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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Roomsll over the country, long-ignored minority neighborhoods are being threatened by the forces of gentrification and displacement. Rising property values are shifting the racial demographics, driving out original residents, and destroying the cultural and social context of well-established communities.

In most of these low-income neighborhoods, the street pulsates with a rich social life where the local population, be it African American or Latino, gathers on favorite corners and in front of stores to sit, visit, talk, trade news, and play cards. But what is valuable to local residents can be offensive and frightening to middle- and upper-class gentrifiers, who believe the proper place to gather is in homes or back yards and see people on the street as a sign of low-class activity and trouble.

The challenge for those trying to preserve the integrity of these newly desirable neighborhoods is to institute improvements that appeal to residents but repel developers. It is a challenge that motivates the work of California landscape architect Steve Rasmussen-Cancian, who has come up with an answer that is cheap, socially engaging, and effective: build sidewalk living rooms furnished with permanent benches, sitting boxes, and planters so neighbors can claim their right to public space while at the same time discouraging those who would like to see them gone altogether.

For nearly thirteen years after graduating from college, Rasmussen-Cancian worked as a political and community organizer on behalf of such progressive candidates as Jesse Jackson and in support of Los Angeles public housing residents. After helping tenants develop low-income coops, he became interested in the field of design. He then moved north to Berkeley to get a graduate degree in landscape architecture, believing that would provide him with new opportunities to get involved in participatory community projects.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

“Realistically, after a couple of community meetings, people can’t go out and build a building,” he says. “But with one or two community discussions people have all the tools they need to go and build street furniture and create the shared space of community living rooms.”

While back home in Los Angeles on a school break he broached the idea to some of his old organizing buddies to launch a major tree-planting and sidewalk improvement project in some of the neighborhoods he’d worked in earlier.

“Let’s make the most of the urban landscape,” he told them. “Their response was, ‘If we do that, aren’t we just rolling out the carpet for gentrification?’ They knew on a gut level they’d just be improving the curb appeal of those properties.”

He took that question back to Berkeley and tried to solve the core dilemma of gentrification: Low-income inner-city communities have a great need for improved environments. But improving the environment sets people up for displacement. How could they achieve one without the other?

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

Rasmussen-Cancian found less support than he expected within the Berkeley design community. Even those with good politics often were locked into conventional thinking. They felt that gentrification was a problem beyond their scope and power to resolve and told him, “Steve, you’re right to worry about it. But you can’t do anything about it. You’re in design school.”

“Designers have self-edited themselves out of many roles. They mainly serve governments and people who can afford to pay,” he says. “But if designers accept that they do have a social role and do have some control over the impact of their work, then they have to look at the work they’re doing. A lot of their work would not be defensible if you asked, ‘Is this serving any social good?’ So figuring out how to learn to be a designer, to still be socially responsible, and to make a better neighborhood for the same neighbors is challenging.”

Rasmussen-Cancian was struck by the fact that nearby West Oakland, a community of beautiful old Victorians, had not been gentrified long ago. It offers gentrifiers the last BART station before a twelve-minute subway ride to San Francisco’s financial center along with great weather, ocean breezes, and views of downtown Oakland. But it was the birthplace of the Black Panthers and the Pullman Car Workers Union and remains a proud African-American neighborhood. He concluded that what had saved it from gentrification was the racism of gentrifiers. If there is no one on the streets, the area, with a convenient subway stop, might look like a great site for potential development. But when the streets are filled with black people in a society where it has been statistically proven that a majority of white Americans won’t move into an area they perceive to be 30 percent African American or 50 percent Latino, gentrifiers tend to keep on driving.

“Gentrifiers and the diverse longtime residents they displace have very different ideas about what makes an inviting, attractive neighborhood,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “Experience and studies show that working-class urban residents view the street as the center of the neighborhood, the place to hang out, to socialize, and to watch the passing scene. In contrast, most middle- and upper-class gentrifiers are looking for a quiet street as a gateway to their homes.”

According to Rasmussen-Cancian, gentrification unfolds in three well-understood phases. First come artists and alternative folk, who are looking for a cheap place to live in a diverse, interesting urban neighborhood. These are the “risk oblivious” who are willing to take a risk and invest in an affordable house in a multi-cultural, multi-racial community.

Next come the “risk prone,” often young, white professional couples and families with more traditional suburban appearances and values. They are betting the neighborhood will “improve” and that they will wind up with a historic house in a fashionable neighborhood they bought at a great price. They trigger the onset of displacement as landlords begin to evict longtime tenants in the hope of higher rents.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

Finally come the “risk averse,” who want a safe investment in a quiet, homogeneous, upper-middle-class suburbanized neighborhood. They signal the kickoff of mass displacement as a large number of landlords sell rental homes for renovation, apartment buildings are converted to condominiums, and empty lots are filled in with new construction.

