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Activating South El Monte’s Vacant Lots – South El Monte-Santa Anita Avenue, near Merced

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By South El Monte Art Posse

South El Monte, CA — If you look closely, over or through the green tarps on the chain link fence, you’ll find a large field filled with patches of dirt, several dead bushes, a critter or two, and three-foot weeds growing freely. Before its current state of abandon the lot on Santa Anita Ave near Merced, housed a large nursery, providing residents with a place to purchase a range of plants and trees. To the dismay of the some residents (and the approval of others), the nursery was replaced by a “rendering,” which promised a future shopping center. The shopping center never arrived, the rendering was eventually replaced by a “for lease sign.” Years later, it remains.

On October 13th  at 9am, Jennifer Renteria, a recent graduate of USC’s School of Architecture and daughter of Starlite Swap Meet vendors, will provide South El Monte Residents with her own vision for this abandoned lot. Her project, the “Uncultivated Park,” is part of South El Monte Arts Posse’s on-going vacant lot art series titled Activate Vacant. SEMAP is a collective of artists, writers, urban planners, educators, scholars, and youth interested in engaging directly with the South El Monte and El Monte community through the arts by rethinking our use of space and transforming how we inhabit it. For Activate Vacant, the collective invited artists to create art installations in abandoned, un-used, and, often, fenced-in lots in El Monte and South El Monte.

Below is a brief interview with Renteria about her work.

How does your project for Activate Vacant relate to your previous work?

At the core of all my projects – from my work on street vending to my work on urban nature – is an ongoing investigation of how people interpret and shape place, how time influences the way people interact with place, and how place and time shape people. More so, all of these explorations are hyper aware of change, and the blurred line that marks where culture and nature end and begin. Be it in a dense, urban setting or in a more remote, “wild” condition – these questions always remain relevant.

Can you tell us about “The Uncultivated Park”?

In addition to being an exploration of the blurred line between nature and culture, “The Uncultivated Park” reflects a long held interest in natural history, especially that of urban environments. This is when the questions “What is here? What was here? Why is it no longer here? What should be kept? and What can and should be here?” become especially relevant.

Often, my initial response to a new project site is to want to deeply investigate its physical and geographic past, followed by a desire to incorporate this past into a site’s re-imagining – an approach that is, more often than not, typical of landscape architects. Thus, when I learned of the Activate Vacant project and explored the sites, I responded by looking into the site’s natural history.  Ultimately, what is imaged are flora and fauna that are endemic to the region or are invasive flora of similar climates that have enhanced local fauna’s habitat. Of course, all of these species may not have existed in such close proximity to each other, as imaged and, too, the body of water might require a bit of imagination, but these elements are certainly true to South El Monte’s natural history. It never fails that I am blown away when I think about an urban site’s natural history – sometimes, it feels like an out of body experience when I think about how an environment has changed, how our collective human efforts have and can change the physical expression of a place. . My hope is that people who see the final piece alongside the actual site and reflect on the fact that such an experience once thrived right where they stand will also feel that otherworldly sensation as well as be reminded that we are neither the beginning nor the end.

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News of the San Gabriel Valley since 1966.
Activating South El Monte’s Vacant Lots – South El Monte-Santa Anita Avenue, near Merced