Link to What's New This Week Activist turns L.A.'s traffic islands into national parks

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Created: May 25, 2008
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"As Susan and I take advantage of the summer break to review the work and the students' reactions, we are struck by the way that sophisticated "postmodern" disdain turns to enthusiasm as participants discover the power of making something, something that matters to you. They see little sense to making cards, drawing collaborative images, painting. They haven't done such things since elementary school. And they're not artists, for goodness' sakes.

Susan shared with me their first reaction to turning their collaborative drawing into art. I didn't do hardly anything; just brighten their colors and make the whole thing more visible on the computer screen. I added a few little icons, but nothing I didn't pick up right from their work. Tehy said, "Well, all she did was add some color." Yep. That's so. But then, when I cropped a couple of pieces to make them into postcards or gift cards or . . . Susan printed them as bookmarks. She printed so many she thought she'd have them around forever. But she found herself promising to print some more, if they'd just give away the ones already printed to the many guests at the exhibit who wanted them.

Those bookmarks everyone wanted at the exhibit were nothing more than their collaborative drawing cropped to different detail sections and with a little bright color added. Humans are social. It feels good to see something neat and get to take away a bookmark with a detail from what you saw. You were invited somewhere in an infrastructure that rarely offers invitations not attached to credit and payment. Someone cared enough about you and you're coming to the exhibition they gave you a colorful print of something they had created. That feels good. In a world so devoid of making the other happy and sharing that happiness, that feels wonderful.

I offered to put pictures of their exhibition into a Web Exhibit. It was so close to the end of school they were all caught up in finishing the year. But I'll bet they send me the photos I need, and it will feel good again, when they can simply click on the Internet and share their exhibit with friends and neighbors and family. I know. We've done it before. Many times. And it feels good. I am reminded of James Brown's I Feel Good, which plays here at my desk every time I press the "Feel good Button." I also have a James Brown doll who sings "I Feel Good" and gyrates happily. So does Susan. When life feels good we're in a space to learn, a space to think, to wonder, to ask questions innocently.

When it feels good, we're open to learning and thinking. So why did we ever leave feeling good out of our educational institutions? If you don't leave your learning place happy, isn't something wrong? It's not that hard to fix. Honest.

Ari is trying to fix it. His Traffic Islands project sounds like a good start. But Susan and I want to fix it in the whole educational infrastructure. Dewey said, ever so long ago (1930s), that we learn by doing. He just didn't say doing what. Educators have taken the mistaken position that anything we DO in a group, that looks like it resembles a real world group, will get us to learn. And so, projects were born. Projects that must be done in a group, that would be put together for a collective presentation in class and a GRADE. Help, Alfie Kohn. Those miserable grades again.

All that ever happened to me in such groups was that I ended up doing most of the work while others skated on my work. The DOING that I think Dewey had in mind was doing something that mattered to you, where you could make or frame or knit or hammer, whatever you preferred to do, and see how what you were learning related to what you were making. Sometimes you can build an experiment, as in science. But in many fields the thinking is not so easily replicated by a student group. Solution? Something like Susan's collective drawing based on what you're all feeling about what you've learned. It doesn't take a lot of time. Students themselves often have the computer skills to just add bright color and fill in empty spots with words that fit or small icons. And out come postcards or bookmarks, and the process of making them together, that will remind you for a long time of what you've learned. And along the way, you've learned how to take unfocussed scribble and turn it into an acceptable card or bookmark, conceptual art as a souvenir.

. . .

Backup of "Activist turns L.A.'s traffic islands into national parks"
By Lynell George
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times
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From the Los Angeles Times
Activist turns L.A.'s traffic islands into national parks
There's a serious purpose behind his seemingly farcical 'The Islands of LA Nat'l Park' campaign. He wants people to discuss uses of public spaces.
By Lynell George
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 11, 2008

Highlights and commentary by jeanne.

IT COULD very well be a mirage: A trick of the glaring morning sun or something misread in the pre-caffeinated early morning haze.

But no. Upon closer inspection, that brown-and-white sign, hanging just beneath the red slash of the "No Left/U-Turn" symbol on a sparsely landscaped traffic island, proclaims exactly what you first thought: "The Islands of LA Nat'l Park."

