The wooden objects are earthy and playful, like structures you’d see on the grounds of a progressive nursery school or in the kiddie play area of a cheerful park. Made of neat, unpainted slats, they are configured to approximate small tables, individual and couch-length seats and, in one case, a large, hard circular sofa offering 360 degrees of seating. This is no public square — it’s the southwestern corner of Vermont and Manchester in South L.A., and these objects comprise a “community living room.”
“Basically, I think it’s cool ’cause you can sit on them and wait for the bus, instead of sitting on the ground,” says Mary, a late-30s resident of the area who’s seated, along with her teenage daughter, on one of these strange, newfangled chairs. “There was nothing before, just a lot of trash right here. It makes it look a little bit decent.” One caveat: Mary thinks the pieces would benefit from a brighter color.
Bespectacled senior citizen Henry weighs in, explaining how few and far between such relaxation spots are in his neighborhood. “If this furniture wasn’t here, I’d be standing up,” he says. “I like this. It’s real nice. Very nice.”
Community living rooms such as this one — there are more than 20 in Los Angeles County — are the brainchild of San Francisco landscape architect Steve Rasmussen Cancian, who prototyped the idea in the historically significant African-American neighborhood of West Oakland. “We want to celebrate what the neighborhood is,” says Cancian. “But for anyone whose goal is to change the neighborhood into something that excludes the current residents, we hope that living rooms will actually be a deterrent to them moving in.”
Cancian’s small firm worked with L.A.’s Verde Coalition, a community and labor umbrella organization that includes the Service Employees International Union No. 721 and Central City Neighborhood Partners, which provides Westlake and Central City–area youth and their families with a comprehensive array of social, education and recreation services. Verde’s aim is to increase parks in park-deprived areas, and it helped to smooth Cancian’s path to City Hall, which ultimately led to the necessary funding. What might surprise many is how frugal an investment these projects are.
“A park, even a small, modest one, costs in the several hundred thousands, at least,” says Cancian. “However, a community living room can be done for as little as five or ten thousand and in a fraction of the time.”
Part of the beauty of these spaces is they’re not just dropped onto what could have been a disinterested or uninformed population.
“We always have a participatory process from square one, where the residents have a meeting and survey the neighborhood to help pick the best site,” says Cancian. “Then we have a second workshop to design the living room together. What do we want to make it out of, and do we want to paint it?”
Around the creation of the Vermont and Manchester room, the African-American local neighborhood council and the Latino-led community organizers based at St. Michael’s Church came together for the very first time.
Interestingly, it was Heal the Bay — as funded by the California Coastal Conservancy — that brought the living room project to St. Michael’s as part of its urban-watershed-education program, one of the aims of which is to increase community involvement.
The specific sites vary, with topical images painted on some pieces by local artists and youths. There is, however, an overall science to designing these things.
“The first concern with design is you can’t just take a chair from your living room and put it on the sidewalk,” says Cancian. “Furniture on the street needs the weight and the heft to hold its own. We’re trying to colonize the sidewalk for people, whereas in L.A., the sidewalk is usually the edge of the street — the territory of the automobile.”
Raymond is perhaps in his late 30s/early 40s, but his long beard, tight black skull cap and careful, studious delivery create the impact of a wiser, more experienced soul. He’s just spent a good deal of time philosophizing with a friend on a couch-width structure. A couple of large, rectangular planter boxes at the curb create a pleasant barrier between his outdoor domain and the street.
“This alteration, it’s nice,” he says. “You can come around, and sit down, relax for a minute, if you’re not waiting on the bus, just wanna relax for a minute, it’s okay.”
Raymond affords my questions considerable weight, as if his answers on the subject will be carved in marble on some timeless edifice.
“For us, it’s convenient. We like it. Environmentally, it’s perfect for the surroundings. And if there were more things like it, more corners like it, it would be ... sufficiently approved.”