The Futures of Death Alley

Bringing together community leaders to re-imagine vacant lots.

Design Strategy
Strategic Foresight

Along a two-mile stretch down LA’s South Vermont Avenue spans the city’s infamous Death Alley. The name, coined by the LA Times in 2014, represents an area with one of the highest homicide rates in L.A. County. With an ever-present gun and gang violence, Death Alley has seen over 100 homicides since 2007 and remains one of the deadliest places to live in the country. In 1992, South Central became a major focal point during the L.A. riots as thousands of people came together in civil uprising through a series of protests, looting, and riots resulting in countless deaths, $1 billion in property damage and dozens left homeless.

In recent years, the area has also suffered a prolonged food desert, with a flurry of grocery store closings. As a result, the abandoned environment of South Central has become hard to ignore, amidst trash filled streets and vacant lots. Today, resilient community members and outside creative and entrepreneurial experts come together in the same area but with a new purpose: to revitalize their community.

In the face of ongoing adversity, South Central has caught the attention of several nonprofits, such as Five Points Youth Foundation and Los Angeles Trade Technical College Architecture and Environmental Design Program, working to aid in the progress of the community and discover new opportunities for innovation. The neighborhood’s vacant lots posed as the perfect testing grounds for the future of these spaces and their impact on the community.

Credit: LA Times

 

The location is the legal street address for Five Points Youth Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 1984 by Congresswoman Diane Watson that has been reduced to a shell of its former self.  It is still being kept alive through the generous entrepreneurial work of the business center landlord and the networking of the Foundation’s temporary head.  They are hoping that the location can once again serve holistic needs of area youth and residents, become a hub of entrepreneurial initiative, and serve as a place for healthy food, recycling, sustainability, and community resiliency.

Now, new energy from two sources is giving reason for optimism.  The Architecture Program of LA Trade Tech College has taken the location on as a place of fieldwork for its “Living Alley” revitalization initiative, and longtime LA architect Wayne Fishback has recently remade the formerly abandoned lot that sits adjacent to 1820 into a large, open-air meeting and festival space. Both efforts are working together with the Foundation.

verynice teamed up with innovation experts from PandoPopulus, as well as local community organizers, activists, and entrepreneurs to facilitate a full-day workshop imagining Death Alley’s vacant lots in 2022. As producers of the event, PandoPopulus solicited all participation, organized vendors, and assembled experienced experts to make this workshop a reality for the community. Each contributor helped in the formation of actionable steps towards ways of reactivating the empty lot on 1820 W. Florence Avenue, a street adjacent to Death Alley, as well as the community at large. By leveraging existing community resources and empowering local members, positive change began locally. With outside support and specific focus on improving these vacant lots, locals were encouraged to be the changemakers in their own community, avoiding gentrification.

Ideation

verynice kicked off the first half of the day by leveraging our Models of Impact methodology to rapidly generate 30 unique ideas and possible futures for these vacant lots. Over 50 attendees ranging from writers, poets, teachers, former gang members, and nonprofit leaders, worked in small groups to write down their skills, and then couple those skills with current community issues and future trends.

Through a unique series of game-based and hands-on learning activities, each group generated concepts that could transform these empty lots and selected one idea to move forward with. Next, using verynice’s business planning framework, participants could shape their next steps and solidify their idea.

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Lunch Break

Provided by local vendors, lunch became a community celebration and a platform for nonprofits, activists, and community leaders to share the work they are doing through an open mic set up. Local musicians and spoken word artists joined in the fun as participants networked and shared ideas.

Prototyping

Ideation is necessary, but change happens when ideas become actions. By diving quickly into the prototyping phase, participants had the opportunity to test out the beginnings of this change. The verynice team led groups through three unique approaches to prototyping, providing demos and sharing insights into the benefits of each strategy. Then, over the course of 45 minutes, attendees developed physical manifestations of their ideas in a prototype sprint. Using random and fun materials including beads, pipe cleaners, and colored paper, groups built their first prototype.

