Under the Bridge: Finding Art in L.A.’s Forgotten Places

<em>Under Spring</em> chronicles a six-year project to transform one of downtown’s most ignored spots

The sun is rising on a crisp autumn day. I’m standing underneath the North Spring Street Bridge, near the west bank of the mighty Los Angeles River. An industrial fan sputters in the warehouse next door. Brakes squeal as a truck pulls up. A MetroLink light rail train pushes by and bleats its digital horn. Everything under the bridge is covered in graffiti: The stop sign, the “no left turn” sign, the City of L.A. sawhorse. The base of the bridge itself is awash in tags and pieces. But there are no longer signs of any homeless encampments. Why would people want to live here? This bridge, which spans the river, is in the middle of being widened and the area is strewn with rubble.

Before the bridge was being expanded from 43-feet across to 68, artist Lauren Bon and her interdisciplinary team at Metabolic Studio created a site-specific, dynamic artwork called Under Spring. It wasn’t the first time Bon had come up with an ambitious concept that blurred the line between public art and civic intervention. In 2005 she turned a mostly unused 32-acre swath of land in Chinatown into a cornfield. Earlier this year, she led 100 mules on a 240-mile journey along the L.A. Aqueduct to call attention to the structure’s 100th birthday, and the effect of water redistribution on both our city and the Owens Valley.

From 2006 to 2013, Bon and her colleagues devoted themselves to Under Spring. The project was nearly impossible to easily classify. It was equal parts public square, ceremonial ground, community garden, musical instrument, dog park, political hot spot, basketball court, and lecture series. “As the name implies, the artwork is about being under the Spring Street Bridge,” Bon has written. “Really inhabiting it, not just passing by. It is a space we have cared for, lived next to, and breathed into. Under Spring is ultimately a social sculpture. It is about our commons.”

I chronicle this period in my recent book Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, which came out November 16 on Heyday. An oral history, it features 66 people telling stories about the city, the space, and the myriad issues the artwork raised.

Where does public space end and private space begin? Is graffiti high culture? Can art replace government? What’s the appropriate way to help (or not help) people who are homeless or addicted to drugs? What can be done to improve the city’s alleys? What was the City Beautiful movement?

As a contractor and then an employee for the Annenberg Foundation from 2005 to 2009, I had the pleasure of working daily with Bon. As a journalist, I was used to seeking out stories and storytellers. At Under Spring, all I had to do was show up and the stories and storytellers came to me.

I saw Anthony Adams, a native Angeleno, show off old gunshot wounds and explain why he knew the spot as “The Tombs.”

I heard artist Matias Viegener, the co-founder of Fallen Fruit, explain how fruit trees were (then) banned in public parks.

I listened as Prince Hall talked about being homeless, sleeping under the bridge, and “catching out,” a hobo term for riding the rails, just up the bend.

And, like everyone around, I laughed as Richard Montoya of the celebrated theater troupe Culture Clash served as a pitch-perfect early morning emcee during a civic breakfast held one Friday the 13th at Under Spring. “I was texting a friend, saying, ‘Hey I’m underneath the Spring Street Bridge, right next to the railroad tracks, and it’s kinda cold,’ Montoya said. “And he said, ‘My God, are you in Guantanamo?’”

The joke worked so well because the friend in Montoya’s story reacted the way that nearly everyone did when they first heard about Under Spring. But a visit to the site would immediately lead to new conclusions: Under Spring was closer to Arcadia than it was to the underworld.

Gerardo Vaquero Rosas, a former South Central farmer (and before that a police officer in Mexico) joined the Under Spring team as an agricultural expert and became and artist-in-residence. He was inspired by the project to plant seeds under other bridges and in seemingly abandoned, ignored, or impoverished spots around Los Angeles.

I hope that the book, like Bon’s work, encourages readers to launch their own civic projects—on any scale. In 2008, a USC study determined that Los Angeles has 12,309 blocks worth of alleys. For six glorious years Under Spring turned one of those blocks into a haven of life and activity. That leaves 12,308 blocks for the rest of us.

Jeremy Rosenberg is assistant dean, public affairs and special events, at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Under Spring recently won the California Historical Society Book Award. He will be discussing the book today at noon at The Huntington and on Saturday, November 22 at noon at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.