Hoping to intervene in West Oakland before it was too late, Rasmussen-Cancian sought strategies that would improve the neighborhood and discourage developers. As a designer-in-training he saw that people already were creating informal sidewalk living rooms by pulling chairs out onto the sidewalk, flipping over milk cartons, setting up a card table, and using the street as a social center. What if these became permanent fixtures throughout the area?

Through a mutual friend Rasmussen-Cancian was introduced to William “Big Will” Horace and George Paul Wolf, who for three years had been running the West Oakland Greening Project, a street-based community garden group. Horace was a master in turning found objects into art. He was a natural at working the street to get people involved as volunteers. And when he had money he hired local youth. Rasmussen-Cancian thought that if the trio could institutionalize the idea of residents building permanent street furniture, they could institutionalize local ownership of the street and the neighborhood and make clear that it was not just a set of buildings, but a community of people. Their guiding philosophy was that everyone was welcome to join, even newcomers, but only if they were willing to become part of the neighborhood as it was and wanted to remain. “Will thought the idea would work and saw how it would serve as an organizing tool for him,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “By going out every Friday and building a bench, people would see what we were doing and we could then recruit more people.”

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

“By the time we were done we’d have an impromptu christening party in this new community living room,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “I think people really appreciated taking ownership, creating some permanent furniture that was theirs, and claiming the space.”

From a design standpoint the idea was to build an outdoor living room that included a couch and end tables (a bench flanked by planter boxes), ottomans (sitting boxes that could be moved around to create space on the sidewalk), and other seating (three- or four-step stoops that didn’t lead to doors but sat up against walls or fences).

In West Oakland the city code clearly prohibits putting anything “functional” on a sidewalk or in a parkway (the space between the sidewalk and the curb). That included planting food gardens or fruit trees or putting out anything to sit on. Rasmussen-Cancian and his new friends decided to forgo submitting a permit request they knew would be denied, and moved ahead, accepting the fact they might lose some furniture in the process. They soon saw their project was effective when on one corner a landlord complained that he couldn’t rent his apartments across the street from a popular sidewalk living room. The city came and took the furniture away.

“The caller, who couldn’t say who he was, said he didn’t want to remove the furniture and would avoid doing so when he could,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “So we continue to play a game of cat and mouse.” But he knew the sidewalk living room project was finding success when people adopted benches, watered plants, kept the areas clean, drove away drug sales, took ownership, and when others asked the Greening Project to build on their corner.

He first hooked up with friends from his days as a community organizer, and from there the sidewalk living room idea began to blossom on a number of different tracks. ARTScorpsLA, a local arts, community, and environmental organization, resonated with the idea of furnishing the entire Latino Temple-Beaudry neighborhood, much of which had been torn down for a high school that was never built and was suffering under intense gentrification pressure. ARTScorpsLA members bring art to everything, and, using the guerrilla approach, they built sidewalk living rooms they turned into canvases, painting colorful murals of cacti and religious icons across walls and down benches to the sidewalk, bringing with them a pronounced Latino aesthetic.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms

Another project was the Fifth Street Living Room Rasmussen-Cancian helped build with Stephanie Taylor and the Central City Neighborhood Partners (CCNP) along with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. This was the first instance of a nonprofit organization using the land directly in front of its building both to create positive social space and blunt the influence of gentrification.

“A lot of nonprofits have control, either literally or de facto, over some land in the city,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “CCNP saw it could use its sidewalk to improve the neighborhood for the current residents and to counter the creeping gentrification.”

The Fifth Street Living Room led in turn to two other significant initiatives, starting with CCNP’s Positive Places Project. Working with four different community organizations, CCNP had gathered 1,000 surveys from bus riders, which revealed their biggest complaint was inadequate bus stops, some marked only with a sign. One of the answers was to build sidewalk living rooms at key bus stops in areas facing gentrification. The first site chosen was the sidewalk in front of the offices of Justice for Janitors, the Service Employees International Union local. This is a major bus stop for a transit-dependent population and the center of the predominately Latino Pico-Union neighborhood. Unfortunately the union has sold its building to a condo developer. But before the condos go up, the neighbors will build a living room down the entire block to claim the space and claim the neighborhood.

The second initiative was the Teen LEAD Project, where CCNP worked with teenagers from the YMCA in downtown Los Angeles. Together they toured the neighborhoods and used census and other demographic data to identify where gentrification was taking hold. As a group the teens then determined where to build sidewalk living rooms to fight those ominous changes.

“This was a chance to make concrete the idea of gentrification to teens,” Rasmussen-Cancian says. “But it wouldn’t have worked if they were not able to get their hands dirty and build something. One teen had been evicted from her home to make way for the Staples Center. Now she’s living in an area surrounded by new live/work lofts and sees herself as potentially getting evicted again. I wasn’t bringing anything new in terms of experience to these kids. But I was able to bring information about similar experiences people were having in other cities and what they were doing about it.” Designer/builder Magazine