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Looking for the Rasquache at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights

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Even though I was born less than 500 feet from Mariachi Plaza at the White Memorial Hospital, my recollections of First and Boyle began when I was an urban planning graduate student at MIT, studying the intersection and developing my urban theories on rasquache Latino urbanism.

I became frustrated while sitting in MIT's Introduction to City Planning Class. Professor Gary Hack lectured and showed slides of good and bad cities. Most of the good places he examined were well maintained with beautiful architecture, the right scale, and were mainly located in Europe or East Coast. The bad place was L.A.'s suburban built environment. I grew up in L.A. and knew it was more than just freeways, and furthermore he did not mention the Latino communities of East Los Angeles were I was raised. Despite its gang problems, freeways, and informal urban design practices, it was a great place; however at that time I wasn't able to articulate why. After doing some research on this topic, I found there was nothing written on this place besides the typical demographic data, so I decided to examine and uncover the secret of what created that sense of place in East L.A. I didn't know what to expect or find.

In 1989 I set out to rediscover my community with a camera in hand during MIT's six-week Christmas break. I drove around Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, visiting familiar places, family, and friends trying to figure out what made this place special and where to begin my investigation. With a new set of eyes, I visited and walked around First and Boyle, a place I was familiar with because of markets and other community-serving businesses my grandparents used to take me to. It was also one of gateways to the eastside.


Historically, First and Boyle is one of the oldest eastside community nodes. Geographically it sits on the eastern edge on the L.A. River flood plain, with Main Street in downtown L.A. as its western edge. This high elevation gives the area a commanding view of the L.A. River basin and attracted the eastside's earliest settlers, like Andrew Boyle, who developed the area and built the historic hotel on the northwest corner. 

First and Boyle was the premier gateway to the eastside and was the terminus for one of the first viaducts over the L.A. River to connect it to downtown L.A. A street car soon followed the viaduct. Boyle Heights was one of the first ring suburbs surrounding downtown L.A. and was developed and planned to attract mid-westerners through street names like Chicago, St. Louis, Pennsylvania, and State. However by the 1920s the area become L.A.'s Ellis Island, with Mexicans, African American, Jews, Japanese, Russians, and Armenians replacing mid-westerners.   

The bluffs formed by the L.A. River Flood basin shaped the area. First and Boyle are at the confluences of were the eastside bluffs intersect at a slight angle. First Street runs east west but has a slight bend at the Bailey Street and Boyle. The convergence of these two streets give First and Boyle it's unique shape. The intersection was designed to capture this topography along with the great views. In addition Pleasant Street used to run off First Street at a diagonal starting near Bailey Street forming a large traffic island.

First and Boyle, 1976 | Photo by William Reagh, Los Angeles Public Library
First and Boyle, 1976 | Photo by William Reagh, Los Angeles Public Library

The Enacted Environment of First and Boyle

In 1989 the intersection of First and Boyle resembled that of any other old streetcar hub in L.A., with a few old two-story masonry buildings mixed with parking lots, gas stations, and drive-thru establishments. Located at the intersection was a Metro bus stop for route 30/31, which was one of the busiest lines in the system. It was originally the P-Car streetcar that took transit-dependent Boyle Heights residents directly to Broadway, via First Street in downtown L.A., where they would go to the movies, Grand Central Market, and Clifton's Cafeteria. Large ficus trees used to line First Street, providing shade for the pedestrians walking to the intersection. The businesses served both the local and Latino community at large with its specialty stores. This made the intersection busy, vibrant with residents and driving visitors.

I was fascinated by how everyone converged at this intersection and used the sidewalks, parking lots, and public space in and around the buildings that defined the intersection. The unique homespun economic activities, like street vendors and Mariachis, intermingled with shoppers, residents, pedestrians, and transit users, which made it a thriving community hub.

The users of First and Boyle, through their self-reliance, resourcefulness and adoptability, had made it their own through their rasquache, or DIY interventions to the built environment. Everyone participated in creating the rasquache landscape because it was driven by their subconscious emotional, social, and survival needs. A parked car became a place of business and a cardboard box became a place to sit, or a corner became a place to make extra money to pay the rent. All these interventions created that sense of place and inspired me to move on with my research.

So I began observing, mapping, and documenting these activities and land uses with photographs.

