“A landscape for presence” – self-organised communities in the COVID era

Published 25 februari, 2021

Donatella Cusma

Architect and Educator, Claret-cup

With debates continuing on how to end homelessness, its connection with rent unaffordability and gentrification in L.A. is becoming clearer. Co-founder of the design studio Claret-cup, Donatella Cusma, shares insights from Echo Park Lake and emphasises why homeless communities are part of the conversation around urban planning.

Meaningful response is a deliberate process

Mimi Zeiger

On the nights of July 27th and 28th 2018, German composer Max Richter, accompanied by members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and soprano Grace Davidson performed live, and for the first time outdoors, a mediative eight-hour contemporary classical symphony titled Sleep in the Grand Park, Downtown Los Angeles.  

The musicians took the stage and played with no interruptions through the night for an audience of over 500 people who were laying down in individual cots, arranged on the park’s lawn.  

A dim, dreamy blue light pervaded the space, allowing just enough visibility for comfort while providing a perfect environment for sleeping. Even though the night was spent in rigorous silence, with no applauses or talking allowed to prevent disturbing the audience asleep, a special sense of kinship was palpable the next morning among the concert-goers. Smiling or nodding at each other while putting away bedding in backpacks, standing awkwardly in pyjamas, it was as though the act of sleeping outdoors, among strangers in a public space, had created a special bond, a new community. The crowd dispersed quickly though, off to nearby restaurants for breakfast or back home, to recount the experience and to really rest. 

The outdoors as homelessness 

As part of the audience on one of these nights, without deterring from the formidable experience provided by Richter’s ensemble of artists, one could not avoid but think with extreme sadness, of the astounding number of unhoused people who, on any given night, sleep in the streets of Los Angeles, not as an elevating once-in-a-lifetime artistic experience but as a matter of necessity.  

Tent Community at Echo Park, LA. Image: Donatella Cusma

In 2018 the count of unhoused individuals in L.A. County amounted to 52,765 (2). Two and a half years later, and with the Covid-19 pandemic in course, the homeless population has grown even larger. Data collected prior to the pandemic by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority documented a total number of 66,436(3) unhoused residents in Los Angeles County, and according to the most recent projections, it will continue to grow, especially due to the impending lifting of the eviction moratorium. The massive loss of jobs and income-driven by the pandemic is affecting the already at-risk population of low-income workers, especially in communities of colour, and is exposing the unsustainability of the proverbial lack of an American social welfare system. 

With debates continuing on how to end house insecurity and homelessness, its connection with rent unaffordability and gentrification in L.A. is becoming clearer. The relationship between social inequality and systemic racism is characterised by informal settlements that have become part of the cityscape and have generated what could be defined as a new type of sprawl. While city officials discuss the fate of public programmes such as project Roomkey(4), groups of unhoused people have taken action and organised. 

Self-organising communities are rising to the challenges of homelessness 

Along the banks of the Echo Park lake, not far, by L.A. standards, from that outdoor concert venue, a Community of unhoused people is showing more resilience, compassion and common sense than the city officials. Putting their abilities to work to recognise and meet the needs of their own members, together they planted a community garden, built a communal kitchen and shower stalls, created a fund to purchase equipment and supplies, instituted a donation desk, initiated a job program for the residents of the camp and even started a series of beautification projects. A brief stop by the donation desk yields a conversation with two of the key organisers and provides insights into the heroic efforts that this community has to sustain in order to survive every day.  

A hand-painted sign by the community garden states: “This garden is a landscape for presence”, and it hurts to read it.  

“Come back in two weeks, and you will see so many improvements”, I am told by one of the residents, pointing at the wooden construction that hosts the community kitchen. “One of our members is a plumber: he set up the showers, we should have hot water soon”. It is evident, that this is a truly self-governed grassroots community with goals and ideals for a better future. 

At times of the Shelter-in-place order, with the number of Covid-19 infections rising exponentially, one of the main hardships facing the camp residents is constituted by the police sweeps. This inhumane practice is particularly tone-deaf when it is obvious that the unhoused population has nowhere else to go and is the most susceptible to the dangers of the pandemic. 