The territory it demarcates along a busy stretch of Glendale Boulevard as it eases into Echo Park seems, at first, unremarkable: some California native brush; flattened and faded Diet Coke cans; Energizer batteries. Nearby, vibrant goldenrod poppies push up from the dirt. And sure, depending on the time of day, you'll find a few regular "campers" -- a couple of reliably resolute panhandlers: one with a dog, another alone and with his own sign whose message has become garbled, streaked and bloated from rain.

National park? Even park would seem a stretch.

Yet the sign is not a movie ad. Nor part of a clever labeling scheme for city districts. Nor is it a joke. Provocative and whimsical, it's a prompt meant to take the mind down a side road that's often as invisible as the traffic island itself. It's an invitation: " 'Come travel here in this idea,' " says artist and activist Ari Kletzky, who since last fall has been placing signs across greater Los Angeles -- both "Islands of LA" and another, "Shift: Do Art Any Time," that mimics the city's ubiquitous "No Parking/Tow Away" placards but done up in an arresting shade of canary.

That phrase was enough to stop me. Very much like our "path not taken" at the entry to our website. And Ari Kletsky is using art, too. Professional artists can really make you feel like a fool when you tell them you don't want to sell your art. Ari Kletzky's remark made me feel alive again. jeanne

Kletzky's aim is as multilayered and unconventional as the city it embroiders, drawing attention to islands of every shape, size and intention. "The signs are a way to start a conversation and an education," says Kletzky, whose project is still in the exploratory stages. "They are a gesture. An appetizer that inspires an appetite. I'm looking to generate discussion to explore use of public space by turning islands into a work of art."

YES! That phrase was enough to stop me. Very much like our "path not taken" at the entry to our website. And Ari Kletsky is using art, too. Professional artists can really make you feel like a fool when you tell them you don't want to sell your art. Ari Kletzky's philosophy of stop and think about, talk about whatever this brings to mind made me feel alive again. jeanne
'Territories of art'

WE SPEED by them -- our traffic island archipelagoes -- rendering them a blur; or have become so inured to them along our well-worn paths that we tend to stare beyond them. Trapped on them as pedestrians, we find them an annoying interruption between intention and goal, departure and destination. But traffic islands, Kletzky suggests, are "inquisitive places." They are the pause in the city's long, rambling monologue to itself. And although the city has held its own "Adopt a Median" program through the Board of Public Works, Office of Community Beautification, that allows citizens to plant, beautify or tend a particular median, Kletzky sees islands as something even larger -- as "territories of art," places to create community, promote intellectual discussions in public and explore the use and availability of public space.

There's got to be something to this. It cannot be coincidence that the Dear Habermas team has worked for so long to use art to draw folks out there into inintellectual discussions on issues that matter to our community. Art matters. Ideas matter. Islands are public spaces. ISLANDS MATTER. COMMUNITY MATTERS. And art has a major role to play in resurrecting the community to whom it all matters. jeanne

The big questions he poses -- what is public? who owns public space? who should create public space? -- are being explored on his blog,, and in public gatherings -- talks, events, happenings from Santa Monica to Pasadena. In these discussions with curious Angelenos, says Kletzky, "We're looking at it not from the urban planning architecture angle, but how do you use public space to create community?"

In times past, Kletzky points out "public spaces were limited, not everybody had access. This goes back to the Acropolis, maybe further," he says, citing an essay written by an urban planning professor named Margaret Crawford that had a particular resonance to him. "[In the past] those excluded -- minorities, women, the poor -- went elsewhere: their homes, yard, etc." But there is something very democratic about the traffic island. "We can take hold of these public spaces," he says. "It's a chance to make the city seem more accessible."

His motivations were personal as well as political. Like so many Angelenos, Kletzky, 36, had been feeling hemmed in. "I was driving around, sitting in traffic and I just wanted a break. I wanted to take a vacation," he recalls. His eyes drifted over to a traffic island, "And I thought, 'I want to take it here.' " He pauses, smiles. "Well, I don't know if that's entirely true . . ." -- that is, that it happened in a moment. But the anecdote conveys the overall sentiment. That patch of green looked inviting enough. Why not sit a spell? Why not be carried away with a feeling?