Located on the southeast corner of Pleasant and Bailey Streets was the community serving Ranch Market. It was a big draw to the intersection because many people walked there, especially from the Pico Aliso housing projects located west. On the east side of the market was a small parking lot. On the west side of the market was the historic two-story Famous Apartments. This historic building was designed like a large bungalow with a porch, wood siding, and large eves like many of the old apartment buildings found around Lincoln, Hollenbeck, and Echo Parks. It was a well maintained building with a nice Japanese style front yard landscape enclosed by a chain link fence. It may have had a glass door with gold letters saying Famous Apartments. West of the apartment building was a series of small one story businesses lining the street up the to Boyle Avenue.

Mariachis in the late 1980s | Photo courtesy of James Rojas
Mariachis in the late 1980s | Photo courtesy of James Rojas

Across the street on the northwest corner was the old brick Boyle Hotel. It was run down and may have had a barber-shop on the ground floor. On the southwest corner of First and Boyle was a gas station with car access from both sides of the corner. On the southeast corner was a laundromat with a small parking lot in front of it. East of the laundromat on First Street is an alley that separates the parking lot from the existing two-story buildings that a line First Street. These business included an upholstery shop, trophy shop, and charro stop, which are still there today.

On the large triangular traffic island bound by First Street, Boyle Avenue, Pleasant Street and Baily Street, was a donut stand. Like other roadside cafés in L.A. it was a small structure surrounded by a sea of parking. Like a drive-thru restaurant, cars would pull up to the island and park. Here the Mariachis would make their business. Because Pleasant Street was narrow at the triangle, many of the mariachis would sit on small boxes in front of the stuccoed wall storefronts on the north side of the street enacting the space. 

MTA's Broken Promises

First and Boyle in the early 1990s began its present day transformation. The intersection was going to become one of the subway stops for Metro's ambitious Red Line Subway Extension plan in the eastside. With millions dollars in planning studies and an Environmental Impact Report completed, Metro began acquiring the land to build the subway station. In addition, eastside politicians were able to wrangle the state of Jalisco in Mexico, where the Mariachi comes from, to donate the stone kiosk. The stone pieces were carved and assembled in Mexico and then reassembled in on site by a man from Jalisco. The kiosk replaced the donut stand that sat in the middle of the traffic island in anticipation of the Red Line Subway.

The parcels of land purchased by Metro included the southwest corner, where the gas station was located. On the northeast side of the traffic triangle it included the parcels where the Famous Apartments and Ranch Market were located. In addition, homes on Pennsylvania and Bailey adjacent to the intersection were purchased. Shortly after the parcels were purchased and building razed, the political jockeying between eastside and westside politicians on the fate of the Red Line Eastside Subway Extension began, and plans for heavy rail in general. At this time in L.A. no one believed that Angelenos would ever abandon their cars, and there was so much anti-rail development in L.A. that the MTA board killed the project.

The Red Line Subway to the eastside was killed, and one cared about the fate of First and Boyle.

For many years the oversized kiosk languished in the middle of the traffic island surrounded by vacant lots, and became the eastside's version of L.A.'s Bunker Hill urban renewal which erased all the previous community serving activities. Back in the late 1990s a few of my colleagues and I planted a series of jacaranda trees to soften up the place and installed the donated Mexican benches around the new kiosk. For a few years First and Boyle languished like a bad relationship between Metro and the community, until the arrival of Gold Line Extension to the eastside.

Mariachi Plaza in the late 1980s | Photo courtesy of James Rojas
Mariachi Plaza in the late 1980s | Photo courtesy of James Rojas

The Eastside Gold Line Light Rail Extension

By the late 1990s L.A.'s political climate for support of light rail was changing. Thus Metro revisited the intersection once again and began to plan for a new eastside light rail line that eventually got constructed. This project was a political hot potato because of the Red Line broken promises and Mayor Riordan's was set on giving the eastside more buses for transit improvements. Despite the Mayor's bus agenda and Metro's broken promises, through intensive community engagement the light rail project was approved by the MTA board at a much smaller scale, and Metro was able to get federal funding for the project. In addition the Review Advisory Committee for the Gold Line Eastside Extension helped shepherd the project through construction with the community.

Unlike West L.A., Santa Monica, or Pasadena, which experienced substantial private real estate investments at this time, the eastside had solicited very little investment. The last major investment in the eastside were public investments in the construction of the freeways, which didn't benefit the transit dependent community.

The construction of the Eastside Gold Line has had a big impact on the community and Mariachi Plaza. The name of the station was officially changed from First and Boyle to Mariachi Plaza. The rail line brought in funds to create a larger plaza and other urban design features, which not always supported the rasquache uses of intersection. 

The larger plaza greatly reduced parking around the station, which is or was critical for the Mariachis making business deals because most customers drove there from the greater eastside. Parking was reduced by shutting down a section of Pleasant Street between Bailey and Boyle. In addition, parking was limited on First between Baily and Boyle.

