Visions of the Ordinary in Willowbrook: An Interview with Rosten Woo

By Evan KindleyApril 19, 2014

Visions of the Ordinary in Willowbrook: An Interview with Rosten Woo

Miss Congeniality2
Photos by Alyse Emdur

WILLOWBROOK IS A NEIGHBORHOOD in southeast Los Angeles, just north of Compton and south of Watts. The area is remarkable for its mixture of rural and suburban character and for the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, which is finally set to reopen this year after a controversial shutdown in 2007.

Rosten Woo is a designer, writer, and artist who specializes in making work dealing with urban space and public decision-making. In collaboration with the photographer Alyse Emdur, he’s recently published Willowbrook is…/es…, a book resulting from his participation in the life of the community over the past year.

I spoke with Woo about the project on the patio of a Mexican restaurant on a gentle March afternoon in Los Angeles.

            – Evan Kindley


EVAN KINDLEY: How did you get involved in the Willowbrook project?

ROSTEN WOO: I was asked to work on the project by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. That neighborhood is getting a lot of investment right now. The County is re-opening the Martin Luther King Medical Campus. Millions of dollars are being spent in Willowbrook in a way that is fairly unusual. At the same time, there’s a nationwide trend and interest in the relationship between artists and community development, or what’s called “creative placemaking.” So the County applied for funding to commission artists to produce work in conjunction with all of this planning and development. They were looking for an artist to create some kind of visioning tool for the Willowbrook area …

OK, wait, what’s a "visioning tool"?

Well, planning is a really interesting and funny profession, because it tends to attract a lot of people who are interested in the public good, and in some idea of a just society. And yet most things that can be built in this world are built by people who control immense amounts of capital, and/or through a political process that is, as often as not, determined by those enormous amounts of capital. So there’s often a kind of weird disconnect between all these really idealistic planners and then the people who actually have all the money, the developers, who are not so interested, necessarily, in these planning ideals, especially ones that have to do with equity.

So, a visioning exercise is typically some kind of public process where you get a bunch of people together — “the community,” which is whoever you can get to show up to the meeting — to provide some kind of structured input about what they would like to see happen. And then usually the person who’s in charge of facilitating that meeting tries to take that input and massage it into some kind of general program that can be acted upon: “Oh, you like this and this and this — what that tells me is that you probably want more public space,” or something like that. In the best of cases, that gives some guidance to the people who are making decisions about what will actually be funded or built. And in the worst of cases, the document is just shelved, or used as a kind of vague lip service to a community.


You mentioned that the idea of publishing a book wasn’t initially part of the project. How did Willowbrook is…/es… end up becoming a book?

That was something I pushed for. As I was doing research for the project, I started to encounter all these plans that people had made for the area over the years that were archived at the County library. And, at the same time, as I talked to people in Willowbrook and began to understand the context of the place and the history there a little better, it just became obvious that people were really jaded about the idea of urban planning, and planning documents, and visioning exercises. There were all these visioning documents that, even back in the ’70s, were already prefaced by comments, like, “The last thing that Watts needs is another hollow plan.”

Reading this stuff, it became clear to me that, even though I was charged with the idea of making a visioning tool, I didn’t want the value of what I did to be predicated on some future event. Because, as an artist who’s being commissioned to do this tiny thing that’s a tiny part of a huge project, I’m so far from being able to make a credible promise about what is actually going to happen! So I wanted to make sure that, whatever I did, the majority of its value would exist in the present and the amount of immediate future that I could control. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, let me do all these workshops and get your ideas about what you’d want to have happen, and then I’ll go file it with the County and you’ll never hear from them or me again.”

So I tried to develop a bunch of projects that would have immediate, direct value for the people who are part of the community now, so I could avoid being part of that legacy of half-assed planning in South L.A. The book was one way to document what I’d done, to present it so the audience was not just going to be a bunch of planners and bureaucrats — the audience was also the community itself. There was also a festival, and a garden tour, and all these things had Willowbrook as the primary audience. But one of the things about books that’s really awesome is that they’re portable, they’re distributable, and they’re durable: they can sit around for a long time until someone picks them up again. There’s really been so little written about Willowbrook, and I wanted to add to that archive. So, with a book, I can give 500 of them to the community, and they’ll circulate there, I can give 500 of them to these planners and they’ll circulate there, and then it will also have this mysterious life that can still do things, after I’m gone.

I think it’s very common for planners, especially when they work with a community that doesn’t have a lot of resources, to take what is called a “deficit-based approach,” where they ask “What does this community lack? What are people really desperate for? What do they need?” And then when they hear, “Oh, we need green space, we need a garden,” or whatever, they design a plan that’s like, “I gave you the thing that you needed.” There’s an aspect to it that’s very generous, but it’s also really condescending. If you think about how you might approach a friendship or any kind of personal relationship, just trying to fix what’s wrong with the other person or focus on what the person you’re dealing with lacks in their life is not a really awesome way to engage someone.

 "What’s wrong with you? How can I help?"

Right, as if the community is this wounded bird.

So I thought it’d be more interesting, instead of trying to ask residents what they wanted to see, to just spend some time with people and figure out what they’ve already done that they like. What have they built that they’re excited about? What do they love? The book is based on those questions, a series of portraits of the community as it already exists.


