Three colorful pylons rise from drought-resistant plantings in the entry plaza of the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library in Boyle Heights, a Latino neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. Todos Juntos is the name of this modest-but-striking civic marker, located at the intersection of First and Chicago Streets, that provides a gathering place for the community and a welcome mat for the library. It’s the latest venture of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI), a non-profit organization set up by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan following the 1992 riots to support neighborhood improvements across the city by channeling funds and managing construction for community-driven projects. As executive director Veronica Hahni explained, “the goals are to build community pride and strengthen a sense of place.”
In Boyle Heights, LANI worked with Councilmember José Huizar, whose field office is across the street from the library, to put together a steering committee of local residents and business owners. The committee agreed to a streetscape improvement on First Street between the L.A. River and the Soto Metro station. Siobhán Burke, head of Lyric Design and Planning, and Rob Berry of Berry and Linné, classmates at Yale who had previously collaborated on the design of the Spring Street Parklets, were selected to work with the community in determining the character and location of the project.
Burke and Berry explored potential sites with members of the committee and handed out a bilingual questionnaire at the Mariachi Plaza farmers market. “What would you like to see added to First Street?” they asked, and offered a range of options, from signage and improved lighting to public art and places to sit. “What are your main concerns?” was another question, as residents were invited to mark a favored location on a street plan. Meetings were held and, predictably, there was no consensus. Some asked for murals, others for mobile kiosks or a symbolic gateway to Boyle Heights. “Rob and I evaluated the questionnaires to crystallize those wants and design something that could be accomplished on budget—a $100,000 grant from Wells Fargo,” recalled Burke. “On our first walk with the committee we overlooked the library site because it was so inconspicuous, but later we realized its potential.”
It’s hard to imagine a better location: First Street is Boyle Heights’s main thoroughfare, extending east from the LA civic center. The library, city offices, AC Martin’s translucent police station, and Ross Valencia’s pocket park occupy the four corners of the intersection, all generating pedestrian activity. The library was formerly fenced off, but Huizar supported the initiative to replace the defensive barrier with bands of river rocks and flowers, which open the building to the street while deterring vandals. The entrance is still concealed behind a railing but the new plaza improves accessibility and provides a place for readings and gatherings.
The designers were inspired by the concept of family for their design of the three 12-foot-high folded aluminum pylons, creating figures with arms reaching out to embrace the space. The vibrant colors were inspired by local storefronts and murals. It seemed appropriate to honor a literary figure, and Burke proposed three lines from “Blanco” by Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet. These are engraved in the metal, Spanish on one side, English on the other. “Hopefully, Todos Juntos will become an everyday icon where you can sit on the benches and chat with friends,” said Berry. “This plaza can serve as a model for other districts of the city.” The absence of graffiti suggests it has already won acceptance as a respected amenity.