.
One of the first freedoms was CicLAvia (patterned after the ciclovías of Bogotá) where ten miles of streets are closed to cars and opened to unarmored human beings moving joyously and freely under their own personal power--cycling, walking, skating, dancing, running. We went trepidatiously into the first, in 2010--Could this ever work in LA? Will everyone hate us for even trying?--but tens of thousands responded with a wordless Yes! as they crowded into the liberated avenues.
More CicLAvias followed, each drawing more happy people than the one before--and another is due this month! The route has been expanded, and other neighborhoods are clamoring for a cicLAvia of their own. (Up to now, they have run from Downtown to East Hollywood, with a spur to South Los Angeles.)
But those are temporary liberations--furloughs, you might say. Last month something both gracious and audacious happened, something more significant despite its minuscule extent. Right in the heart of Silver Lake, a wildly diverse, über hip, and densely populated part of LA that connects East Hollywood to Downtown, a snippet of street has been permanently closed to cars, and made into a public square. Possibly the only true and functional square in all the vast town. (Downtown's Pershing Square is a graceless void, punctuated by banal and functionless concrete structures and hemmed in by busy roads and the entrances to the parking garage beneath it.)
Sunset Triangle is a snip of open space left where Griffith Park Boulevard veers into Sunset Boulevard from the northwest, jamming into what was for a long time a confusing five-way intersection of arterial, collector, and neighborhood streets. The triangle of land thus left has a patch of grass, a water fountain, and a forgettable commemorative stone of some sort, and it, along with the adjacent bit of Griffith Park Boulevard, has hosted a farmers market twice a week for several years. There's a coffeehouse, a small restaurant, and a bakery on the east, backed by tall, once-elegant brick apartment buildings now marred by graffiti.
However, across the street and up and down Sunset reside dozens of bistros, boutiques, kiosks, restaurants, coffeehouses, tiny offices, small markets, pubs, bars, bicycle shops, and even a couple of unfortunate strip malls. Houses and apartments abound on side streets; the residents range from poor students and struggling artists to well-off designers and other professionals; the sidewalks are crowded with walkers; and cyclists abound, traveling to or through the neighborhood and locking up at the growing number of sidewalk bike racks. Sidewalk Triangle is a bare two minutes' walk from Sunset Junction, the cultural center of Silver lake. The choice to close Griffith Park Boulevard there and make it a public square was opportunistic, but also spectacularly appropriate--drivers would lose almost nothing, and the neighborhood would gain a public space right where people were already voting with their feet (and pedals) to put one, by gathering freely to mingle on common ground.
Sunset itself is also a major bicycle route, with lanes linking Hollywood to teh Civic Center, while Griffith Park Boulevard's own bike lanes connect to the northern half of Silver Lake. The intersection is a nexus of cycling, retail, and neighborliness. The new plaza recognizes this by including the city's second onstreet bike corral, which, along with pre-existing sidewalk racks, draws more pedalistas to the area.
Los Angeles is always slow to respond to community desires (unless you count developers as a "community"), and there was been a neighborhood movement to free that snip of Griffith Park Boulevard from car traffic for six years before it finally happened. One can't help thinking that the also-triangular Times Square project in Manhattan may have finally sparked the city's administrative imagination, for this year, with seeming suddenness, the lanes were barricaded, the pavement painted in bright colors, and chairs and tables moved into the former street.
In typical LA fashion, it's a "pilot project"--meaning "no commitment"--but as it has proved immediately popular, chances are it will endure. Perhaps next year, when it is reviewed, it will be deemed valuable enough to the neighborhood and the city to make permanent. I've heard rumors of eventually depaving the bit of street, and changing what is now probation to a pardon.
LA has been described as "seventy suburbs in search of a city." Maybe Sunset Triangle is a sign that it is finding itself at last, after all these years.
So here's to Sunset Triangle--a street where people can mingle in their own skins, building real community face to face or side by side!