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Seeing initial ideas come to life, the team conducted a “prototype fair” to give each member an opportunity to present the idea to their peers and collect feedback in an intimate setting. After sharing with their peers, participants returned to their small groups to implement feedback and improve their prototype. In a final presentation, a member of each group presented their second iteration and received feedback from the verynice team.

Among the experts helping to facilitate this process was verynice’s Art Director, Alisa Olinova, who felt the subtle and substantive impact the workshop had on both its participants and its facilitators:

“The space was like the people – full of history, open to creativity, and driven by authenticity. In this blank canvas, I walked around to help small teams adjust to the fast-paced process of ideation and effectively communicate their ideas to each other and to the rest of the group, encouraging them to create a visual device that can accompany a clear and concise plot. What is your opener? What is your closer? What is your point? What does that look like? Some groups were more focused on abstract communication strategies for the community organization, best showcased through storytelling and rough infographics; others had more tangible concepts for businesses and community projects that were best showcased through physical prototypes and step-by-step drawings. As teams presented their ideas and stories to the group, their talents and knowledge stood out, leaving a sense of collaborative power and hope in the air.”

 

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Concepts

The diversity among participants translated through the range of ideas generated during the workshop. Some ideas were more futuristic, while others imagined near-term solutions and futures. All interests and aspirations of the community were relayed through this ideation and implementation process, making each provocation unique to South Central. While all generated ideas are applicable to the thousands of vacant lots beyond the 1820 Florence location, we’ve curated a selection of ideas we believe are the most promising for this specific space. To see a list of all team ideas generated during the workshop, please reference the Addendum at the end of the Case Study.

Pando Market

Big Idea: This new barter market, based on pre-capitalistic goods distribution, uses skills as currency. The community would contribute goods and services, reuse leftovers (food, furniture, etc.), and create DIY opportunities and perhaps even education programs.  Part farmers’ market, part repair café, part pop-up restaurant, the goal is to meet local needs for healthy food and community and create a vigorous environment of resiliency and self-sufficiency.

Next Steps: Develop a pilot Pando Market for a single afternoon, focused on bringing together aspects of a farmers’ market, repair café, and/or pop-up restaurant that are relatively easy to test market in the area and respond with goods and services of greatest need in the area.  Start with people we know who have something to give (say, home gardeners with too much squash; or someone with a sewing machine who likes to repair jeans) and build the prototype model based on these established relationships so that the initial idea is easy to pull off

Future Vision: Vacant lots throughout the neighborhood host regular “Pando Markets” in order to bring the community together in this exchange of goods and services.

How You Can Help: To support this project through donation or to get involved as a volunteer please contact Marcela Oliva.

Victims of Violence Youth Camp

Big Idea: This youth camp would be catered to victims of violence, whether it be gun or domestic violence. The focus of the camp would be on healing and coping, leveraging resources such as storytelling and nature. Youth who come through the camp become mentors for the community as they continue to heal and mature.

Next Steps: Volunteers are needed to recruit mentors and participants from the community, develop curriculum for the youth camp, and further develop concepts for the space’s design.

Future Vision: Vacant lots throughout the neighborhood become a network of youth camps, allowing for program scalability, and ultimately more resources for the youth.

How You Can Help: To support this project through donation or to get involved as a volunteer please contact Marcela Oliva.

Rejuvenate L.A.

Big Idea: “Rejuvenate L.A.” uses the available vacant lots and government land to serve veterans and create jobs by developing “skills incubators” using these vacant properties. Services would focus on the mind, body, and soul, and include education on individual skills or technology skills.

Next Steps: Develop a single skills workshop for vets with, say, three volunteers from the local veteran community focused on training some set of skills that a) they are expert at, b) can be taught easily in a workshop, and c) meet community needs. Based on input from the initial pilot and the initial group of teachers, we modify the program, relaunch, modify again, and launch again.  We discover what’s needed and what can work based on what is learned from the vets we can get as teachers and the specific needs they seem to be meeting, within the context of on-the-ground fieldwork.

Future Vision: Vacant lots throughout the neighborhoods host regular meetings among incubator members and beneficiaries in order to create hundreds of jobs, and build capacity for necessary skills among the veteran community.

