L.A. Artists Move to Opa-Locka With Plans to Redesign the Community

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Read also: New Public Art in Opa-Locka Promises to Break Down Barriers, Literally

Los Angeles-based designers Christian Stayner and Jennifer Bonner do not look like they belong in Opa-locka.

But when the distressed neighborhood called for artists to come install public art and start a movement, the hipster pair answered and came to the impoverished site with experience and a plan.

One year ago, the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation received a grant that would allow it to launch a project to erect public art pieces and strengthen the community's involvement with the arts. Stayner and Bonner were one of four artist teams chosen to help drive the cause.

The thing about these Angelinos, though, is that they don't plan on leaving any time soon.

"We won't be just dropping a piece of art in the community and leaving," said Stayner, who along with Bonner, plans to turn deserted, foreclosed houses into public spaces for work and art -- including a living space of their very own.

"We have to be there on the ground," backed up Bonner. "We can't dump something off and leave. We really need to be invested in the community, because that's how [it] works."

Over the course of at least the next year, the pair will take the formerly private spaces and transform them into public amenities. Possible uses for the buildings include a planning office offering design services pro bono, an employment office, a neighborhood gallery, and an "artist hotel" for artists coming in from all over the country to participate in the larger, city-wide project. Talk about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

"One of the things we notice...in Opa-locka was that there is a lot of potential of the neighborhood but not a lot of spaces to gather," said Stayner. "We figured by simply making community spaces, we'll immensely better understand the area."

In the time they've already spent in Florida, Stayner and Bonner took note of a popular trend in the Opa-locka neighborhoods. "People were really passionate about things they could do at home that make them a little money on the side," said Stayner. "Canning things, pickling things, barbecue that they informally sold to their family or friends, baked goods -- things that gave people a certain amount of economic opportunity but with very low overhead."

"It's a phenomenon happening around the country, this idea of cottage industry," added Bonner. "We've seen it because of the recession; it's what people have done to survive."

Phase two of Stayner and Bonner's plan delves even farther into the local scene, and involves making additions to homes and working with homeowners to provide spaces for micro-businesses. The small retail additions to the homes will not only encourage work and entrepreneurship, but aim to draw visitors to Opa-Locka and give the area some distinction.

The artists recognize that much of the problem is that the visual state of the neighborhood is fuel for hopelessness, and have seen the difference that an aesthetic fix-up could do to a community short on resources. They also realize that the reputation of the Arabian Nights-themed city is not the shiniest, and as outsiders, they feel fortunate to enter the endeavor without bias.

"A community is a community," said Stayner. "We see that it's important not to make those distinctions between one group and another; rich or poor, [both] are equally deserving of good design and consideration and engagement."

Bonner has spent years doing similar projects in rural Alabama with Rural Studio, and Stayner researches foreclosure in Detroit while teaching architecture and design at University of Michigan. They plan to draw on these experiences and others, and apply their expertise to Opa-locka.

"We've already done it. We've passed these thresholds before," said Bonner. "We understand the trials and the hardships that come with it but at the same time we're excited and see a great opportunity to implement this expertise in another community."

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