Kletzky, a former rhetoric major at UC Berkeley, had come to making art late. To help cope with his father's passing, Kletzky began writing poetry in 1995, which led to photography, video and then video installations and performance. Art became not a form of expression, but rather "a form of exploration, interaction . . . even transformation." (He will begin working on an MFA in art and integrated media at CalArts come fall.) And once the island seed was planted, he started making connections. "I started reading philosophical theory about why it is that individuals are more interested in ideas than in objects. That's when I got the idea about prompting discussions and inviting people to think. To be involved -- be participants in the blog, or in their communities," he says. "The discussion itself is part of the project."


IN THE last six months traveling the city and its unincorporated parcels, Kletzky has seen it all: painted-green islands, crowded-with-benches-billboards-and-electric-box islands, neglected islands, in-construction islands, even gated islands. Some islands are only to be jogged or walked on -- no sitting, no loitering. "There is an island in West L.A.," says Kletzky, "that the city paid $28,000 to put a fence on to keep out the homeless."

Some are lush with palm and pine trees. Others seem to exist solely as the home to some city generator or mysterious energy source.

Kletzky pauses at the islands that call to him -- those, in particular, that offer a steady flow of traffic, either pedestrians or drivers. "Not in the middle of the block," notes Kletzky, "unless there was pedestrian traffic or a T-intersection." He puts up a sign or two, and, should he spot a driver idling at a traffic light who has left a window open a crack, he slips in a card, which asks a question and plants a seed: "Who should create public space?" The card directs drivers to the Islands website, where respondents are then invited to an activity -- making art, discussion or performance -- on a traffic island.

Just as we have a website that offers information on the issue that we try to balance from many perspectives. jeanne

Kletzky is full of stories about the islands and his interactions with the people who wait there for their buses, ask for change or sell flowers or food. He has received e-mails from folks who note gathering spots -- schoolgirls who have identified a "signed" island as a designated meeting place -- and has invited some of those interested to talk, over coffee and muffins, "about the nature of L.A.'s built environment." The islands, he's learned, are often microcosms of neighborhoods they are a part of, full of clues about an ever-evolving place where class, race, culture and language intersect. And the only way for someone to see it is to become part of it, interact with it, he explains, by making a trek to an island.

An island divided

ON THIS particular spring morning, when Kletzky arrives at the island at Glendale Boulevard and Berkeley Avenue, toting his bulging backpack, a camera and two Coroplast signs, John Emerson, one of the island denizens, is stationed there. He calls out a greeting: "Hey! Whussup, Sign Guy?"

Emerson's face is lined and tan as dry clay, his eyes the color of a cold mountain spring. As the two talk, it becomes clear that Emerson is an actor who has fallen on hard times. He tells Kletzky how he was rousted from his squat just a few blocks north of here, and now he's back to less than nothing: "People don't really start giving money until after 10:30 a.m.," Emerson explains. "Before that they're all angry. Late for work. Can't be bothered. Even to let the window down."

Kletzky inquires about his wife, his health, and when Emerson asks for money "for my methadone treatment," Kletzky unzips the pack, pulls out a plastic bag with bagels and hands them to him. There is tension on the island, Kletzky has noticed over a period of months, between Emerson and another drifter and a group of Latino vendors, some of whom are working to pay off coyotes who brought them over. The vendors often make more than the homeless can panhandle, and each wants the other to stick to their own side of the island, a trenchant metaphor for some of the city's rumbling hive of tensions.

As Kletzky sees it, visiting the islands is a way to plug into what's going on at ground zero -- and shape a discussion of the problems that come into focus there.

That's one place to draw together some members of the community who have not been given adequate access to voice. We need to seek out others. jeanne

Temporary status

HOW PUBLIC is the public space Kletzky has his eye on? He got one answer recently at an event in Santa Monica near Highways Performance Space and Gallery, where he hosted half a dozen or so writers, urban planners, students and artists to discuss the islands project and mount a public art piece that reflected the discussion. They built paper mailboxes and quotes hung from trees that went up on a busy island on Olympic Boulevard. Only a few hours later, the display was gone, as if it had never existed. (Subsequently, the City of Santa Monica cited Highways, which was fined $150 for the removal of six signs "unlawfully posted on a public right of way.")

