The goal of Jungle Conversations was to better understand the Toy District as a whole – both the people and the place.
Ten individuals – business owners, workers, artists, and residents – each received redesigned disposable cameras. They self-documented their daily experience, emphasizing topics they found interesting, controversial, or unique about the Toy District. Seventy-two hours later, the cameras were collected from the participants and the photos were developed and placed in an album.
Each participant received a copy of their photographs and provided comments on the entire collection. The photographs served as an entry point for conversation, allowing the participants to externalize their thoughts both visually and verbally.
“They call me The Doctor. And this (5th and San Julian) is The Jungle.”
Seeing people and then seeing place through participants’ photographs, stories, and discussions exposed the fear, worry, and tensions surrounding the redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). Re-mapping the Toy District based on participants’ photographs created a more complete understanding of the tense relationship between Los Angeles Street and Main Street, further explaining redevelopment patterns within DTLA.
Experiencing people and place was also an important component of the project. Enjoying a beer at the King Eddy Saloon, discussing the collection of photographs with the bartender Victor. Purchasing sunglasses from Tom. Hanging out with Thomas at Local. Enjoying a strawberry shortcake donut at Semisweet Bakery. And meeting with Eric Shomof, a noteworthy DTLA developer, at Syrup Desserts.
Jungle Conversations culminated in a speculative exercise that re-envisioned the layers of the Toy District. In the speculation, business owner and resident associations in the Toy District pass a digital camera amongst the members. The cameras connect wirelessly to projectors throughout the Toy District.
During the day, images taken by the association members are projected onto shaded building surfaces, sharing news and daily happenings. At night, all projectors turn on, introducing the faces of the Toy District to the patrons of redevelopment – those who frequent the DTLA Art Walk or the refurbished King Eddy Saloon on 5th and Los Angeles Streets.
Jungle Conversations led to the following questions:
- To what ends are the projections attempting to physically embody the community and create a collective observation of space?
- How would the images convey different goals and tone if projected outside City Hall?
- What is the potential for the projections to become a signature of the Toy District and actually attract and encourage redevelopment?
- If taken further, could the projections engage and change the politics of the space?
- How can we make redevelopment less about scripted space and more about creating neighborhoods?
- As Downtown LA rapidly transforms, how will it be remembered in the social imaginary?
Special thanks to Katherine Mcnenny, a resident of the Toy District since 2010 and author of the blog Trees on San Pedro. Katherine graciously had coffee with me in Little Tokyo, and then connected me to Stephen Zeigler, an artist and owner of 118 Winston in the Toy District since 2008. Both Katherine and Stephen shared stories of the Toy District’s rich history, complicated racial dynamics, and process of change. Stephen directly introduced me to the ten individuals who became the key participants in Jungle Conversations. I am so thankful to have met all of these people; working with them for the remainder of the term redefined my ability to see the Toy District and all its complexities.