What surprised you, or what stands out to you, of the things that you documented in Willowbrook?

There are some ways in which the book is extremely naive, insofar as I’m relatively new to Southern California. So, I was very surprised by how easy it is to have a pretty amazing garden here, without even trying that hard. Every home I went to, I was always like, “Whoa, your garden is amazing! I can’t believe you have these incredible fruit trees!” To someone who’s lived here longer, it might seem unremarkable, but I was really excited about the quality of flora that people were able to cultivate.

There are other things about Willowbrook that really come out with the yards, because the lots are unusually deep. You might see the front yard of someone’s place or the front house and think, “Oh, it’s a cute little bungalow.” And if it was in Atwater Village, that’s probably all it would be. But in Willowbrook, because the lots are so deep, they’d invite me back, and then they’d be like, “Here’s the second house. Here’s the third house. Here’s the swimming pool that we’ve built behind the third house.” There’s kind of this cool reveal of all the stuff people would have, horses and chickens and so on.

Horses, really?

Yeah, a lot of people have horses there; there are actually horse trails along the river, and just south of Willowbrook, in Compton, there’s a whole riding academy for teenagers. And, of course, for the residents it’s not at all exotic or bizarre. To people living there, it’s like: horses, that’s not that crazy.

One of the other things that I tried to do in the book is highlight some things that are actually not that exceptional about Willowbrook. Because the very vague impression that people who don’t live out in Willowbrook or Watts or Compton might have is, “It’s really poor; there’s lots of guns, lots of gangs. It’s kind of desperate and sad down there.” So just trying to show that people can have a very regular suburban life, and that that life has a lot of quality to it. I was inspired by D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land, which I think is an incredible book, and I think I was in a certain way trying to capture some of that quality of the extraordinariness of the ordinary in Willowbrook.

The very ordinariness of it is significant because people who don’t know the area assume that it’s some kind of wasteland, or some kind of extremely violent, uninhabitable place.

Yeah. And then you meet someone who lives there who’s like, “I’m a civil servant. I have this awesome garden. I like to come here and swim in my pool.”


What kind of reaction have you received from the community?

I think that the reaction has been really positive — people are excited to see their home in this book. I think people are kind of surprised that it’s nice-looking, they’re like, “Wow, you actually did a good job.” Because, you know, I’ve just been wandering around town for the past eight months saying I’m going to make this book. And they’re like, “Okay, sure. Take your photo.” But there is such a history of broken promises that I think half of the folks I’ve talked to really doubted that anything would come of it. So that has been very gratifying. The book is being sold as a fundraiser for the County library, and I did a launch event for it through the library. People are actually really excited to see the physical copy, and the little touches, like the embossing on the cover. So I think one big reaction is just, “Cool, you did what you said you were going to do.” And then, maybe, “I want to get a bunch of copies so I can send them to my friends.” A few people tell me, “I didn’t even know that this thing was here!”

They’re learning about their own community through this project.

Yeah definitely, and because it's such a residential area, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not well-known. One thing that’s kind of nice is that the L.A. County Supervisor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, is really excited about it. He’s going to be commissioning a set of books for all of the unincorporated areas he works in using Willowbrook is…/es… as the model, but trying to give each one a different twist by commissioning different authors and artists to make each one.

Last thing: in your introduction to the book you mention listening to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, "a formidable work of art about growing up in Compton, just blocks away from the corners I was working." Why did you decide to include this detail?

I think that it was just because that record is amazing, and I was listening to it constantly as I was making the project. Just because that’s when the album happened to come out. It wasn’t like, “I have to find a Compton-area rapper to listen to.” It was actually this random coincidence, of thinking, “Oh, here’s this hugely acclaimed record; I should check it out,” and lo and behold, he’s literally referencing the same corner that I happen to be on while listening to the record. He’s rapping about Rosecrans, and I’m on Rosecrans. And that record is, I think, remarkably geographically specific. Like, there’s a section of the song “The Art of Peer Pressure” where he’s like, “We made a right, then made a left, then made a right.” He’s really capturing what it feels like to go around these weird suburban cul-de-sacs in Compton. It’s an amazing work of art, that record.

It was interesting, too, because I had already started pretty far down my path of wanting to represent the good life in Willowbrook by the time I started listening to that record a lot. And yet listening to Kendrick Lamar got me thinking, “Yeah, there’s definitely this other aspect of this area, too. There is gun violence, and that is really sad.” That really comes across in that record: how sad it is to live your whole adolescence with the constant dread of gun violence around. There were moments where I asked myself, “Am I distorting this? Am I not giving enough credence to that aspect of life here?” And I guess where I arrived at was like, “You know, actually, I’m not.” That album exists, and that obviously already has a far wider reach than anything I’m going to do. But my project is about these other things that are just as much a part of life here.

Marching Band-3


A PDF of the full text of Willowbrook is…/es… can be downloaded here. For more information about the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, visit their website. Rosten Woo’s website is here.


Evan Kindley is an editor at large at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a contributing editor to The Pitchfork Review.

LARB Contributor

Evan Kindley is senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He teaches at Claremont McKenna College.


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