Research Spotlight: Skid Row and the Great Wall of LA

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Photograph by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times – This is a photograph of a mural in LA called The Great Wall that highlights the experiences of communities of color in America’s history.

In November of 2015 I presented my research on Berkeley’s People’s Park at SACRPH – The Society for American City and Regional Planning History.  Because the conference was based in LA, many panels that put theorists, practitioners, and historians in conversation addressed local concerns over the right of the masses to the city.  One of the most engaging panels included presentations by Cathy Gudis and Eric Avila who, in different ways, evidenced a public visual culture “from below” with rich examples of people staking claim to urban space in LA.

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Eric showed his own photographs of The Great Wall – a mural painted on a concrete barrier trailing  2754 feet on Canyon Ave by artist Judy Baca – which offers vivid snapshots in America’s history and experiences of communities of color.  More than just acknowledging their existence, the mural captures struggles over power embedded in urban space, such as this segment that portrays how local and state governments backed with federal funding seized land owned by people of color to build highways, universities, and more.  This segment shows how the state demolished Chavez Ravine, a Mexican American neighborhood in LA, to make way for a new highway and the Dodger’s Stadium that divided the barrios and fragmented the Mexican American community.

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36 portraits of Skid Row visionaries by street artist Mr. Brainwash.

Offering a contemporary lens, Cathy shared her own experiences working with the bi-annual Walk the Talk parade held by the LAPD (LA Poverty Department) in Skid Row – home to the largest homeless population in the US.  My own experience staying in Skid Row for the SACRPH conference was eye-opening.  I was absolutely stunned at how many people were living on the street in clumped tent cities.

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Photo by Jabin Botsford/ Los Angeles Times: Makeshift shelters crowd San Julian Street in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles

The parade functions as an affront to cultural norms and policies discouraging citizens and tourists from venturing into Skid Row and talking with its itinerant residents.  Marchers carrying musical instruments and posters showing the faces of dead and still surviving homeless residents process through the neighborhood. The parade is part of a series of events facilitated by the LAPD that engages the community in discussions to identify initiatives and people who have made positive contributions to Skid Row.

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Photo by Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times, Walk the Talk parade participants march from Gladys Park led by the Mudbug Brass Band and stopping for sketches celebrating local activists.

What events and places in your community highlight the experiences of people of color in American past and present?

Inspiration: Visualizing Slow Food

After posting recently on my Global Food Studies blog about my exploration in Italy of Slow Food International as a mission and practice, I wanted to explore the world of visualizing slow food.

This graphic by Daniel Touchet interestingly connects practices of consuming food (growing it, cooking it, and talking about it) with emotions, arguing that fast food is not only more anonymous but mindless and alone.  I don’t know if I agree with this, having enjoyed much family time at fast food restaurants over the years, but I do agree that a faster food lifestyle is more detached from the complexity of global connections that food has to offer.

Yet what are the local impacts of Slow Food?  How does it affect me living in Indiana?

Antidepressants are starting to show up in fish tissue. (Fish Pharm infographic by Oliver Uberti)

This is a really interesting infographic produced by Oliver Uberti using pills to visualize a fish.  As a warning about water quality downstream from sewage treatment plants, the pills represent the four main types and percentages of pharmaceutical drugs found in fish pulled from Chicago’s North Shore Channel. Since I take a Benadryl every night to sleep, the image really resonated with me, making me think about the potential harms of the toxins I consume.  This image implicitly advocates for slow food by illuminating the importance of knowing where you get your food, how it was grown, and what the harms are on your body and on the environment.

Douglas Gayeton, the author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, has been exploring the principles of sustainability through photography, taking abstract concepts and turning them into annotated infographics—or “information art.” It’s part an ongoing series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. The images convey invisible or purposely obfuscated ideas related to food, and the concepts are explained by the experts themselves, like Elaine Ingham (above) translating soil science and microbiology for the masses.

Another favorite visualization of slow food is this series by Douglas Gayeton who combines portrait photography with an overlaying sketched mind map.  Each visual centers the slow food advocate in a graphic that aims to unpack the complexity of the food system by visualizing connections, explanations, and processes.  In this graphic Elaine Ingham translates soil science and microbiology through simple sketched graphics.

Peter Smith describes Gayeton’s informational art at Smithsonian.org as

More than a construction actually, these images are a deconstruction of ideas, reducing them to their essence, then trying to find a way to graphically represent them. Somebody once wrote that one of the interesting thing about the work is that it works the way a mind works: If I were to simply give you a piece of paper with a lot of writing on it, you might skim over it; but if I were to take a bunch of ideas and place them on an image, then you are suddenly active in the idea. You’re active in the appreciation of the idea. That activity creates a narrative and makes it easier to retain information. You have more of a deeper connection…. It’s not a passive experience. The active experience of turning the reading of something into it’s almost a game-like quality, I think it allows people to connect more intimately with the ideas and images.

These graphics are part of Gayeton’s project The Lexicon of Sustainability that has created information artworks on food and farming, water, and energy.  Here’s another graphic illustrating the 100 mile diet that’s coupled on the site with definitions and links to the farmer’s website and local resources for pursuing slow, close food.

From The Lexicon of Sustainability by Gayeton

This style of infographic would work best for me to visualize slow food, with a recipe for my grandmother’s pound cake overlaying a photograph of my family at her house during the summer months when her front porch table is covered in home grown tomatoes, her yard groomed by wandering chickens, her basement shelves full of home canned meals ready to be transported to Muncie where I live.  When I eat her jars of pork stew, orange marmalade, and fig preserves I’m transported back to her home in Hahira, Ga where the heat and humidity make life and conversations slow and happy.

My dad's photo of Cypress Pond capturing the misty swamplands of the South.
My dad’s photo of Cypress Pond capturing the misty swamplands of the South.

How do you see slow food?