Just like our boxes. The art matters less than the message, than the sharing, than the community it serves to form. So we can't SELL this art. jeanne

"In some ways they are saying: 'You don't own the city.' But I think it compels the participants to deal with the issue of temporariness. This is about the disposable moment. I know the limitations of the traffic island," he says.

And the issue of "knowingness." jeanne

He's aware that the islands are temporary "stages" -- and Kletzky has been careful to make sure in mounting the signs that they don't harm property. "One of the things that keeps coming up is, 'Is this guerrilla art?' Do I have authority or approval?" There is no tape or glue or paint. "It's why I don't like graffiti. It's marking territory by changing something irrevocably. I prefer not to damage property." Because in the end, says Kletzky, "It's not about the product but the ideas generated."

Though it's still early, a cacophony of responses has let Kletzky know he's onto something. For someone who was feeling isolated, set apart from the city, it has evolved into a way to stitch together community despite the region's growing congestion and unwieldy expanses. It's building community out of an idea. "It's made working in public much more interesting because the public exists," in it he says. "The project is about using this vehicle of art -- slap some wheels on it and see where it goes." It's Kletzky's message in a bottle. "The collaboration is really essential -- the repetition of it. It's in that process that something takes form."

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Discussion Questions

  1. I like the fact that Ari Klezky is conscious of the problems with defacing property and has come up with a solution for that. Do you see any other problems with the traffic islands approach?

    Consider that traffic in L.A. is at a standstill much of the time. L.A. traffic islands might look more like bits of polar ice melting in the midst of a warming ocean. They're lucky if they can hold a couple of people safely. Ari apparently solved this in part by looking for a nearby space where they could sip a coke or coffee together for their conversations. In Paris the cafes on the Left Bank or in Montmartre served a similar purpose, where the regulars knew each other and where there was much thinking, most of it about art, literature, philosophy, going on. In L.A. we have less of a tradition with such cafes, although at the 901 Club across from the computer center at USC, some of us geeks used to hang out and think out loud.

    That's where Wayne and I came up with our ideal therapy system: a pub on the corner of every few blocks in the neighborhood where the bartender (although we didn't expect to serve alcohol) would welcome you at any time of the day or till late at night with a snack and some tea or juice or whatever and help you think through a problem as it was occurring. We called it public mental health and didn't think of it as profit-making. Just sanity preserving and preventive public health. Groups, consciousness raising or otherwise, were big in those days and we figured whoever was there at the time might join in listening, consoling, and seeking alternative paths to solutions.

    I still marvel that in the midst of an emotional crisis that may be life threatening the doctor's office asks "Would you like to make an appointment? We could fit you in next Thursday at 2:00 p.m." Neighbors could help neighbors just by listening and respecting that no one can know what alternatives will work best for you, so that no one can tell you what you should do. There's plenty of time to "understand" the cause of the crisis when the emotional trauma has passed. (Reference Thomas Szaz.) Then you can make an appointment with whomever. But in the midst of crisis, you just need someone to listen, someone to care, a place to go, and some reliable sources for professional help if it's needed or you choose it.. What a perfect description of where we need a public space, a caring space. And we could make it serve for a public thinking space when no crises were underfoot. A public space, because no one should undertake to offer an open door to their "private space" to any and all who may need it whenever. As a public space those who gathered there, to just sit and think or just to sit, would soon learn that everyone has "crises," and maybe be able to manage their own a bit more comfortably. Without the stigma of "needing counseling," Wayne and I figured many would learn to seek comfort in such a place, so that small problems might have a chance to be worked out before they puffed up into full crises.

    I like Ari's wanting to take the traffic islands over for such a purpose, but I think our local pub would be more comfortable and more conducive. I wonder how we'd react if someone homeless wandered in. Could we handle it? Just us, as ordinary folks. Could we listen, console, and help them find the needed resources? Once there would have been an extended family for that. Today we need to resurrect that extended family from amongst ourselves in a community of proximity. Remember Down and Out in Beverly Hills, anyone?


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