A couple years ago while driving through Echo Park in Los Angeles, Lynell George noticed an Islands of LA National Park sign on a median at Glendale Blvd and Effie Street. A few weeks later, we stood on the same island talking about urbanism, public space and who creates the city, as part of a tour of a few islands and an article she was writing on Islands of LA for the LA Times.
Lynell now teaches at Loyola Marymount University and she invited me to speak to her students. We left the class to walk to a traffic island on campus called the Alumni Mall. Along the way we talked about how to locate one self.
We began in university hall: “Where are we, if we had to guess?”
“It looks like a shopping mall,” one student replied and we confabbed about the architecture and the elements left out by the skylight.
Along the way to the island, we continued looking at what they had seen countless times, looking for what might be hidden in plain view. We took a shortcut through the garage that a student showed me a few hours earlier. What are short-cuts? They are pathways never imagined or wanted by the planners and architects, begging the question, who creates the city and how.
While some students wanted to take a long, prettier route, once in the garage we found another surprising aesthetic. Somehow, the parking lot looked a lot like the classroom, or perhaps it was the other way around.
Once at the island, we continued our discussion considering the question of public and private. Can something be public if it is limited to a group of people, such as members of a private club? Where we somewhere public? Where does the binary of public and private come from?
“Does anyone know what the word “norteado” means?” We talked about the compass, a thing on every map, that points north and the orientation that indigenous people in this land had prior to colonization: East to West, following the trail of the sun. It seems, “soy norteado,” literally means I’m turned into north, in other words, dis-oriented and dislocated. The world has literally been turned upside down.Who tells us where we are?
We are on a traffic island in a private school. But, if we were on a pedestrian accessible traffic island in publicly owned space, we would be on the actual statue of liberty, for traffic islands that are legally accessible never close, don’t require a fee and are, therefore, the freest place in the American city for public assembly and free speech. Beyond island law in the United States, traffic islands represent a global narrative of use by everyday people, creating their city, figuring out where to locate their body and mind in the midst of the everyday happening.
As dusk turned to darkness, our location changed. It was cold and we left. Upon returning we continued our discussion about how to read where we are, learning about our city and our rights through the lens of a traffic island. At some point, we began speaking about communication technology, such as email and texting. (Where do those technologies locate our body and thoughts, our relationships, feelings?) Students spoke:
“It removes the context.”
“There is no personality.”
“There is no emotion.”
“What percent of their communication was mediated by communication technology?” I asked.
“70%,” they replied.
Is the cellphone an extension of our voice and hearing or is it the other way around? Are we the extension of technology? Have we become norteado? If so, by whose hand? Are there islands hidden in plain view in the high speed traffic of communication that may seem inaccessible but are actually a safe location or absurdly real refuge?
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