Out Of The Enclave: Latinos Adapt, And Adapt To, The American City

13 minute read

September 22, 2008, 5:00 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens

Latinos in the U.S. may be at the forefront of the movement towards urbanism, particularly in their use of public space. Josh Stephens talks to James Rojas and other planners and thinkers on the effect of the Hispanic community on the built environment, and its effect on them.

The infamous bacon-wrapped hot dog
The infamous bacon-wrapped hot dog.(Photo Courtesy Matt Logelin)

The bacon-wrapped hot dog does not, needless to say, appear on the menu at Spago. Nor on that of Nobu, Luques, or Cut – or on that of any other restaurant, for that matter.

Instead, one of Los Angeles' most infamous delicacies - a frankfurter swaddled in bacon and accompanied by peppers, onions, and picante sauce - is grilled up on streetcorners, parking spaces, and vacant lots, by chefs more familiar with salsa than sausage. They appear at farmers' markets, street festivals, and Hollywood Boulevard at last call, when the turntables spin down and clubgoers stumble out into the night, and then they pack up and roll away, back to neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Pico-Union, Bell, and Pacoima.

Informal though it may be, this fusion of classic Americana, immigrant entrepreneurship, and Los Angeles's awkward conception of public space is but the most cholesterol-laden element of a complex, deeply rooted urban tradition that may, if current demographic patterns persist, become the dominant urban trend of 21st century America.

The Latino Streets

Even if past generations of planners did not deliberately dismiss minority communities, it's safe to say that most American cities were built in the era when American society did not value diversity as much as it does today. Planning strategies geared towards auto-oriented cities, detached houses, and scarce public space has nonetheless given rise to a sometimes awkward and sometimes elegant relationship between Latinos and American cities, in which streetcorner entrepreneurship is but one example of Latinos' efforts to make a home in someone else's environment.

A native of East Los Angeles, James Rojas is both a product and student of this environment. In his 1990 unpublished MIT master's thesis - which, despite Latinos' 400-year history in United States territory, is generally considered the first study of its kind-Rojas described the Latino urban environment as an "enacted" environment, which derives its character not from structures, codes, and designs but instead from the way Latino residents have forged a syncretic vernacular and open-air culture out of streetscapes, buildings, and public facilities that were not intended for them.

A laundry list of traits characterizes what Rojas, now a planner at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, calls "Latino urbanism"- a shorthand notion that encompasses adaptive strategies, behavioral idiosyncrasies, and informal design elements which, he says, is "reshaping cities." It is an unorthodox version of place-making because notwithstanding historical curiosities such as Santa Fe's Plaza or Tucson's Barrio, many of America's Latino citizens and residents occupy shopworn inner-city neighborhoods or inner suburbs that Anglos fled long ago. Latinos are not remaking these places in the sense of construction; they are instead discovering latent "place-ness" in places that already exist.

A painted storefront in a Latino neighborhood.
A painted storefront in a Latino neighborhood.

"Latinos come here looking for public space and they create it where they can find it," said Rojas. "Latinos bring that to the suburban car-culture urban form. It's being transformed by a behavior pattern that it wasn't designed for."

A far cry from the offensive caricature of the droopy Mexican passed out against under a sombrero, "enactment" focuses on socializing, leisure activity, and commerce- all of which can comfortably take place without the privacy and segmentation characteristic of Anglo spaces. Though no single detail is enough to qualify as an entire cultural tradition, Latino urbanism rests generally on an embrace of the public realm and more intensive use of public space than anything common in Anglo neighborhoods.

Numerous studies, including ones in Los Angeles and Chicago, have found that Latinos spend more time in public parks than either Anglos or blacks. Soccer games in public parks may seem commonplace enough, but in Latino communities they take place in greater numbers and frequency than do other forms of recreation. And parks are not just for athletics: Latinos congregate in parks in greater numbers and for more elaborate events – including full-scale parties and family reunions – whereas Anglo users are more prone to solitary activities such as jogging.

Latinos are also prolific gardeners, especially in places where community gardens are accessible, and they use temporary farmers markets as community gathering places rather than just venues to buy produce. And whereas homeowners association guidelines often dictate what shade of paint a suburban house may wear, Latino neighborhoods are adorned with murals, hand-painted storefronts, and other "do-it-yourself design interventions," according to Rojas.

Though it may look like idle loitering, Latino social life and even commerce take place on streetcorners, strip-mall parking lots, and sidewalks, many of which are cramped and narrow yet provide crucial space in which day laborers find jobs and street vendors sell food and wares from pushcarts and vans. And because their rates of car ownership are relatively low, Latinos tend to use sidewalks for the novel purpose of walking.

"Latinos are going to continue to take advantage of any open space that's available," said Los Angeles City Council Member Ed Reyes. "We come from a cultural tradition of mercados and central plazas."