The housing crisis in Los Angeles -understood as a direct result of socio-economic inequality- should be equated to a humanitarian crisis as defined by UNHCR(5) and treated as such. Unhoused residents, could be, in this emergency, recognised as Internally Displaced Persons, individuals with rights whose wellbeing should be safeguarded by the City officials who are ultimately their representatives regardless of their legal status. Failing to address the rights and needs of the most vulnerable members of the community represents a political and humanitarian failure of our society at large.  

In this sense, the example of the self-organised unhoused community of the Echo Park Lake, using their resources to prioritise the health, autonomy and dignity of their members offers a lesson in resilience, civic responsibility and compassion. But also, the ability of activating public space by promoting public agency.  

The boundaries between private and public space

The post-modern affirmation that Los Angeles lacks proper public spaces becomes less interesting than the shifting of the boundaries between private and public space when observing the case of the Echo Park Lake community camp, and the structures of power that govern its use.  

Following an expansive project of revitalisation that lasted three years, the park reopened in 2013. The remodelling of the lake, undoubtedly an improvement from the environmental point of view, was also perceived by some of the neighbourhood’s long-time residents- to this day majority Latino- as catering to the white population, a step in the direction of gentrification and a part of a historic process of erasure and dispossession of the communities of colour in the city. 

In the years following the renovation, as in an experiment from The Street Life Project (6), the grassy patches under the trees, a mile-long jogging path, a playground, the swan-shaped pedal boats, the new benches, the wooden platforms by the water, attracted people to the park, and with them came the street vendors, and the personal trainers. 

In the past year, the pandemic created new geographies in the park. Initially, during the first Safer-at-home order by the mayor, it was desolate. The playground was barricaded with yellow tape, the public restrooms were closed, and the occasional jogger dodging groups of geese.  

Later, once the Covid etiquette became second nature to most, smaller groups of individuals, spaced six feet apart, slowly started to repopulate the park, in masks on blankets, for “socially distanced” gatherings.  A natural environment for safer outdoor activities, the park proved to be a precious resource. The vendors returned, the yoga classes on the lawn restarted, the café reopened for take-out, hand sanitation stations punctuated the areas by the public restrooms. Society shows its resilience. Life adapts, no question. 

Making a home. Image: Donatella Cusma

In this geography, other types of users appeared. An encampment resembling of a village started developing based on the infrastructure and amenities provided by the location. There are groups of tents orderly spaced between tall palm trees, as if they were allocated plots of land or parcels. There are others located by the public restrooms, or in the proximity of lamp posts. The entrance to most tents orients towards the view of the lake. The donation desk, with phone charging stations and the community kitchen are located strategically by one of the stairs that gives access to the park from the street, to facilitate logistics and deliveries. The typologies are clear, and they speak to the way communities live and interact. There are single tents, clusters and rows. There is a space for weekly assemblies, with chairs and tables. There are families with children and pets. Furniture set up as dining and living rooms, luggage, dishracks, utensils and decoration adorn some of the spaces, even American flags are draped over some of the tents, vestiges of a previous domestic existence.  

Society shows its resilience. Life adapts, but in this case, not without a question. 

Time and time again the most successful urban projects have proven to be the ones implemented with the help of the direct stakeholders, as ground-up, not top-down, and if we assume, like we do in other more conventional contexts, that the users are the ultimate interlocutors able to provide information on the solution of a specific problem, then the residents of the community around the Echo Park Lake could be seen as a valuable asset in finding a solution to the housing crisis in Los Angeles and included in the conversation of the City’s urban planning.

Donatella Cusma
February 2021   

About the author and the feature

Donatella Cusmá Piccione Cadetto is a Los Angeles based-Italian architect and educator. She grew up in Sicily where the local history had an influence on her appreciation of the cultural palimpsest and fostered a curiosity for foreign cultures and local oddities.

After much wandering, she landed in Los Angeles where she is a co-founder of the design studio Claret-Cup. She serves as a board member of the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture (RIEA).

1) Zeiger, Mimi. ” Architecture can feel like a paltry gesture in times like ours”, Dezeen, 18 August 2016 www.dezeen.com/2016/08/18/opinion-mimi-zeiger-architectural-response-crises/

2) According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) 2019 Homeless Count in June 2019

3) lahsa.org

4)California Department of Social Services, www.cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/cdss-programs/housing-programs/project-roomkey

5) UNHCR, definition of IDP, www.unhcr.org/en-us/internally-dishe placed-people.html

6) William H. (Holly) Whyte, www.pps.org/article/wwhyte


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