Walking to the plaza from the southwest corner has become problematic because the Los Angeles Department of Transportation forced Metro to widen First Street. The street widening killed the visual and spatial intimacy from the south side of the street and plaza. The Metro through a grant removed all the shady ficus trees along First Street, making walking to the plaza from the east uncomfortable.

Mariachi Plaza under construction for Metro Gold Line | Photo: Karen Chu/Flickr/Creative Commons

Metro cut the 30/31 bus line because it supposedly duplicated the Gold Line Right service. Transit riders now had to go underground to enter the train, thus reducing life on the plaza. Metro or the L.A. City never implemented a bike plan that was designed to bring cyclist to the plaza from the local community. These interventions have greatly impacted the pedestrian and transit users access the plaza.

The design of plaza was also problematic because it lacks a sense of intimacy and enclosure. Unlike plazas in Latin America, which bring people together, this plaza isolates people by the awkward placement of structures that have to accommodate the rail line below. The large monumental elements sit on the plaza without connection to each other or creation of place. The large concrete plaza is also very hot and there is very little shade.

I facilitated a workshop with Boyle Height's residents a few years ago on how they would improve the area. One woman removed the kiosk and built a jungle gym because she said the Mariachi Plaza is not child friendly. On that note I examined the plaza and sure enough there are no children playing in the plaza. It's such a missed opportunity -- in a park poor community this is very important.

Mariachi Plaza has become a showcase station but the devil is in the details. Unintentionally the current Plaza has become the eastside's Brasilia, where the heavy hand of government has transformed a space and limited the rasquache urbanism that made it innovative. Even the best minds can overlook essential elements that make or break a place.

The Final Touch: Vacant Lots and Transit Oriented Development

In five years since the opening of the station signs of life have been re-emerging around the plaza. No longer a community node for working class residents, it is transforming to a boutique Latino place with restaurants, bars, and art spaces. A farmers market and other activities are programmed for the Plaza. Because of Boyle Heights' proximity to downtown, freeways, and light rail, middle class Latinos are moving back into their childhood hood, as well as non-Latino hipsters which are pushing up home prices and rents. This is pushing out the transit-dependent residents the light rail station was built to serve. The big redevelopment projects such as the redevelopment of the Pico Aliso housing project to mixed income, and the expansion of the White Memorial Hospital, have changed the physical form of the area. Because of these bigger economic, social, and lifestyle shifts, Mariachi Plaza will need to accommodate these new users of space as well as the existing residents.

Despite its design flaws and turbulent history, Mariachi Plaza has become a beloved landmark for the local Latino community and at large, which I measure by how many times the kiosk appears in local murals and hand painted store signs.

Mariachi Plaza during CicLAvia in 2013 | Photo: Chris/Flickr/Creative Commons

The final phase of development for Mariachi Plaza are the vacant lots or transit oriented development (TOD). Unlike transportation planning, which has rigorous environment review process, TOD does not. This is why a Beverly Hills High School can stop a major subway project, and this is why one day buildings appeared in front of Union Station blocking the view of L.A.'s famed Landmark. (No one knows how they got there.) Metro's TOD developments are generated by market forces, and are then haggled over by the MTA board members, so there is very little public or community participation or oversight. This puts the responsible on the local elects to ensure that community needs are on the negotiating table for TOD.

Most of Metro's Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) use the same formula of housing, commercial (national chains). This formula may not always reflect L.A.'s culturally and economically diverse communities. Therefore many of the TOD's become lackluster, and miss the opportunity to become community serving centers in their physical designs and activities. This makes Mariachi Plaza unique to the Metro system.

We all know that the project needs to be 100% affordable; it should include an affordable market, drug store, Self-Help Graphics, children's space, social services, and fix the discrepancies of the existing plaza. Mariachi Plaza TOD in particular should be planned and designed with the community to reflect their needs, values, or aspirations. There are many good examples of public spaces in Latino communities throughout L.A. that Metro and developers can use as models and formulas, but there are very few planning tools to understand rasquache urbanism. How it all fits together through design to allow people to use the space as they feel, is just as critical.

What the enhanced Mariachi Plaza will look and feel like, I don't know, but it lies in the imaginations of the hundreds of residents in around the station. These people need to be engaged in the process of imaging and designing through face-to-face interactions to share ideas, bond, and build the planning capacity for them to move the project along from start to finish. I am more interested in what women and children need, want, and imagine for Mariachi Plaza because at the end of day it will be their space, I hope.  In addition, will Latinos be allowed their rasquache interventions?

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