IT COULD very well be a mirage: A trick of the glaring morning sun or something misread in the pre-caffeinated early morning haze.
But no. Upon closer inspection, that brown-and-white sign, hanging just beneath the red slash of the "No Left/U-Turn" symbol on a sparsely landscaped traffic island, proclaims exactly what you first thought: "The Islands of LA Nat'l Park."
The territory it demarcates along a busy stretch of Glendale Boulevard as it eases into Echo Park seems, at first, unremarkable: some California native brush; flattened and faded Diet Coke cans; Energizer batteries. Nearby, vibrant goldenrod poppies push up from the dirt. And sure, depending on the time of day, you'll find a few regular "campers" -- a couple of reliably resolute panhandlers: one with a dog, another alone and with his own sign whose message has become garbled, streaked and bloated from rain.
National park? Even park would seem a stretch.
Yet the sign is not a movie ad. Nor part of a clever labeling scheme for city districts. Nor is it a joke. Provocative and whimsical, it's a prompt meant to take the mind down a side road that's often as invisible as the traffic island itself. It's an invitation: " 'Come travel here in this idea,' " says artist and activist Ari Kletzky, who since last fall has been placing signs across greater Los Angeles -- both "Islands of LA" and another, "Shift: Do Art Any Time," that mimics the city's ubiquitous "No Parking/Tow Away" placards but done up in an arresting shade of canary.
Kletzky's aim is as multilayered and unconventional as the city it embroiders, drawing attention to islands of every shape, size and intention. "The signs are a way to start a conversation and an education," says Kletzky, whose project is still in the exploratory stages. "They are a gesture. An appetizer that inspires an appetite. I'm looking to generate discussion to explore use of public space by turning islands into a work of art."
'Territories of art'
We SPEED by them -- our traffic island archipelagoes -- rendering them a blur; or have become so inured to them along our well-worn paths that we tend to stare beyond them. Trapped on them as pedestrians, we find them an annoying interruption between intention and goal, departure and destination. But traffic islands, Kletzky suggests, are "inquisitive places." They are the pause in the city's long, rambling monologue to itself. And although the city has held its own "Adopt a Median" program through the Board of Public Works, Office of Community Beautification, that allows citizens to plant, beautify or tend a particular median, Kletzky sees islands as something even larger -- as "territories of art," places to create community, promote intellectual discussions in public and explore the use and availability of public space.
The big questions he poses -- what is public? who owns public space? who should create public space? -- are being explored on his blog, islandsofla.com, and in public gatherings -- talks, events, happenings from Santa Monica to Pasadena. In these discussions with curious Angelenos, says Kletzky, "We're looking at it not from the urban planning architecture angle, but how do you use public space to create community?"
In times past, Kletzky points out "public spaces were limited, not everybody had access. This goes back to the Acropolis, maybe further," he says, citing an essay written by an urban planning professor named Margaret Crawford that had a particular resonance to him. "[In the past] those excluded -- minorities, women, the poor -- went elsewhere: their homes, yard, etc." But there is something very democratic about the traffic island. "We can take hold of these public spaces," he says. "It's a chance to make the city seem more accessible."
His motivations were personal as well as political. Like so many Angelenos, Kletzky, 36, had been feeling hemmed in. "I was driving around, sitting in traffic and I just wanted a break. I wanted to take a vacation," he recalls. His eyes drifted over to a traffic island, "And I thought, 'I want to take it here.' " He pauses, smiles. "Well, I don't know if that's entirely true . . ." -- that is, that it happened in a moment. But the anecdote conveys the overall sentiment. That patch of green looked inviting enough. Why not sit a spell? Why not be carried away with a feeling?