How You Can Help: To support this project through donation or to get involved as a volunteer please contact Marcela Oliva.

Creating a Legacy

The collaboration and process of the workshop is designed to be an ongoing initiative that empowers and sustains community and nonprofit leaders in their efforts long-term. Due to its replicability, the workshop design enables local community members, angel investors, and entrepreneurs to continue using our curriculum to realize new futures for other empty lots in the neighborhood.

verynice Founder, Matthew Manos, found that this workshop model opens the door for new ways of community development in Los Angeles and beyond:

“Far too often, solutions for empty lots and vacant spaces are imposed upon a community by outside developers who lack an emotional connection to a space. As we see time and time again in Los Angeles, this model results in displacement and gentrification. What I’ve loved about this workshop experience is that it successfully flips the traditional development model on its head. By giving the residents a platform and leadership position the futures of ‘Death Alley’ can be written by the residents themselves.”

Giving locals the power and resources to take back their community is essential to the development and sustainability of new design initiatives. Prior to the workshop, Daude Sherrills, an instrumental figure in negotiating peace treaties during the LA riot and representative of Amer-I-Can, saw this opportunity and donated $10,000 to ongoing community initiatives. Media outlets including CBS also featured the workshop’s efforts. This unique approach to community development proves innovation is not only helping redesign communities, but also the future.

THE FUTURES OF DEATH ALLEY is a Pando Populus and verynice collaboration for the Los Angeles Trade Tech College, Architecture and Environmental Design Program and its Living Alleys initiative at Five Points Youth Foundation, in association with ENCOUNTER LA, Wayne Fishback, Jobs Create Peace, Global Business Incubation and AMER-I CAN.

Addendum

“Communiversity”

This project creates a learning experience for management and the revisioning of properties throughout the area. It would start with the glut of old buildings & abandoned real estate, and owners would pay the community to manage and revitalize the buildings into:

  • Green Tech / Blue Tech:  air, water & energy
  • Provide innovation & technologies to create transitional labs of all kinds, e.g., grow algae for fuel & food
  • Affordable housing – sweat equity retrofits for good habitation
  • Make them Generators of income

“Why?”

Using Five Points Youth Foundation as the hub and the idea of sustainability as a goal, each community would start with their strong points or their area of greatest need:

  • Skills & talents
  • Technology and resources, offering support, through Ted talks, documentation
  • Counseling & relaxation
  • Production – wholesale & retail projects

“This Place L.A.”

Aims to improve the community by giving individuals a sense of their own strength. “This Place L.A.” would use education to increase impact and partner with nonprofit Amer-I-Can, which empowers individuals to take charge of their own lives. The project would rethink revenue streams within the community and make sure e-commerce from project to project was sustainable. One way of doing this would be leveraging the CalGreen initiative, requiring that 65% of all materials be recycled, and turn this into a business. A supplemental revenue stream to this project would be developing a community garden.

“Art & Soul”

A mobile education unit that would build bridges between communities and allow people to learn from each other by celebrating diversity.

“1 Radius”

This project focuses on the allocation of land from the city, turning abandoned facilities into labs that serve the population. These spaces can be used to provide homeless shelters within a one-mile radius of where there is a need.

Urban Eco Farms”

A model of food coops focusing on breaking the cycle of poverty and revitalizing the 5,000 alleys that were closed after the riots. Each member holds one vote and gets an equity share through time, talent, or taxes. This is a joint venture between the residents of the community and the participants who need the support.

“Hub Nursery”

A genetics laboratory, educating community members on innovative solutions to urban problems and reducing waste. Converted from old warehouses, the hub would focus on hydroponics and create new jobs for locals.

Credits

Lead Facilitator :
Matthew Manos

Producer:
Mervis Reissig

Strategic Advisor:
Eugene Shirley, Marcela Oliva

Publicity :
Amy Goldberg

Facilitation:
Shane Chase, Alisa Olinova, Bianca Nasser, Isabelle Harvey

Graphic Designer :
Michael Braley



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