Even in residential neighborhoods, Latinos maintain relatively fluid boundaries between public and private space. Front yards serve as intermediary zones, not buffers, and fences don't separate neighbors but rather act as an easy meeting space for neighborly conversation. For Latinos, good fences really do make good neighbors.

"They tend to live in denser, very sociable settings," said Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and chairman of CityView, a low-income housing developer. "The built environment begins to resemble those living patterns with porches and yards and people spending a lot of time outside and [making] neighborly connections."

Jose Gamez, a professor of architecture at UNC-Charlotte, agrees. "The stereotypical white picket fence in the suburban landscape is a very different kind of fence than you'll see in East Los Angeles," he says. "Not in terms of materiality but in terms of social use."

And even private space has bearing on the public realm: because many Latinos occupy in multigenerational or even multifamily units (whether apartments or houses), their surrounding neighborhoods are often more dense, and full of more formal and informal uses, than the built environment would suggest or zoning codes would dictate.

"It's the byproduct of having, as in my district, up to 35,000 people per square mile," said Reyes. "When you have a lot of activity collapsing in one place, you're going to have a lot of different types of social and urban idiosyncrasies."

Walking through a Latino suburban community.
Walking through a Latino suburban community.

Culture and Economics

Many customs that seem idiosyncratic in the context of American urbanism evoke a distinct tradition of urban life in Latin America, where the plazas, markets, and narrow streets of colonial cities invite all manner of public activity. Yet, some argue that Latinos' unique relationship with the American public environment persists mainly because of marginalization and economic hardship. In that sense, Latino urbanism encompasses an implicit debate between, on the one hand, the plaza, paseo, and roving mariachis and, on the other, the constraints of poverty, illegality, language, and prejudice.

The romantic interpretation holds that American Latinos have triumphantly imposed native habits on to unwelcoming streetscapes, thereby overcoming anti-communal tendencies of American urban planning. Their preference for larger families and intergenerational living leads to higher per-unit and neighborhood densities.

"To a great extent this is cultural,' said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of the UCLA Department of Urban Planning. "The plazas in Mexico are really public rooms."

Alternatively, Latinos' financial constraints force them to do more with less. Latinos' median household income is $37,000, compared with a national average of $47,000 and $52,000 for white households. With the country club out of reach, Latinos must settle for soccer in the park.

Planner Michael Mendez, an outspoken proponent of what he calls 'Latino New Urbanism,' notes that both elements are at play: "It's cheaper to have dense communities, but some of it is preference."

Outnumbering Spain

Whether they stem from history or necessity, many of the hallmarks of Latino urbanism may seem so subtle to be insignificant. Yet, even hanging out in the front yard and barbequing in the park gains a certain magnitude when multiplied by a factor of 45 million.

From 1990 to 2000, the Latino population increased by more than 100 percent in large metro areas such as in Chicago and Denver. In dozens of mid-size metros the percentage increases were even more remarkable: 388 percent in Atlanta, 270 percent in Las Vegas, and 800 percent in Charlotte, N.C.

Nationwide, Latinos are now the most prominent ethnic minority, making up over 15 percent of the population-and growing. The 2000 Latino population was more than double that reported in the 1990 Census, and with a median age of 27 years, many Latinos are just entering prime home-buying and family-raising years, meaning that their impact on cities will only increase.

America's Latinos, whether tenth generation or newly arrived, trace their lineage back to dozens of countries, and differences between Mexicans and Cubans can be no less stark than those between Spaniards and Filipinos. ("Hispanic" is often used interchangeably with "Latino," usually as a matter of preference or local convention.) No matter their origin, though, Latino Americans are engaged in the common process of adapting to planning traditions that were engrained and adopted before most of them arrived.

The vast majority of Latinos live in metro areas, and their demographic impact is even more pronounced in a dozen established Latino metros and many more emerging cities. Half of all Latino residents live in California or Texas (Los Angeles County added nearly one million Latinos in the 1990s) and they remain disproportionately prominent in the Sunbelt. But there is hardly an American city unaffected by the patterns that Rojas identified, at an ever-growing scale. Planners are being challenged to account for a significant new cohort, which is now making inroads in places that heretofore had never heard of a tamale.

Latinos on the Frontier

In the past decade, Latinos have immigrated into the heart of America and have taken up residence in some unlikely places. In pursuit of jobs at meatpacking and agricultural plants, Latinos have made headway into the Heartland, where they have been credited with reviving moribund, and formerly all-Anglo, small towns.

Over half the 5,300 residents of Schuyler, Nebraska, are recently relocated Latino families, many of whom work at a local meatpacking plant. And in Nebraska as in East L.A. Latinos have brought with them the same embrace of public life – even when they are not surrounded by their own kind.

