Sep 27, 2006

Keeping us together, keeping us apart

How do you use the space between your front door and the sidewalk? Probably the same as your neighbors do, especially if you're in a culturally homogenous area. Here, James Rojas observes Latino Urbanism in Los Angeles:

"Fences: A Social Catalyst
"Fences are a fixed prop. In many front yards across America one can find fences. Most people will build fences for security, exclusion, seclusion, etc. and Latinos build fences for these same reasons. Fences create easily defendable spaces and illustrate a simple, straightforward approach to procession: 'This is my space.' However it's the way Latinos use fences that becomes interesting.

"Waist-high fences are ubiquitous throughout the residential landscape of Latino Los Angeles. The fences function as place to keep things out or in, provide a place hang wet laundry, sell items or just chat with a neighbor. Fences are a useful threshold between the household and public domain and bring residents together. Boundaries bring people together and the fences in Latino neighborhoods define boundaries between public and private space. However here the fences break down the social and physical barriers by creating a place where people can congregate. The middle class suburban neighborhood people rarely congregate in the front yard. This visible expanse of land acts as a psychological barrier that separates the private space of the home from the public space of the street. Collectively the enclosed front yards create a different urban landscape and transform the neighborhood.

"Enclosed front yards help transform the street into a plaza. This new plaza is not the typical plaza we see in Latin American or Europe with strong defining street walls but has an unconventional form. Nevertheless the streets in Latino LA have all the social activity of a plaza. Residents and pedestrians can participate in the social dialog on the street from the comfort and security of their enclosed front yard. Fences clearly delineate their property between neighbors, which allows them to personalize their front yard without physically interfering with each other.

"La Yarda: A Personal Expression
Nowhere else in urban landscape of Latino Los Angeles is the use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the front yard. Typical middle class front yard is an impersonal space in which no one sits there, no personal objects are left lying while the front yards in Latino LA are personal vignettes of the owner's life. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yard vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Mexico, a place for children, to working places. Middle class Americans put their daily habits in the backyard. Latinos bring the party, workspace and conversation to the front yard creating activity in the public space.

"The front yard in middle class suburbs has become a space dedicated to showing that we are good citizens, and responsible members of the community. In Latino LA front yard is not measure by the cosmetics of the lawn but rather your participation in streets activities. The Latino front yards reflect the Latino cultural values applied to American suburb form."

Living in one of the middle-class suburban neighborhoods Rojas describes, I can appreciate how little our front yards are used—which makes it all the more ironic that more often than not, they are comprised mostly of lawn, as though our children will be playing out front while we sip lemonade and chat with our neighbors.

Which is the more human condition: to convene as the community we are, to talk and work and play together despite (or even because of) our fences; or to retreat behind those fences, escaping the masses of people and trite conversation we endure all day in public, pretending that we live apart from and immune to everyone else?

No comments: