Documenting the Urban Sensorium: East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue & Breed Street

Fall 2004-Winter 2005

For a century, East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, near North Soto Street, in Boyle Heights, has been an intense and lively street, ethnically rich, commercially vibrant, important symbolically. The east side of Los Angeles, the (Boyle) Heights, was the place for immigrant and newcomer growth. It was above the miasma of the Los Angeles River, and so was thought to be healthful. Once known as Brooklyn Avenue, reflecting the Jewish and New York origins of many of its residents, it became Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in the mid 1990s.

This project is a speculative experiment, a chance to extend documentary work into the realm of multimedia and installation–a medium much employed in the fine arts in the last fifty years. It is an attempt to learn more of what is possible when the interests of documentation, archival long-lastingness (this is a serious constraint, since many environmental art pieces and the like do not archive readily), and social-science understanding of cities are combined with what we know about the capacities of cinema and audio recording. We are not trying for a documentary or a narrative film. Rather, we want a multimedia that conveys an actual experience of a particular street at a particular time, a set of sensations–hence the reference to the ìurban sensorium.î

Eduardo Arenas and Junhan Tan are undergraduate majors in Planning. Each used his earlier experience in recording live music and video, respectively, while bringing to bear what he has learned about cities and the people who live in them. The problem was to both record and display the urban sensorium so that the viewer/listener would have some semblance of the experience.

Some of the time we sat in one place, the camera or microphone more or less fixed in place, and in effect did surveillance. Other times, we followed the flow of people. In general, what we present here has not been much edited after recording, if at all. It is a serious theoretical and practical question whether these techniques do convey the ambiance and the sensations (the sensorium), and so this project is an experiment.

In earlier photodocumentary work we (with Natalie Golnazarians, a Planning undergraduate) discovered how difficult it was to convey the ambiance and flavor and experience of walking down one of the main streets of Boyle Heights, East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue around Soto Street, now a Hispanic street. Photographs would not be adequate to the experience, and we found how very difficult it is to do effective audio documentation. We gained new respect for radio documentarians. Previous work by undergraduates tried to convey the intensity and complexity of downtown Broadway (Sonia Rivas) and of Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park (Pablo Garcia and Maya Konieczny). (These, too, are Hispanic neighborhoods.) Each used single photographs and montaged strips of images of the street (as in Ed Ruschaís and Robbert Flickís artistic work). Their goals were more extensive spatially than the current project. Here, we are aiming for an intensive documentation of experience in one locale.

Rather than try for an immersive environment, characteristic of much work in media and engineering, we might try to use traditional cinematic devices (that is, narrative and formal means), as well as audio and sound devices, to convey the actual ambiance and experience in something like an installation. Perhaps we can also learn from literature, in which the city and the experience of the city, and how to convey that, has been an important concern for about 150 years. There is also work in cultural studies on the acoustic environment that may be helpful, such as an account of the acoustic life in Shakespeareís time or of bells in nineteenth-century French cities. The Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist Murray Shaferís work is fundamental.

Much of the work in acoustic recording serves artistic purposes (for example, the sounds of a New York buildingís elevators and HVAC system) rather than those of documentation. The same is true for the tradition of street photography. Exceptionally, there is W. H. Whyteís work on using 16mm film to document peopleís behavior in the streets of New York, leading to design recommendations for more livable cities. Phil Ethingtonís work at USC in History is exciting and suggestive, as well.

The University is rich with possibilities for learning to use multimedia, and we encourage both undergraduates and graduate students to make multimedia part of their research and documentation. [Martin Krieger]