"The things they do in groups or as a family are things that maybe I saw my parents doing when we were kids," said Schuyler Mayor Dave Reinecke, who emphasized that Latinos have had a welcome influence on the town. "I don't think you see as many Anglos doing picnics, church outings, or just getting a bunch of people together, whereas you see the Hispanics doing that a lot."

The largely Puerto Rican Latino population of Holyoke, Mass., has even made their mark on a classic New England mill town, according to architect Erica Gees, of Kuhn-Riddle. Having worked in Holyoke, Gees said that local Latinos gather together with their cars in vacant lots, build makeshift, semipublic greenhouses atop apartment buildings, and otherwise advertise their culture wherever possible.

"Getting your cultural identity out in a public way is like putting out the welcome mat," said Gees.

A parking place becomes an altar.
A parking place becomes an altar.

Planning & Placemaking

Whether in the inner cities or on the Frontier, the built environment still has yet to catch up to the cultural environment. Latinos have therefore been unable to take their urban preferences a step further into the creation of neighborhoods that they can call their own.

"We have failed to break down the idiosyncrasies of what makes these neighborhoods so unique," said Reyes. "We haven't gone through that fine-grain analysis to recommend policies."

Latinos continue to contend with cities that, for instance, make fugitives out of street vendors, prohibit the conversion of garages into proper living spaces, and assume that the average resident gets around by car. (The latest battle in Los Angeles has been over the city's unorganized fleet of taco trucks.)

"There's a lot of policy stacked against working-class Latinos that impede the enhancement of their communities," said Rojas. "Transportation policies: streets for cars, not for pedestrians. They see economic development for big players, not small players (such as street vendors)."

"Part of the problem has been the absence of any innovative urban planning design response to the cultures that people bring and attempt to replicate in the city," said author Mike Davis, whose 2001 book Magical Urbanism described Latinos' potential to "reinvent the U.S. city." Davis said that planners' goals should be "to create small and social neighborhood spaces for interaction, informal economy, and recreation equivalent to the plazas and zócalos of Latin America."

Specific policies or recommendations, however, depend on public input and on the unusually difficult challenge of engaging the Latino community. In Schulyer, Reinecke said that he has tried to recruit Latinos for the town planning commission but met with little success. Likewise, even in a city with 1.4 million Latinos, many get drowned out by bureaucratic noise.

"It needs to enhance the voice of those who don't participate in the planning process and should be heard," said Reyes. He noted that planning often involves "jargon and verbiage that is very real to people but needs to be interpreted."

Even as many middle class Latinos choose the suburbs, Mendez suggests that Latino urbanism - with its preference for walkability, high densities, and a mixture of uses and incomes - can draw on the popularity and influence of the New Urbanism movement. He even suggested that the combination of mainstream trends with Latinos' growing numbers may hold the key to a wholesale revival of inner cities. Latinos may even inspire Anglo America to get back in touch with its past and undo some of the neglect caused by the 20th-century rush to the suburbs.

"Traditional planning in the United States is not suburban planning," said Mendez. "It's very town- and square-oriented planning. It's a revitalization of that tradition."

The Latino Urbanism "Movement"

Planners may never remake Houston in the image of Guadalajara. Even so, a growing number of planners are attempting to discern Latinos' preferences and to promote them to developers, public officials, and fellow planners who are wrestling with these issues but may not yet understand them.

There was a time when Rojas was virtually the only spokesperson for Latino urban issues- "he's kind of the godfather of all of this," said Gamez. "His thesis project set the ground for a lot of other people to do work." But even as Rojas has given slide presentations and led charrettes around the country, he considers his efforts more informational than activist. And he is now only one of many who are trying to bridge the gap between Latino culture and the forces of mainstream policy, planning, and development.

"It's going to become part of the mainstream in a couple years as more people understand it and the complexities and nuances," said Rojas. "It's an energy. It's not just me, but it's young Latinos who are becoming policymakers, planners, architects."

Notwithstanding this wave of enthusiasm, Latinos' sheer numbers and spending power will ultimately require planners and developers to build to their needs, according to Cisneros, whose book Casa y Comunidad is in part a guidebook for planners and developers looking to harness the Latino market. If not, they risk missing out on the nation's most robust emerging market.

"The Latino community is now large enough that the industry, the builders, need to be thinking about how to make communities marketable to the segment of the population that is going to be one of the fastest-growing in the country," said Cisneros.

Indeed, even if it means that some of Latinos' more distinctive adaptive strategies may fade, Cisneros and other Latino leaders believe that they can and should enjoy the benefits of homeownership, replete with the chance to build equity, increase their political clout, and, perhaps most importantly, to grill up some hot dogs in their own backyards. Bacon optional.

Josh Stephens is a former editor of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, monthly publications covering, respectively, land use and infrastructure in Southern California. Josh also blogs on Planetizen Interchange.

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