City Repair LA

Mark Lakeman stares down the new Bimini Street salamander.

Portland architect and activist Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair movement, is in Los Angeles for a week of lectures and activities. Lakeman believes in actions that correct what he believes is our disassociation from nature and our alienation from each other. He’s a passionate opponent of the grid, the imposition of street networks and regimented thinking that he traces back to Roman imperialism. He’s probably most famous for inspiring groups of like-minded neighbors in Portland to adorn their streets with furniture and elaborate murals, usually done without asking for permission (see examples on an interactive map). He wants to empower us all as “villagers”, in charge of our own collective fate, rather than as serfs subservient to distant bureaucrats and moneyed interests.

Author and Creekfreak Joe Linton executing a reverse Sistine Chapel maneuver.

What I like about Mark Lakeman’s actions is that they aren’t “actions.” There is none of the attention seeking, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that one finds in activities such as “guerrilla” gardening (or perhaps some of our own past activities!). Instead the focus is on problem solving through getting neighborhoods together and doing things rather than standing around and complaining. Yesterday I had the great privilege of participating in a city repair street mural painting with my friends at the Los Angeles Ecovillage and their neighbors. The Ecovillage folks who organized the event had knocked on doors and enlisted the help of their neighbors. They blocked off the street themselves without getting a permit, set up refreshments, put on some festive music and laid out a mural design in the intersection in front of the apartments that house the Ecovillage. Whole families came and the kids had a great time participating in what became a giant coloring book. At the conclusion of a day of painting under the bright LA sun, a piñata was hoisted, bashed apart and candy rained down across the colorful new street mural.

Jimmy Lizama operating the piñata.

The mural incorporates lizard and ocean motifs, and enhances the crosswalks in the intersection, which is adjacent to a public school. The mural will act as a traffic calming device and counter our Department of Transpiration’s usual ignorance of pedestrian safety. While not asking for city permission is provocative, this was not a Boston Tea Party moment. It was simple problem solving in the form of a neighborhood party. Everyone had fun, and the street will be safer and more attractive. Thinking about the day yesterday, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense of happiness and empowerment.

The new mural nearing completion in the early afternoon.

Can every neighborhood rush out and paint a street mural? Probably not. At Lakeman’s lecture on Friday, I could sense a familiar skepticism in the audience. He showed slide after slide of happy Portlanders creating cob benches, tea houses and street mandalas. The people of Portland have built one of the most livable and desirable communities in the US. But here in Los Angeles we have many obstacles and far less cohesiveness. And I was not alone in wincing at the aesthetics of many of the Portland projects. Lakeman himself acknowledged that a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it. Here in Los Angeles and elsewhere we’re going to have to devise different city repair strategies and aesthetics. It’s easy to get hung up on street murals and cob benches. Like Lakeman says, we’ve got to look to nature and at each other to devise the form of our cities. The form these villager led interventions take in Los Angeles, Austin, Iowa City and Brooklyn are going to be different. What all our cities share in common is the need to get started immediately to undo a century’s worth of bad planning and disempowerment.

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  1. I think decorating a street is a nice idea and what is displayed in the pictures looks pretty, but I think it was a very bad mistake to decorate around a crosswalk. Crosswalks have a distinctive, instantly-recognisable appearance – they stand out conspicuously from the surrounding street and every driver can recognise them immediately with almost no conscious thought. However when you change the colour of part of the crosswalk and surround it with other images, it becomes less recognisable. A driver will of course see the artwork, but will probably try to ignore it (and rightly so) because he’ll be concentrating on driving. The crosswalk will become just a part of the artwork and hence will be LESS visible than it should be.

    I’d like to see other neighbourhoods empowering themselves with City Repair, but I hope they do it more thoughtfully. Artwork that camouflages important street safety features is dangerous.

  2. As a person who grew up in Iowa City, I was happy to see it mentioned along with the more recognizably hip locations of Austin and Brooklyn. Do you have a connection to IC or why did you pick it to mention? Have they done City Repair there?

  3. Alys, I understand your concern but trust me that the paint job on the crosswalk is an improvement. As I recall there wasn’t anything more than a white line–more of a stop line than a crosswalk actually.

    And Beth, I’ve heard good things about IC, but I’ve never been there. Hope somebody does some city repair in IC and everywhere else!

  4. Great coverage Erik!

    @Alys – Erik is right. Eco-Village and out local school have both requested crosswalks from the city (as part of a recent street pedestrian improvement project built by the city of L.A.) and the city wouldn’t do them… so we included the crosswalks you see in our design. (Look at the second photo above – you can see the new crosswalks chalked in but not yet painted.)

    The city of L.A. wouldn’t even put in curb cuts for wheelchairs or strollers on all three crossings. They only did them for two of the three on this T-intersection – which I think is disgraceful. It’s something we’re planning to repair on our own someday soon.

  5. Hey Friends,

    This is Mark Lakeman. Very nice piece Erik! Hey, concerning the important concern that the crossings are potentially obscured, I’d like to add a thought to this thread.

    What we are doing with such installations is putting place making into the right of way, with the intention that they will call even greater attention to the pedestrian realm than simple traffic signals and graphics normally can do. I understand the concern that these graphics may become obscured and possibly endanger people who want to cross. However, what we have found is that the mixing of place making graphics with traffic calming graphics is a powerful combination that calls a motorist’s attention to the fact that “this place is unusual, this place deserves more attention, care, thought”.

    The Bimini intersection repair project is possibly the most grand and impressive of all the crossroads that have yet been reclaimed, not least of which for all of the amazing cultural activity that occured so joyously all day long as it was being installed.

    Great work to us all!

  6. “a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it.”

    ACK! That’s what things look like when PEOPLE build them, and for the last 30 years the only people building thing like people build have been hippies!

  7. Anonymous–that’s actually a good point. Maybe if more people start building things again we’ll get a greater diversity in DIY design. But you are correct that the 60s and 70s generation were the last to make things from scratch.

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