On my commute last week I noticed a sign posted on a traffic island declaring the narrow grassy strip an 'Island of LA Nat'l Park.' Intrigued, I took a look on the internet and found that for the past two years, Ari Kletzky has been creating Islands of LA all over Los Angeles, giving these interstitial places their own definition in an effort to spark ideas about the use of public space and to reclaim them as community territory.
This year ILA has hosted daylong activities at intersections that stitch together the criss-crossing neighborhoods of Los Angeles, organizing concerts, tetherball games, picnics, birthday parties and public discussions. They aim to redefine expectations of what an island can be used for (mainly that it can be used for a lot more than traffic signals, poor landscaping and trash). They ask, Why don't we all meet up in public spaces that are free and open, instead of at expensive bars and restaurants? Why do we hang out on beaches and in parks during the day but not at night?" "Is it legal to assemble on a traffic island?"
According to their research, as long as there is a pedestrian crossing connected to the island and nothing illegal is happening at the gathering, it is perfectly legal to linger with friends on a traffic island. ILA has organized meet-ups with Pomona College, CalArts and USC students to help educate those interested in using these spaces for public art or performance.
Beyond their use as a stage for community events, the islands themselves form a narrative of Los Angeles history. Many islands cover old rail lines, mapping the ghost of LA's streetcars. While the city is not known for exceptional public transit, there was an extensive rail system as recently as the 1940s that connected east with west, beaches with mountains. As that system was taken out of service, the old lines were either removed or covered by traffic islands (check out Venice Boulevard for details).
The islands also trace a map of LA's drainage system, as many cover rainwater tributaries, creating an archipelago of islands throughout the densely trafficked city and referencing the unseen system of waterways and rivers in a city suffering from chronic drought.
Through the public events that Islands of LA has put together, they are creating a new map of Los Angeles, illuminating overlooked green space as a destination for public assembly, everyday urbanism, and public art. Just be sure to look both ways before you cross the street!